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From the top down

The convertible top is down, the stereo is turned up, and it feels as if we're about to drive straight into the ocean.

We're approaching Pacifica, the tiny coastal townjust outside San Francisco. It comes into view as wewind through a hairpin turn in our white Mustangconvertible and see the weathered bungalows andstorefronts set against a backdrop of the Pacific'schoppy blue waters.

Our mission is a leisurely fall drive to Santa Cruzalong Highway 1, arguably California's most scenicbyway. Its most popular section is the route betweenMonterey and San Luis Obispo, which invokes romanticnotions about convertibles, leisurely roadsidestops and the dipping of bare toes in icy waters.

Although some may think fall is a peculiar time fora mini seaside vacation, we think it's the best seasonfor it. During the harvest months, the coastalweather is warm yet crisp, and the landscape isdotted with produce stands, corn mazes andpumpkin patches. Best of all, there are fewer peopleout on the roads.

Of course, we don't have time to explore the entireCalifornia coastline during one three-day weekend,so we've opted for a tiny slice of highway. Althoughit's only about 75 miles in all, we intend to make the trip last as long as possible.

Well, maybe after a quick break forlunch. What's the hurry, after all? This is atake-your-time trek - there's no need torush.

'So Much for the City'

It's just after 2 p.m. and although the convertible top is up there's a nip in the wind, so we've turned on the heater. And it feels good -- bright sun shining on our faces, the car's heater warming our hands. The stereo's cranking The Thrills' "So Much for the City" CD -- the Irish band's love song to California with tunes about Big Sur, San Diego and Santa Cruz.

After stopping for lunch at a small cafe near Moss Beach, we hit the road in earnest. Now, roughly 40 miles from San Francisco, it feels as if we're hours away from urban life, glimpsing the silver shine of the ocean through redwood trees and fields of strawberries, snap peas and lettuce.

Pulling the car over by the side of the road, we hike down to a small cove near Pescadero State Beach. Here we find a few families, couples and solo adventurers - all seeking a moment at what seems to be the edge of the world. The waves lap at our feet as we cuff our jeans and laugh as the glacial water chases us back to drier, higher land.

Back at the car we shake the sand from our clothes and strike up a conversation with a watercolorist. Diane Bassett is here with her camera to snap a few pictures for a future painting.

"We're also scoping it out for a beach party," says the 40-something San Bruno resident, there with her husband and dogs.

"We've been out driving - we just checked out a lavender farm," says Bassett.

Fall, she adds, is a great time to explore Highway 1.

"We're just coming into an Indian summer so the (nice) weather will be around for a while," says Bassett as she pulls a brown paper bag from the rear of her SUV. Inside is an enormous, freshly baked round loaf of bread.

"Have you tried this artichoke garlic bread? It's from Arcangeli's in Pescadero. You have to try it." Bassett holds the fragrant bread out; it's still warm and the taste - yeasty with a tangy bite - is heavenly.

Next stop: Arcangeli Grocery Company.

The small market is tucked away on a side street in Pescadero, just a few miles from Highway 1. Here, we regretfully forgo the fresh bread -- such a giant loaf for just two people -- and instead pick up colossal, gooey chocolate chip cookies and soda. It's a good sugary snack to further fuel our adventures and we're ready to keep going.

A few miles down the road, we pull over at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, where the air is laced with the thick scent of seaweed and algae. The 115-foot-tall lighthouse, built in 1872, is closed to the public but you can still roam the grounds. Visitors can stay overnight in the old lighthouse keeper's building, which now serves as a roomy hostel. After climbing down the rocks for a brief stroll along the beach, we're back behind the wheel by 5 p.m. It's not long, however, before we decide it's time for another break.

That's the thing about Highway 1. With so many picturesque beaches beckoning, it's difficult to stick to a schedule. This time we're lured to a stop near Davenport at Waddell Beach, where several colorful billowing pieces of fabric are dotting the beach. From the car they look like giant silk jujubes, but a shaggy-haired guy wearing a wetsuit quickly sets us straight.

"It's kite-surfing; this is a particularly good place for it," says Jeff Trauba of the kitelike sails that surfers hang onto while riding the waves. "The conditions are perfect here."

Trauba, 35, of Santa Cruz is here with buddy Derry MacIntyre.

"This is my favorite spot in the whole wide world," says MacIntyre, a 36-year-old self-described "nomad."

"It's like a little secret spot between San Francisco and Santa Cruz," he says.

"It's funny to think how close we really are to millions of people," adds Trauba. "There are some points here where you can stand and get a 180-degree view of the water."

Indeed, the area is peaceful, despite the scores of people who've stopped here to kite-surf, walk along the beach or just get in a quick snapshot - grinning against the backdrop of the ocean. The perfect final interlude before we reach our destination - now barely 10 miles away.

Santa Cruz, not that far

Geographically, Santa Cruz is close to Monterey and Carmel, but with its diverse college community, surfer crowds and flower-power refugees, it's always felt like a funky little sister to those more sophisticated tourist towns.

And that's a good thing.

This is not the land of bikinis and Speedos or high-priced sailing duds. No, Santa Cruz is a place for wetsuits and slouchy sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up over your ears. It's a comfortable mix of locals and sightseers, California cool and small-town charm.

There's a dark cloud cover blanketing the town when we finally arrive shortly after 6:30 p.m -- more than six hours after we left Sacramento. That's nearly double the time it normally takes us, but again, it's a good thing.

We're in a leisurely mood and as Highway 1 spills into Santa Cruz, turning into Mission street, we mentally toss the mile-long Santa Cruz to-do list that's been cluttering our brains.

This is not to say we don't get around to most of our planned weekend activities -- visiting the Boardwalk and the Mystery Spot, noshing on some of the town's tastiest foods, staring at the ocean, etc. It's just that now there seems to be no need for a hard and fast timetable. Instead, we take our time exploring the town that seems to be demarcated by an invisible line between east and west Santa Cruz.

The west side, near the Boardwalk, is definitely more touristy with its T-shirt and surfboard shops and flashing neon motel signs. The east side, near Capitola, has a more locals-only feel with condos and small houses, tiny restaurants and health food stores. The beaches here are less crowded, too -- you'll find more in the way of surfers and dogwalkers than sunbathers.

Whichever side you visit, fall is an ideal season in Santa Cruz. The mornings are cool, the afternoons warm and the nights downright freezing. The climate makes for an atmosphere that's both comforting and adventurous. It's an invigorating yet cozy spot and after only a few days we feel relaxed and refreshed. City life? Who needs it?

But Monday arrives and just before noon we leave Santa Cruz, enjoying the last bits of its fog as we make our way back to Highway 1.

The trip home is considerably shorter, and there are fewer stops as we get our last glimpse of the postcard-perfect ocean. But the mood the view brings on will linger through fall.