The mazelike pathways are lined with giant shrubs with blooms that resemble tropical birds or silk scarves blowing in the breeze. Tom Sauceda leads the way: past the Hebe plants (named for the Greek goddess of youth) with their electric purple blossoms; past a South African specialty, Phylica plumosa, with flowers that call frilly yellow plumes to mind; and past an Australian native, Banksia ericifolia, with startling inflorescences flaming red and yellow and shaped like giant corncobs.
"Everywhere you look, there are more beautiful things," Sauceda says, turning a corner in the UCSC Arboretum, a secret gem in the little city on the Central Coast, "and this is where you're going to see the hummingbirds."
And there they are: at least a dozen of them, each as green as the Emerald City, making excited clicking noises as they hover to sip nectar from the flowers of a Grevillea "Ruby Clusters," a name that captures the color and profusion of its blooms.
"They are very territorial, very aggressive little birds," explains Sauceda, a botanical curator who has worked at the arboretum for 20-plus years. "Just wait! The little buggers are probably going to start fighting: 'Hey, that's my flower!' "
Covering 64 acres on campus, the Arboretum is yours to explore seven days a week. ($5 adults; $2 ages 6-17; free, ages 5 and under; http://arboretum.ucsc.edu). High in the hills above town, it's a quintessential Santa Cruz spot: It adjoins redwood forests, and while driving to it, you can soak in the ocean views. Take a picnic. Visit the gift shop. (It sells quite a few of the exotic plants that grow on the grounds.)
When you're finished, exit on High Street, driving west to soak in those vistas (they'll be on your right), then hang a left on Spring Street. Now you're heading to Pogonip Park -- you'll see the gate at the top of the street -- where you can hike eight miles of trails through 640 acres of redwoods and meadows, all within the city limits.