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Weekend Escape: Santa Cruz

Forward to the Past : Great eateries, a steam train and a boardwalk reel in that '60s feeling

December 01, 1996|CHRIS RUBIN | Chris Rubin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — I left Los Angeles to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz in the late '70s, and spent the next three years living and studying in the halcyon environs of one of the country's most liberal communities, a bastion of progressive politics and alternative lifestyles that happened to be situated in a charming, once-conservative beach town.

As a student on a tight budget, I limited myself mostly to the campus, the beaches and forest, and just a small part of town--the area with the best cafes and least expensive Chinese restaurants. I hadn't been back much, until mid-September, when my wife, Nan, and I decided to hop in the car and hit Interstate 5. I soon discovered there's a lot more there than what I was aware of in my student days.

We had decided to stay at the Babbling Brook Inn, a 12-room bed and breakfast within walking distance of Santa Cruz' main drag, Pacific Avenue. We were given the Toulouse-Lautrec room, upstairs in one of several small, free-standing cottages on the lavishly landscaped property.

Eating in Santa Cruz has always meant one place to me: India Joze, an eclectic restaurant that was affordable for special occasions even in student days. So after unpacking we set out on foot for dinner through the rapidly cooling evening air.

Joze serves an assortment of Asian dishes as well as weekly globe-trotting specials. We started with "portobello chut," Joze's name for a chutney made with the mushrooms, served over organic greens in a tamarind dressing. Nan opted for the wok-cooked red snapper with mushrooms, bell peppers and a "pesto" of fresh basil, ginger and tamarind. I chose the calamari stir-fried in Indian spices with a chile-lime glaze. Everything was as exotic and delicious as I remembered, and Nan now shares my love of the place.

Later, we walked along Pacific Avenue, our first chance since arriving to really see the town. The 1989 Loma Prieta quake hit Santa Cruz hard and, even today, some stretches of Pacific Avenue are nothing more than weed-covered vacant lots. But the street scene was more vibrant than ever, with crowds spilling out of cafes, New Age crystal shops and used book and CD stores, now interspersed with World Wide Web designers and other computer-related businesses. Santa Cruz is a place where there's no nostalgia for the '60s because they never went away; but the town has come into the '90s. We saw both facets represented on a pedestrian who sported a Grateful Dead T-shirt, a pierced eyebrow and a post-punk hairdo.

Tired, we rested over a late-night (decaf) latte at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co., watching the crowd drift past. None of it was a shock to Nan, who spent her undergrad years at Berkeley.

Eventually, we returned to the inn and our large, comfortable bed, where we were soothed by the sounds of the stream that runs through the property.

Breakfast is one of several good reasons to stay at the Babbling Brook. We feasted in the living room on croissants and poppy seed bread, fresh fruit and granola, ranch eggs, and countless cups of orange juice and hot, fresh coffee.

We drove up to the university, which ranks high on the list of things to see in Santa Cruz for its unusual architecture, natural beauty and sheer size. UCSC is perched in the middle of a redwood forest high in the hills above Monterey Bay. Despite many new buildings, most of its sprawling 2,000 acres (by contrast, UCLA has only 419) are still in their natural state.

Then we were off to see something I'd long heard about but never witnessed--The Roaring Camp Narrow-Gauge Railroad, steam-powered trains built more than a century ago for logging and freight that now carry only tourists. With something between fog and drizzle misting the windshield, we drove 20 minutes up a windy mountain road through increasingly thick redwoods to the town of Felton, from which the train departs year-round on two routes: a 90-minute loop up Bear Mountain, the other all the way down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and back.

Unfortunately, there was one extremely large group waiting at the station that Friday and they were given the open-air cars while the rest of us were relegated to a covered caboose. So as we chugged up into the hills and back for 90 minutes in the Henry Cowell Redwoods, we had to crane our necks to look out and up at the majesty of the trees, some of them 800 to 1,200 years old and towering nearly 300 feet into the sky. It's a less than thrilling ride and narration, but the scenery is stunning.


We drove back into town hungry for lunch and stumbled across Clouds, a 1-year-old trendy restaurant just off Pacific on Church Street. With its bright contemporary art and copper-mesh-covered halogens, Clouds is more San Francisco than the Santa Cruz of my memory, but it is very much what this city is about today.

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