Scenic Santa Cruz, CA: Good vibrations (and libations), spectacular views, a near-perfect climate and endless ways to have fun in the great outdoors make this Central California beach spot a “must see” paradise.
(Published in Weekend Escapes Magazine, Spring 2019 ) Download published version WEm Spring 19-1 or read text-only version below.
In the summer of 1885, before Santa Cruz was incorporated as a city, three visiting teenage Hawaiian princes chose this idyllic spot to ride their custom-shaped redwood boards over the billowing waves. That decision would give the Golden State its first exposure to the surfing sport and lifestyle.
Forty-two years later, fog-weary residents of nearby San Francisco began climbing aboard “Suntan Special” excursion trains to escape to this sunny oasis. Today, even Southlanders are flocking to this ideal weekend getaway spot. A quick plane ride to San Jose and a short scenic ride over the hill lands you in counterculture central—a hip-in-a-hippie-sort-of-way small town where you can hike through a nearby mythical, Tolkienesque redwood forest, take a scenic bike ride along the coast or through the woods, and dive right in to surf or paddleboard with the dolphins. And that’s just for starters.
“Gee, you’re swell!”
For more sedate activities with an educational component, you’ll want to visit the spectacular Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Here, you can get touchy-feely with a swell shark, gaze at undulating jellyfish and see what a pacific spiny—pardon the language—lumpsucker looks like. Seymour may be small, but you’ll see more marine life than you might expect in this glassed-in marine science center—including a migrant Southlander crab who apparently also decided that leaving SoCal for “CenCal” was a good idea.
For those wanting to walk on the wild side, the nearby Natural Bridges State Beach is pure nirvana. Besides being home to one of the largest overwintering monarch butterfly sites in California, the park also hosts specially protected migratory birds and rich tide-pool sea life. Natural Bridges is also a popular place to windsurf, fly kites, bike, run, surf or just enjoy a picnic by the bay.
If you’d rather look—not leap—into the beautiful deep blue sea, specifically to set your sight on surfers, then head on over to the Santa Cruz Surf Museum at Lighthouse Point. This unassuming brick building houses a wall-to-wall pictorial displaying 150-years of surfing history, including—ouch!—shark-bitten wetsuits. Lots of local surfing heroes are immortalized here—from big-wave rider Jay Moriarty to wetsuit legend Jack O’Neil. While there, enjoy the frequent (and sometimes strange) assortment of street performers, then stop to admire the grisly old surfers hanging out in their beat-up buses or vanquished vans. It’s all part of that groovy Santa Cruz vibe.
And speaking of vibes … you’ll find more concentrated quirkiness in Santa Cruz’s downtown area than just about anywhere else in California. Where else can you walk down the street and spy a store devoted to tie-dye “everything,” thriving indie bookstores and more than a few oddly decorated vans and cars—all in a mandated nuclear-free zone? (Be warned: “In the event of a nuclear attack, those who bomb Santa Cruz are in big trouble.”)
Adding to the downtown hippie “aura” are all the interesting bearded and bedraggled characters that roam the streets—though some of them might just be trust-fund college students. In “forever 60s” Santa Cruz, it’s hard to tell the difference. Not into tie-dye? Not to worry—keeping with its lofty real estate prices, there’s plenty of high-end boutique shopping in Santa Cruz, as well.
“Fancy pants … without pretension.”
When it comes to food, Santa Cruz is a cornucopia of culinary excellence—including numerous bakeries, one of which (Kelly’s Bakery) may have the best chicken pot pie anywhere. Fine dining choices abound, including the spacious and casual chic Soif Restaurant and Wine Bar. With a new chef at the helm, delectable and unusual entrees such as squid fettuccine and bacon-wrapped, slow-roasted pork and scallops will please any discriminating palate.
Farm-to-table is a symbiotic necessity for chefs who frequently make the rounds in the area’s top seven farmer’s markets. They’re a must-visit for Southlanders, as well. While you can’t pack a peck of pickled peppers or carry your kale onboard, you can pick up farm-to-plane items like salamis and cheeses, fresh almond butter or one of Santa Cruz’s famous pies. Another draw to these popular outdoor markets is their live music and some of the best food truck fare anywhere.
“Easily the best bakery I’ve experienced outside of France.”
When you’re ready to explore the rest of the county, head on down to Capitola for another must-stop eatery: Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria. Gayle’s isn’t just a bakery—it’s an experience, offering more food than you could possibly salivate over in a week. This local favorite is the queen of comfort food, offering staples such as meatloaf, roasted chicken, creamy mac and cheese and the best bacon and egg croissant anywhere. And if you love baked goods, ranging from princess cakes to tangy key lime pie to yippee-ki-yay cowboy cookies, then Gayle’s just might become your next best foodie friend.
After grabbing your goodies at Gayle’s, continue down to the Annieglass Production Studio and Store in Watsonville. Annie’s work is so exquisite, her pieces are housed in the Smithsonian. No doubt, you’ll want to house her creations in your casa as well—even if they are a bit pricey. The good news is that Annieglass sells their “seconds” for a song.
When you’re thirsty for more fun, or just plain thirsty, enjoy a drink from Annie’s Wine
& Craft Beef Bar, or migrate across the street to the S. Martinelli & Company store. Stroll through time to see how Martinelli’s began their apple empire 150 years ago, then sit on a bar stool and enjoy a complimentary tasting of up to seven surprising apple juice blends before heading back to your hotel.
Back at the hotel …
Santa Cruz offers a bevy of traditional and bed-and-breakfast hotel options, including the West Cliff Inn which combines historic charm with spacious rooms and spectacular views. Take advantage of West Cliff’s free loaner bikes that will have you out the door and biking the three-mile West Cliff Drive bicycle path in seconds. With its stunning backdrop of rolling ocean waves and dramatic cliffs, you’ll wish it were longer.
With its sheer spectacular beauty, diverse landscapes, fabulous food, and invigorating outdoor activities for all fitness levels, Santa Cruz is a must-visit destination. While it may be too quirky and “out there” for some, most visitors to this shining jewel by the sea are captivated by the color and verve that makes Santa Cruz what it is … beguiling and unique.
Sidebar: More Stuff to Do, See and Eat
To Do and See:
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. You’ll get a “peaceful easy feelin’” as you walk the 0.8-mile loop on a magical tour of 1,000-1,800 majestic, hundred-year-old coastal redwood trees. (If trees could talk!) There’s even a 270-foot-tall walk-in redwood that was once used as a resort “honeymoon suite.” That should prompt you to grab your family or friends and step inside the massive redwood … just so you can answer the question, “How many humans can fit inside a redwood tree?” The mythical forest is located in the 4,623-acre Henry Cowell Park, which offers camping and 15 miles of hiking trails.
Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Coney Island does Santa Cruz in the West Coast’s oldest beachfront amusement park. Built in 1907, it’s Americana meets tourist trap at this family-friendly park that features the oldest roller coaster still in operation, a super-fun arcade and plenty of requisite junk food. A few sit-down restaurants will give you your fresh fish fix as you fix your sights on all the people frolicking in the sand and surf. In the summer, enjoy Friday night concerts by veteran rock stars that have takin’ a lickin’ but keep on tickin.’ On or off season, count on getting serenaded by playful harbor seals and grumpy-looking sea lions.
Santa Cruz Mystery Spot. Kitschy can be cool—even if the Mystery Spot’s infamous bumper stickers aren’t. If you’re in need of continuity in this rapidly changing world, then this is the place to go. Unlike Denny’s and McDonald’s, this old-timey tourist trap hasn’t felt the need to rebrand itself since the 1940s—which is part of its appeal. What will you see? Standing on a steep hillside, you’ll experience compasses that point crazily, otherworldly forces that mess with your equilibrium and buildings that lean at bizarre angles. In other words, a typical trippy day in Santa Cruz.
Roaring Camp Railroad. “Once I had a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time …” You won’t be racing on this slow, 90-minute-round-trip train ride through the coastal redwood trees, but you’ll enjoy a fantastic view—with a history lesson. At the end of your ride, sip hot cider while being serenaded by country music singers. Kiddos get a book for collecting stamps at each stop to and from the quaint, frontier-themed town. They can also get their portrait drawn and, if you’re lucky, maybe even cover the cost of your tickets by panning for gold. Eureka!
Penny’s Creamery. Torch that marshmallow, infuse bourbon into that ginger or mix grass (not that kind) with that bitter plum. This dreamy creamery offers all organic, all
local-made ingredients blended together in unusual flavor combos that will definitely titillate your taste buds. At Penny’s, even plain vanilla isn’t plain … not when it’s the exact same recipe used by Thomas Jefferson. He may have fallen out of favor, but his ice cream is undeniably flavorable—as are all the other made-from-scratch flavors offered by this “experimental” creamery.
Gabriella Café. Packed so tight, you might feel like a sardine in this tiny restaurant. But you’ll definitely be swimming upstream with the locals in terms of sheer popularity. Romantic and quaint, Gabriella’s offers such favorites as tagliatelle with rustic bolognese and roasted beet salad with honey pistachio puree. It’s not just locals that go ga-ga over Gabriella’s. One transplanted Parisian called Gabriella’s “a rare savoir-faire not usually seen this side of the Atlantic.” Okay, then.
Lupolo Craft Beer House. Hop to it! At this craft beer house, you’ll find over 250 bottles of beer on the wall … offering good libations in spades. So many choices may spell panic for the ADHD-afflicted, but it’s sweet nirvana for beer drinkers who love options. Pair your brewskie with yummy bar snacks such as empanadas, duck liver pâté and generously sized tapas and you’ll be ready to toast a cheer with that beer.