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Looking out over the ocean on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz County, watching the Pacific Ocean crash over a bed of rocks and seaweed and critters below, sun and a strong, salty breeze hitting me full in the face, it's hard to believe I ever thought California was the worst. As a card-carrying New Yorker for ten years, California, especially northern California, was just too out there. Too hippie. To woo woo.

But after one too many cold winters, now I live in California. I haven't quite settled on a city yet, mostly because there are a fair number of cool ones to choose from, so I'm exploring. Last month I lived in LA. This month I'm living in San Francisco. Next month, maybe San Diego. Like a good Californian, I now drive a car—my grandmother's 1997 Buick Le Sabre in "Old Lady" beige—and on the weekends, I throw an overnight bag into the back seat and set out on mini-road trips.

The rules are simple: Less than a two-hour drive. Less than a 24-hour stay. No more than three meals. Depending on where I'm hubbed, this puts Carmel, San Jose, Malibu, Tahoe and Santa Cruz well within reach. I'll concede: the last locale has been one of my favorites since long before I admitted California was kind of rad. A mid-sized beach town an hour and a half south of San Francisco, it's the perfect 24-hour retreat when I need an escape. So pack up the Buick. It's California road trip time.

Saturday morning

Heading out of San Fran, take Route 1. It will add a bit of time to the trip, but it doesn't matter. The vistas are dazzling. As you approached Santa Cruz, take a detour to West Cliff Drive for stunning ocean views. Stop here. There's an easy out-and-back 4-miler to traverse. You won't want anything more difficult, because you'll be looking up and out, not down at your footing. If you're looking for something more challenging, take Highway 9 to the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which features over 15 miles of hiking trails through old burnt umber forests.

Photograph by Ashley on Flickr

After your hike, stroll the gardens at the UCSC Arboretum. Whether you're a plant-geek or just a leisurely bench seeker, you'll be happy at the Arboretum. Started in 1964, the plant sanctuary boasts over 300 different plant families, with over 90 varieties of eucalyptus, a world-renowned cactus and succulent garden with clippings from noted breeder Victor Reiter, and the largest collection of Australian plants outside of Australia. The collection in that garden alone numbers over 2000 plant specimens, for those keeping track.

Saturday afternoon

Now you're famished. Head to Tramonti's, a popular Italian joint nestled between two other popular Italian joints on its block. Tramonti's stands out with its modern, sun-drenched dining room and outstanding cuisine. Tuck into the Insalata di rucola, pomodorini e parmigiano (salads change routinely) made with local greens, chopped celery and carrots, feta and Parmesan cheeses and toasted hazelnuts. Wipe your plate clean with crust house bread.

Mmmm, parma pizza (Natalie Rose)

Move on to the "Parma" pizza. It's a delectable disc layered with creamy mozzarella and thin, salty slices of prosciutto crudo di Parma, charred to perfection in the Mugnaini gas-fired pizza oven and topped with peppery arugula. As it's delivered to your table, inhale the aromas. Wash it all down with a Peroni (or two). Roll away.

Appetite sated, check into the Dream Inn Santa Cruz, a new Joie de Vivre Boutique venture situated on the beachfront. Resembling a California citrus basket with its color scheme of bright oranges, greens and pinks, this hotel is a short walk from the Santa Cruz Wharf. Lounge poolside, or take a stroll. The Wharf is a good option, where you'll spot sea lions lazing in the sun, as are the white beaches outside of the Dream, where you can watch a different sort of fauna—local beach-goers—working on their tans.

Habor seals at the Wharf (Natalie Rose)

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is also a must-see. An old-timey beachfront amusement park built by Fred W. Swanton in 1907, the Boardwalk is a throwback to the Santa Cruz of old. If your lunch has settled, you can ride the hair-raising Giant Dipper, a 90-year-old wooden rollercoaster, or take a gentler spin on the Looff Carousel. Both are National Historic Landmarks. Ready for more nibbles? Try a deep-fried artichoke, a local delicacy.

Saturday evening

After a relaxing shower, and a bit of primping back at your room, head to Dream's Jack O'Neill Cocktail Lounge for boozing and beach views. Sample "The Legend", a snazzy Kettle One martini.

Imbibe at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails (Jonathan C./Foursquare)
The Buick should always remain parked after cocktails, so take a one-mile walk or cab ride to 515 Cocktails and Kitchen. Pronounced "Five-Fifteen", this little place has served delicious California-style cuisine to crowds since 2006. Once there, the "Venus in Furs" cocktail is where you want to start, along with an order of 515's roasted fingerling potatoes with garlic aioli. You'll have to choose between the pan seared salmon or the house burger, both stellar. The salmon is cooked perfectly, crusty on the outside, jewel-toned medium-rare in the middle. The burger similarly—seasoned charred crust on the outside and mouth-watering beefy flavor on the inside. It's a tough choice. Again, roll away.

Back to the Dream, where you drift off to the sounds of the waves breezing through your open windows.

Sunday morning

After waking up refreshed and energized after a tranquil night's sleep, a good way to begin your final few hours in Santa Cruz is a quick jog on the beach to work off yesterday's indulgences check. Or if something more "relaxed" is more your style, check out the classes at Santa Cruz Yoga. head to a class at Santa Cruz Yoga or take a jog on the beach to work off yesterday's revelries.

Before packing up and heading out, make a quick stop at the Dream's in-house restaurant, Aquarius, for Ricotta Hotcakes shmeared with honeyed butter and a cup of Equator coffee (or, if you aren't the driver, order a house-blended Reyka-vodka Bloody Mary, because dammit, you're on mini-vacation).

You're 24 hours are up, so sadly you throw your overnight bag into the backseat and roll out. Stop again on West Cliff Drive to marvel at the beautiful cliffs. With the salt breeze in your face, your skin slightly more sun-kissed than it was yesterday, you think to yourself, "California is the best".

Natalie Rose is a freelance writer and multimedia producer. She writes about travel and culture, fascinating people she encounters on her travels and anything to do with food. She produces documentaries, branded content and commercial projects.