Los Gatos, gateway to California wine country and Monterey Peninsula

Cat statues guard an estate in Los Gatos, Calif. The town was named by Mexican settlers for its wild felines.

Los Gatos, Calif., is a town you drive by, but never into. By the time you've made it through the frantic San Jose traffic on Highway 17 and see the green highway sign to your destination — "Santa Cruz 20 / Monterey 68" — all you want is to get there.

But then, just where the highway turns from four lanes to two and begins its ascent into the Santa Cruz Mountains, you notice something bizarre on the right, just off the road, in a passing blur. Statues of two 8-foot-tall white cats sit on pedestals in front of a gated driveway and dark woods.

You zip by, wondering what that could be. Maybe you'll pull over some day and ask. We did, which led to a 24-hour exploration of the incorporated town, population 30,400, covering 14 square miles.

There's a lot happening in Los Gatos, on several levels. As in most older California towns, preservationists and developers have an ongoing debate over which direction the town should take, as reflected in Los Gatos' official motto: "Small-town service, community stewardship, future focus."

"We have evolved," said former mayor Sandy Decker, a firebrand who has "been involved with the history of this town for 50 years."

"The texture of Los Gatos is all about the architecture of the houses and commercial buildings, and we protect them," she said. "Pushing back the developers is extremely difficult because" some town officials think of development "as tax revenue. You risk giving it all away, so we raise a hue and cry."

The town was dubbed "Rinconada de Los Gatos" (Corner of the Cats) in 1839 by Mexican settlers who couldn't help but notice all those mountain lions and wildcats living in the forests.

The concrete cat statues off Highway 17 are Los Gatos' defining motif, and they're echoed around town in various forms of art. Leo and Leona have guarded the entrance to Poet's Canyon since sculptor Robert Paine made them in 1922 for the two original owners of the 34-acre estate, since expanded and now owned by a businessman who values his privacy.

Los Gatos shares the history of the Santa Clara Valley, once an Eden of fruit and nut orchards (and packing plants) known as the Valley of the Heart's Delight. The railroad and the lumber industries had defining influences, as did farming and milling. Decades later, so did the silicon chip, which led to its incarnation as Silicon Valley, now the world's center for all things high-tech, and, by the way, the model for an HBO comedy series.

"Los Gatos is like a getaway for the Silicon Valley folks, and the gateway to wine country and the coastal towns, like Santa Cruz and Carmel," said Catherine Somers, executive director of the Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce.

For residents, the dynamic is "an almost granola-type vibe," said hairstylist Michele Mirassou, who has lived in the area for 10 years and who co-owns the Taylor & Jayne Salon. "It doesn't have a snooty attitude, like [visitors] might think it would because there's so much money here. It's special because it doesn't let people come in and build high-rises. All of us who live here pretty much have views of the foothills."

It's more than marketing that Los Gatos' nickname is the Gem of the Foothills. It really is a gorgeous oasis of village charm.

Sure, a redwood grove, park benches, and gushing fountain make the town plaza a relaxing slice of Norman Rockwellian Americana, but the saturation of spas, salons, art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, restaurants, and upscale clothing and home-goods stores is a reminder of where you are. Clue: About 35 percent of residents have incomes of $150,000 to $499,000, and about 12 percent make $500,000 or more. Single-family, entry-level houses go for $1.8 million, real estate agents say.