It's been more than 20 years since I moved to L.A. from New York City, but certain things about wild California never lose their exoticism. Joshua trees. Hummingbirds. Migrating whales. Redwoods.
And then there are monarch butterflies. Starting every October, thousands of monarchs from the northwestern U.S. and Canada make an epic journey down the California coast to spend the winter, their numbers peaking in November and December.
The state is speckled with overwintering spots, some in Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. But one of the most renowned butterfly sites is at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz; the city even holds an annual festival to welcome back the creatures. It seemed a great place last month for a getaway that would focus on nature.
To avoid the 350-mile slog up Interstate 5, my husband, Tony, and I decided to splurge: We would fly from Burbank to San Jose and rent a car for the half-hour drive to Santa Cruz. After trolling the Web, I settled on the Sea & Sand Inn, rated No. 1 in the city by Trip- Advisor.com. I tried for one of the standard $149 queen-bed rooms, but they were sold out weeks ahead, so I winced and reserved a deluxe king for $199 -- a hefty premium just for a larger bed. (Travelers who drive instead of fly and who book lodging further in advance can do this trip for at least $300 less.)
We arrived in downtown Santa Cruz midday on a Friday and had lunch -- one sandwich of blackened ahi, another of roast beef with grilled onions and Swiss cheese -- at the Walnut Avenue Cafe, a homey place that, judging from the crowd, was a local favorite.
A quick spin along coast-hugging West Cliff Drive brought us to Natural Bridges State Beach, where a boardwalk leads from the visitor center to a viewing platform in the eucalyptus grove where the insects roost. Tours are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 15.
At first it was hard to spot the critters, except for a few flitting overhead. But Tony had remembered to pack binoculars, and a look through them in nearly any direction revealed butterflies hanging from tree limbs in clusters of dozens to hundreds, folded so only the muted colors of their undersides showed. Because the day was gray and chilly, most remained dormant in the trees. Amber Cantisano, an interpretive specialist at the park, said that on warmer, brighter days -- above 60 degrees or so -- they bask in the sunlight and feed on nectar.
A few other people came and went while we were there, some taking photographs (with very long lenses), first-time visitors oohing and aahing when they realized that what they had thought was a branch of dead leaves was actually a cluster of butterflies. The calm was captivating.
We strolled down to the beach. Just offshore, its one remaining natural stone bridge was crowded with pelicans and gulls. To our right were low mudstone cliffs that held tide pools. Grateful that we had happened upon the beach at low tide, we scrambled up.
The rock underfoot and in the cliff face was beautiful, its crevices and color variations resembling rough-hewn, sculptural pottery. We soon came to a sign saying, "Tide pools contain a diversity of marine life equal in variety to all the marine life found in the ocean."
The rock was pockmarked with dozens of them, shallow depressions from a few inches to a foot or two in diameter, populated with limpets, mussels, anemones, barnacles and other creatures I couldn't identify. At the cliff base, orange sea stars clung to rocks in the tide line. High school students on a field trip examined the tide pools too, seeming uncharacteristically absorbed.
From Natural Bridges we drove back along West Cliff Drive, stopping at Lighthouse Point, home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. We didn't go in, but we did admire the earnest, life-size bronze statue of a surfer -- erected in 1992 to honor the sport -- and a nearby bench inscribed, "In memory of all surfers who have caught their last wave ... Santa Cruz Surfing Club." A big rock looming just offshore was draped with barking, bellowing sea lions, while below us a swarm of Homo neoprenus dotted the waters of the popular surfing spot called Steamer Lane.
It was dark when we reached the motel. The reception area did not promise grandeur, and my heart sank as we entered our perfectly ordinary room: $200 a night for this? The bed nearly filled the space; a bland, beachy framed print hung on one wall; the bathroom's tired flooring was curling at the edge.
Come morning, though, much was forgiven. Daylight revealed the Sea & Sand's pretty gardens, sloping down toward the beach. The inn is nicely situated, its panoramic views taking in Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with its enormous vintage roller coaster, and the city wharf as well as a broad expanse of open sea. We helped ourselves to continental breakfast and, later, to wine and cheese -- all included in the rate -- in a pleasant lounge overlooking it all.
Into the redwoods