Our excursion was wonderful with perfect hiking, evening dining and Pacific Ocean “Cliffside” walking weather in Mid-October!
We started on a Friday, leaving late Saturday with an abundance of events to choose from in the Santa Cruz area. http://www.santacruz.org/events/ We enjoy many activities so our timing coincided with the return of the Monarch Butterflies, annual Wine Harvest Dinner put on the by Santa Cruz Wine Growers Assoc http://scmwa.com/, Artist’s Open Studio self guided tour http://www.artscouncilsc.org/open-studios/ where 300 artists scattered all around Santa Cruz/Aptos/Capitola open their creative homes with displays of their art, the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin festival and a Marching Band competition around the Beach Boardwalk on Saturday late morning (note: not all the events we would choose but events nevertheless)!
The only major negatives were do not travel through Half Moon Bay on Highway 1 in any direction (towards San Mateo on 92 or San Francisco on 1) when the Pumpkin Festival (not on our event radar) is winding down on Saturday evening near sunset! We were hammered by the traffic (hour delay easy). What is so festive about these Pumpkins that it’s like a full stadium letting out after a game? OR do not travel anywhere near the Beach Boardwalk when the marching band competition is in full swing and the already congested roads are shutdown for tuba players!
Santa Cruz is an amazing destination when you include the exploration of the redwoods (preferably in Big Basin or Henry Cowell State Parks) along with the Beach Boardwalk and walk along W Cliff Drive to Natural Bridges SP and its seasonal Monarch Butterfly trail. It holds its own for natural beauty and scenic ocean vistas, in some ways much better than Monterey and Carmel. It is other worldly because of the redwoods and better walking views of the ocean!
Our first day we drove in the morning to Big Basin Redwoods State Park Headquarters (first official park in the State of California) via the very slow (30 MPH) somewhat narrow, circuitous Highways 9 to 236 https://goo.gl/maps/bIaal At an outside window on the porch you pay your $10 vehicle fee for parking (note the $10 fee is good all day if you visit other State Parks like Henry Cowell or Natural Bridges) where the Park employee will give you a sticker for the window and a thoughtful printout to note your start time and what trail(s) you are planning to traverse that day in case your car is still there at closing time (hello search party) https://goo.gl/maps/WKDza We chose the 11 mile long loop hike heading counterclockwise via Sunset Trail which reaches the top of Berry Creek Falls at Golden Fall (stopped for 30 minute picnic sitting on log at base of this fall with vivid colors and minor cascading water even with the October drought conditions). After our picnic a not too difficult, very short descent using the wire rope with plastic sheath cabling at the side of Silver Fall to the bottom viewing platform deck facing the base of Berry Creek Fall. From there we followed the Skyline to Sea Trail back to Park Headquarters and our vehicle.
Truth be known, we are getting old (58&60) in terms of increasing “strenuous hike residuals”! The hike with picnic and stops to view the fall base while spotting 4 lovely banana slugs (Go UC Santa Cruz Go) took 5 hours (effectively 10AM-3PM). The BIG TREES canopy with fern laden floor vegetation, short microclimate transitions of tall pines and manzanita along Sunset Trail are simply magnificent. This type of flora only exists in Northern California close to the cooling Pacific Ocean (coastal redwoods are different species than Yosemite/Sequoia NP redwoods/sequoias). You add in the waterfall descent and you get an amazing lifetime memory (the residuals will fade, hopefully disappear). We started out like a Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner kosmixmedia.com/static/1972c19f7103343177718… and finished like Notre Dame’s Quasimodo …fanpop.com/images/photos/6500000/Quasimodo-… !
Driving the hour along Highway 236 then Highway 9 to our accommodation Belle Notte on the Eastside of Santa Cruz, chosen for its location near the Wine Harvest Dinner at Cabrillo College plus a different perspective from the Westside near the popular Boardwalk area! This scenic drive offers some winery and beer stops (Big Basin Vineyard and/or Tyrolean Inn for German lager/food), along with more trails at Henry Cowell State Park and the steam train station in Felton. The hiking residuals were raging (hardly stand up getting out of car) so hey…..let’s stop at Henry Cowell Redwoods SP for the 0.8 mile interpretive trail? NO ARE YOU NUTS! It’s free maybe they have motorized scooters for rent? https://goo.gl/maps/1157T
Time to prep for the early 6PM dinner! The Mrs takes much longer, so Mr elects to drive (legs do not function) over to the nearby Crows Nest situated on the South bank entrance to the harbor/marina with a view of what looks like a “toy” lighthouse ($1 to park in fee lot). Just in time for the Happy Hour $4 pint price (coincidence? No) He enjoys a wheat and a lager beer (preferred options over a variety of ales) while doing his crossword (wild and crazy guy). The ocean was placid and the festive locals were filling the 2nd floor tables, bar stools and scenic outside decks as the sun began to set enjoying some delicious looking mostly fried appetizers. Downstairs is very nice with an upscale dining room. I recommend this place especially for the early evening Happy Hour!
All gussied up, hidden band aids on toes, off to the Wine Harvest Dinner! We had a great time. But who wouldn’t? Temperatures in low 70’s to start, served appetizers with all the wine tasting you might want with 28+ varietals (emphasis on Pinot Noir) from the Santa Cruz Appellation, 3 course dinner with mixed green salad, rack of lamb and an apple tart with ice cream for dessert. Oh surprise, wine poured throughout dinner. We sat at the Cinnabar table with 8 of our “new friends” from Aptos (3 couples reside on same court) and the Marketing Director and his wife from Cinnabar who reside in San Jose. The lively conversation and banter were right up our alley. We could not ask for more!
Did I mention residuals? The next day we slept in beyond our wildest belief (in bed by 10PM, up at 9:20AM, Ay Carumba) like being in ICU recovery! We retooled our intended plans. First the breakfast at Bella Notte was a complete positive surprise with eggs, bacon, sausage, excellent country potatoes, plus, plus, plus (cookies and scones). We did not like the small 2 table combination check-in area for dining. We opted for this food “value” over the Harbor Café. Our room was completely refurbished with all the right “stuff”, to include triple windows to muffle some busy street noise on E Cliff Drive. We paid $200 inclusive for our night. We would recommend a stay at this property!
Off to explore Santa Cruz on another Convention Bureau Day! https://goo.gl/maps/eoD2N Our late start and inability to walk longer distances created a new strategy. We drove via Woodrow Ave to park on the street near W Cliff Drive. Note: There is plenty of parking on all residential streets to park while you traverse the biking/foot path along the very appropriately named CLIFF Drive! We strolled to Natural Bridges State Park, walked out across the expansive beach to explore the tide pools at appropriate low tide, then along the Park road to Headquarters (exhibits are in-depth about the Monarchs) where the wheelchair accessible Monarch Butterfly boardwalk trail offers a great experience to see a multitude of these butterflies (travel 60-100 miles a day..huh try walking the 11 mile Big Basin loop)! You do want to walk to and back on W Cliff because the perspective is totally different (thanks Puter). We missed the nudists on a small beach going but not coming back. We then visited a couple of Open Studios in the neighborhood with a long talk about beautiful photos taken in Antarctica on 3 separate trips (can a continent have groupies?). There were over 300 “home studios” all marked with lime green signs which negated our other plan to visit downtown art retail shops (next time) We circled back for the Surfing Museum but parking was too difficult (next time)
It’s Wine O’Clock somewhere so it’s time for Gastronomy! https://goo.gl/maps/IxcbP We headed back towards San Francisco up Highway 1 or the Cabrillo Highway. Approaching Bonny Doon in Davenport we took the 3 mile road UP to Beauregard Vineyard and its tasting room. This road is classic Santa Cruz! Even if you do not drink wine, drive up this road. Literally in 1 mile you leave coastal ocean vegetation and immediately transition into redwood groves. You will not find this abrupt transition of flora anywhere on the planet or your money back! We enjoyed our tasting, purchasing a bottle of their Pinot Noir. Mr found the Orange Wine to be extremely intriguing and likeable, Mrs sometimes does not agree?? Effectively white grapes fermented using red methods which is to leave on the skins (tannins) that add to a wines color (voila Orange! Tres magnifique!) Back down to offbeat Bonny Doon with its biodynamic viticulture (not quite sure given they only “own” one two year old, non-producing vineyard near Paso Robles (bio details do not add up?)) and its emphasis on Rhone reds. We enjoyed the wines, the servers and our new friends at the tasting bar but opted to not purchase a bottle.
Off to tapas style dinner at La Costanera past Half Moon Bay http://www.lacostanerarestaurant.com. What a magnificent drive! The sun was beginning to set and the vistas of land and sea were breathtaking. In many ways (warning opinion coming) the scenery is better than Big Sur (mon dieu)!
Near Pescadero we stopped at Highway 1 Brewery to check it out. It sits in an adjoining gas station parking lot with a not so nice highway view. The back has a graveled Beer Garden with a mag wheel as one of the art pieces on the landscaped hillside. Mr ordered a Pepper in the Rye (enjoyable) for the garden and sampled the appropriately named French (saison yeast) Mexican (jalapeno aroma) War Ale (acquired taste) and Pug Mug (black India Ale with mind tricks best left for “smarter” customers?) Extremely difficult 50/50 call, but the Mr would stop again while the Mrs might wait in the car (the gravel beer garden does beat out the parking lot by a wide margin)?
BOO! The drive is smooth, the pace is ideal, the vistas with setting sun shadows are too good to be true? Yes because its time for 50,000 cars to leave the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival. Mumble, mumble, sailor talk, oh look there’s La Costanera! What a reprieve! The line of cars heading up the highway going nowhere extended for visible red taillight miles! Our plan for tapas by the outdoor fire pits with Pisco (distilled Peruvian wine (typically moscatel) similar to brandy with a unique taste) cocktails was out due to the traffic…..we shifted into full blown dining mode!
What a weird evening! The entire downstairs by the fire pits was rented out by a wedding party (no access anyway for our original plan) with a DJ blasting and naturally probably one of the bridesmaids had an insatiable urge to let out a yahoo “start me up” scream every 5 minutes or so (cacophony is still better than the Highway). During dinner flashing emergency vehicles appear with very bright red strobe lights emanating through the windows into the dining area. While the Mrs was reading the details about our fine bottle of Spanish Albarino the paramedics were rolling out the stretcher right by our table with a stabilized patron (cannot make this stuff up, she appeared fine)
Our meal was terrific! We thoroughly enjoyed the Cebiche sampler of 3 fish types, a beef empanada (excellent crust) with its raison flavors and seafood paella using Arborio rice! The server recommended Caliente(? forget name) Pisco cocktail was excellent (pisco, lime juice, simple sugar, ginger beer, passion fruit juice with seeds and a cayenne dusted rim) We want to return to this restaurant and reattempt our original plan for sunset by the fire pits with tapas and “fewer” distractions.
Santa Cruz Area is a terrific experience for any traveler. If you are coming into SFO, I would target renting a vehicle and heading to the Santa Cruz hills then stay near the beach for your first day/night before Monterey/Carmel! Drop off your buggy in SF proper at the end of a probable “loop” excursion to include the “usual” wonders of California!
Special thanks to Puter (Santa Cruz expert) and several others for their suggestions planning our MEGA 2 day trip (there are benefits to living in California)!