CAPITOLA, Calif. — Although things quiet down in most beach towns after Labor Day, this pretty seaside village hosts two of its biggest annual events in September.
Next Sunday a sand sculpture contest kicks off the weeklong Capitola Begonia Festival, which has been a family attraction for 36 years. The highlight is a nautical parade Sept. 10, featuring begonia-covered barges that float lazily down Soquel Creek to a lagoon at the ocean's edge.
About 200,000 of the bright flowers will adorn the barges that carry out this year's theme, "Celebration of the Sea." Viewers line the creek banks and bridges to applaud their favorites in the colorful procession that gets underway at 2 p.m.
The following weekend, Sept. 16-17, visitors are enticed to town again for the 7th annual Capitola Art and Wine Festival. Artists display their work and area vintners offer wine tasting along the bay-front Esplanade. Wandering jugglers, clowns, mimes and musicians will perform amid the festive booths.
Capitola will be crowded during both festivals, but on other days you'll discover that the quaint village is a peaceful place to spend a day or two along Monterey Bay.
Visitors can enjoy a wide bathing beach, waterfront restaurants, a historic fishing pier, attractive shops and the refreshing ocean air. Inland you can visit the well-known Antonelli Brothers Begonia Gardens and the Bargetto Winery. Adjacent to the town are two state beaches with pleasant camping sites.
Capitola is just off Pacific Coast Highway a few miles east of Santa Cruz. It began in the 1850s as a port for shipping farm crops from the fertile Soquel Valley and timber that was hauled down from the mountains.
Known first as Soquel Landing and La Playa de Soquel, its sandy beach attracted vacationers to a tent resort called Camp Capitola that opened in 1874. The superintendent's office for the camp is a state historic landmark and the oldest commercial building in town.
Now housing a shop called Mr. Wonderful, the redwood structure is at the corner of Capitola and Monterey avenues, where a plaque commemorates Capitola as California's first seaside resort community. Just across Monterey Avenue, walk behind the buildings and climb the long stairway to Cliff Avenue for a panoramic view of the town and bay.
Along the street is a row of impressive 1880s homes that were part of early development of Capitola by Frederick A. Hihn, the man who established the tent resort. On Cherry Avenue you'll see board-and-batten bungalows of the same era.
The houses and other sights are indicated on a guide map to a 90-minute historic walking tour that offers a good look at the village and some exercise on its hills. The map is available from the Capitola Chamber of Commerce, 410 Capitola Ave.
Call (408) 475-6522, or stop by the office that's open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except during the lunch hour). The informal Capitola Museum is in the same building, which resembles a small one-room schoolhouse.
Capitola's popular beach is bordered by the Esplanade, a one-way street that has a lineup of eateries, including Zelda's, with patio tables overlooking the sand. You can have Sunday brunch there or at the neighboring Bandstand or Edgewater Club. For coffees and desserts try Mr. Toots, also on the Esplanade.
Get another view of the beach scene and village by walking out on the restored 1857 wharf, now home to Anna Maria's Italian restaurant at its far end. Next door at Capitola Boat and Bait you can get a rod and reel for pier fishing or rent a skiff to try your luck elsewhere in the bay.
Many visitors come to Capitola only to eat at the Shadowbrook restaurant on Wharf Road, which opened in 1947. It's easily identified by a red cable car that takes you down to scenic dining areas overlooking Soquel Creek. Lunch is served weekends and dinner daily. Call (408) 475-1511 for reservations.
A casual dining spot is the Greenhouse restaurant in a rural setting at The Farm on Soquel Road in Soquel. Go for lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch, and take home breads, pies, cakes or tarts from its bakery. Gifts and plants are sold at The Farm, too.
On North Main Street in Soquel you can picnic and taste wine at Bargetto Winery along Soquel Creek. Vintages include chardonnays and cabernets from Santa Cruz County grapes.
Drive out Capitola Road into neighboring Live Oak to visit the spectacular Antonelli Brothers Begonia Gardens that have been in flower since 1937. Houses have replaced many fields where tuberous varieties were raised, but thousands of potted begonias are now grown in greenhouses at the six-acre site. The season runs through October, and the nursery is open every day.
Between the Capitola Wharf and Soquel Creek is one of the state's first condominium projects, a beachfront complex painted green, pink, purple and other striking colors. It was built as the Venetian Court in the 1920s and 1930s.