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Picnic Trilogy

Robert Scheer

Table of Contents: A languid picnic in an idyllic setting like Natural Bridges State Beach (pictured here) offers the perfect capper to any summertime afternoon.

Eating in the great outdoors--the concept is as old as the Paleolithic era and as fresh as your primetime summertime imagination

By Christina Waters

PICNICS, LIKE LOVEMAKING, appear to have been written into our genetic structure. You bring the food, nature provides the ambiance. Picnics are all like the very first human meals--meals eaten al fresco. Freestyle dining. And since eating outdoors gives us permission to be children--to eat with our hands, play with our food and make a happy mess--picnics are loved by everyone.

Manet and his nudes loved them. Shakespeare's characters romped through them. Fellini reveled in them. And there are absolutely no rules to follow.

Two carnitas burritos from Tacos Vallarta taken to Lighthouse Field make a fine picnic. A focaccia sandwich from Carried Away consumed on the trail of Nisene Marks also is a picnic. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich--like the ones you can get at Saturn Cafe--munched at the UCSC Arboretum is definitely a picnic.

Technically, folks, any food whatso-ever eaten outdoors constitutes a picnic. However, success often involves a bit of advance planning. We offer three picnic scenarios--just rough guidelines, mind you, nothing written in stone--that we think you'll especially like.

We do.

Bit of Luxury

THE FRENCH, who invented the piquenique, defined it as any pleasure outing at which a meal is eaten outdoors. So what could be more in keeping with that spirit than a picnic expedition in the direction of the incomparable Pogonip property? This is the time to break out that rattan hamper--or your best Igloo ice chest--and create a food experience in keeping with the glamorous spirit of the former polo club.

Yes, ice-cold champagne is a good idea. So is rotisserie chicken from Gayle's paired with some luxuriously dressed green salad, fresh fruit and a chocolate dessert or perhaps a couple of those amazing berry tarts. Another way to approach this outing would be to build an antipasti array around a trip to Shoppers Corner. Elegant, but playful. Gather some Niçoise olives, black truffle paté, paper-thin slices of imported prosciutto, a loaf of ciabatta bread, Bosc pears and biscotti from India Joze. The biscotti will go just nicely, thank you, with the last drops of bubbly.

Thus prepared--and, of course, you've brought actual glass stemware, flatware and a white tablecloth--you hang a left on Club House Drive (off River Road) and begin traversing that languid country road that weaves under the railroad tracks and along the fertile fields of Surf City Produce. Park at the trailhead. Then walk the gentle incline (1/5 mile) to the old clubhouse, still swaying graceful with its bungalow roofline and palms. As you approach the top of the hill, turn around and inhale the view. The entire town of Santa Cruz, framed by Monterey Bay, seems arranged like a postcard just for your enjoyment.

Spread your blanket under one of the old palms, now romantically overgrown with roses, jasmine and wisteria. Or, for the best view of the city below, break out the champagne beside the old loquat tree in front of the clubhouse. The perfect picnic spot. And, for obvious reasons, the perfect siesta spot.

The Pogonip land, where Ohlone once flourished centuries before we arrived, is a matchless setting. In this kind of pastoral beauty, even the food is optional. Well, OK, not really.

Seaside Sizzle

EASILY THE AREA'S ULTIMATE barbeque picnic spot, Natural Bridges is an accessible slice of heaven, where shelter, beauty and tide pools await, all framed by a eucalyptus grove that is the monarch butterflies' winter home. Since you can drive in and set up your al fresco spread on picnic tables surrounded by clean, spacious grounds and lots of bathrooms, Natural Bridges is perfect for family outings and meeting up with dozens of your best friends. It's great for weddings, too. And it's a small enough area of wooded groves, sand and beach that you can keep an eye on the kids.

After you've thrown enough mesquite on those raised grills to kindle memories of The Towering Inferno, you can reach into that ice chest for a cool microbrew, close your eyes and listen to the waves in the background, kissing the coast hello and goodbye, hello and goodbye. We like to bring a thermos of icy margaritas or virgin sunrises for an opening act. It's a good place for enjoying gooey fresh-fruit appetizers, like whole watermelons. Just take those dripping wedges of ripe fruit down to the edge of the water and eat them while wading in the tide. Simply rinse off in mother ocean when you're finished.

Now for that barbecue. You know what your favorite foods are when you've built up an appetite climbing over rocks, checking out tide pools and running up and down the beach towing kites and screaming kids. We suggest corn on the cob, which is ridiculously simple to grill--if it's really fresh and sweet, you don't even need salt, just roast and eat.

Roast and eat. Think Neanderthal here. Shiitake and portobello mushrooms, brushed with a bit of olive oil and balsamic, are great for barbecues, as are those designer sulfite-free sausages from New Leaf--the hot Italian is deliciously spicy (don't think what you're thinking!). Or you can pick up some natural pork chops from Staff of Life or Zanotto's. Pork chops sizzling on an open fire are indelibly primal and very Western frontier.

Natural Bridges is a terrific spot for contemplating the forces of wind, wave and time--to visualize the late limestone bridges, long since collapsed, and to meditate on surf crashing through the remaining window grotto. Tide pools, trails through the woods, lagoon and playful surf--here are multiple environments to explore while the coals get ready. Bring extra hot dog buns for the seagulls and they'll happily recreate stunts from The Birds. Oh, and don't forget Kelly's brownies for dessert--paired with bracing mugs of house blend from Cafe Bene. You're going to need the caffeine to clean up the post-picnic debris.

Coast Toast

HERE'S ANOTHER PICNIC-AS-TIME-TRAVEL opportunity, one that affords 5,000 acres of untrammeled panoramas and coast range ambiance. The weathered old buildings of the 100-year-old Wilder Ranch are peacefully haunted by the Old West. You can wander the farm buildings, the dairy, the superb stables and pretty Victorian main house--even the original adobe--and break out your lunch at tables just outside the carriage house.

At Wilder Ranch, both hiking and biking are superb. Take your choice, but definitely take a day pack. Water and sunscreen are essential. Cycling up the slopes of these benchlands will work up an appetite--so plan on a picnic of real food, and plenty of it. We recommend your favorite Odwalla juice to sip on as you stroll around the Victorian complex. Picnic tables situated here will tempt you to fuel up before you explore the land--and you can watch the high-spirited work horses as they gallop their corral.

A Terravera Thai wrap would go nicely at this point, with some sesame rice crackers and organic fruit. You can forage at Staff of Life for all kinds of delectable salads and sandwiches filled with everything from turkey and Swiss to marinated tofu and sprouts. Or share one of those messy, robust Mediterranean sandwiches from Zoccoli's with your hiking partner, chased with a fruit salad and deviled egg, also from Zoc's.

Since you'll need plenty of energy, you might want to splurge on a bar of designer chocolate from Richard Donnelly or a pecan sandie cookie with that huge swirl of chocolate icing in the center from the Buttery. I'd also recommend one of those sinful chocolate cupcakes from Black China bakery, but they might get crushed in your pack. For that moveable feast--picnicking on the trail--don't forget the salty hit of Newman's Organic pretzels, plus a little bag of organic currants, almonds and cashews gathered from the bulk bins of Staff of Life.

Now you're ready to power through some of the finest chaparral remaining in the West. You can't go wrong on the Engelsman Loop Trail--named for Wilder foreman and world champion rodeo rider Led Engelsman. Huge stands of buckeye, alder and willow embrace the trail head before it begins the ascent through quintessential California. A crash course in Coast Range ecology, the loop leads through stands of bays and redwoods, hedgerows of blackberry and poison oak, watched over by iridescent dragon flies, scurrying quail, soaring turkey vultures and peregrine falcons riding the updrafts. The scent of manzanita and sage fills the sunny afternoons, and you'll discover plenty of signs of coyote, deer and mountain lion.

At the top of the loop--45 minutes on foot--the coastline below spills open into an ever-widening liquid blue ribbon. On the way down, you'll plunge through the heart of a huge, high meadow--a great place to stop, finish your chocolate and enjoy your altered state. Filled with Queen Anne's lace and rattlesnake grass, the meadow shimmers gold all summer long. Kissed by the incoming fog, this place is the stuff of open-air enchantment.

The effect is hypnotic and, if done right, can stay with you for days.

Maybe even a lifetime.

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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