The Santa Cruz Arboretum: a living museum for plants of the Southern Hemisphere and CaliforniaIf you happen to be visiting Santa Cruz, California, or even if you live nearby, the congeniality of Main Street, the beach, the boardwalk, the bookstores, and the cafes might keep you pretty busy. But when I feel like getting away from all the friendly, tasty goodness that seems to abound in Santa Cruz (including the unseen ambient pot smoke that always makes me so lazy, I swear, when I visit the laid-back town), a visit to the University’s (University of California Santa Cruz) renowned Arboretum provides much-needed grounding and fresh air.

My sister Sasha and her two girls walking through the short-tour path of the Santa Cruz ArboretumStarted in 1964 with a gift of 90 species of eucalyptus, the vast grounds now include huge gardens that harbor “living fossils” of plants representing mostly the Southern Hemisphere. The Australia Garden, New Zealand Garden, and South Africa Garden are all beloved by birdwatchers and wildlife photographers, as is the California Garden. More to the point, its very existence is a testament to Northern California liberal attitudes that acknowledge the importance of open space and a quiet place to walk, wander, and get away from the noise of towns and traffic.

Quirky statues provide a touch of whimsy throughout the Santa Cruz Arboretum groundsThe first time I went there was with my brother-in-law and my niece, then two. We spent nearly three hours strolling through the grounds (which are wheelchair- and stroller-friendly), chasing a happy toddler, and watching butterflies and hummingbirds. On my recent visit, the whole family (sister, brother-in-law, the two kids, me, husband, and my kid) spent just under an hour tramping up and down the “short tour,” a path designed to give a taste of the Arboretum for those who don’t want to get lost in its huge maze of paths.

Whether you’re interested in plants, birds, great views, or just a place to get away for a little while, make your way out to the Santa Cruz Arboretum. You won’t regret it.

The Arboretum is open every day, except Thanksgiving and Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Directions are on the website, or you can take a bus from the main terminal in Santa Cruz (look for buses going to the UCSC campus and ask to be dropped off at the Arboretum). The fee is $5 for adults and $2 for children over 6, free to UCSC students, Arobretum Associates and Volunteers, and members of the American Horticultural Society.