Happy Wanderer: September in Santa Cruz


HILLS NEWSPAPERS: August 17, 2012

I call it the $5 face-lift; but it’s really gravity and saltwater working to make you feel 10 years younger.

Since 1924, more than 59 million people have ridden the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

It’s a classic wooden coaster that plasters a smile on your face at top speeds of 55 mph. Legendary columnist Herb Caen called it a “tooth-loosener” for its jarring twists and turns, but my favorite part of the ride is the view. As you climb the crest before the first drop, you see miles of scenic coastline dotted with palm trees and sailing ships. There’s nowhere like it on Earth.

September is a perfect time for a road trip to Santa Cruz County. School is back in session and the sunshine is tempered with gentle sea breezes that hint of fall. Highway 1 is less crowded, too, giving you more time to amble down the coast at your leisure.

It’s safe to say that most people come here for the beaches — 29 miles of sparkling sand and extraordinary surf that make Santa Cruz arguably the birthplace of mainland surfing in the U.S. I say arguably, because Huntington Beach likes to claim this title too.

Regardless of its origin, surfing is a soulful sport that connects you to the sea in a way that nothing else can.

It’s also a great conversation-starter for your next cocktail party. I still tell the story of the couple who got married in the surf off Santa Cruz. The bride wore a white wet suit and veil and as she kissedthe groom, the wedding party bobbed merrily on their long boards. Then they all caught waves back to shore.

Folks in Santa Cruz are kind of quirky this way. Maybe they’re getting too much fresh air. The county is blessed with 14 state parks and beaches, including the popular Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, accessible by steam train from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This is a romantic trip through the redwoods and back — well worth the $26 ($20 for children) — even if you don’t stay to hike. Check the schedule before you go, as they only run on weekends in the fall.

Natural Bridges State Beach is another must-see. Known for its tide-pooling and famous natural rock bridge, this beach feels secluded but is easily accessible from the road. From October through February, it’s also an amazing Monarch Butterfly sanctuary with as many as 100,000 butterflies forming a “city in the trees.” The creatures are drawn to the mild ocean air and eucalyptus grove.

I like to cap off a day in Santa Cruz County with a glass of wine and a fresh plate of seafood. The pier at the Boardwalk is one of my favorite places to toast the sunset, but if I’m near Capitola, I make it a point to stop at the famed Shadowbrook Restaurant. Its fragrant gardens and rustic creek-side location add so much to the ambience, not to mention the romantic cable car that takes you up to the restaurant and lounge. Most people dine in the restaurant at Shadowbrook, but I like to eat in the lounge. There’s something about live guitar music and happy hour that seem to spell out v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n. That, and an old-fashioned ride on a wooden roller coaster.

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