For someone who’s never been to California, the city of Santa Cruz is most likely what they imagine. Endless sunshine, miles of sandy coastline, surfers, hippies, old VW vans, legal weed, grungies and skateboard/street punks. More than any other Bay Area city or exurb, Santa Cruz embodies that classic California vibe – something like chilled-out surfer or stoned-out hippie – but mostly a contented attitude that comes when living within biking distance of the ocean is all that matters. It’s a beach town first, college town second, with blue-collar roots and hippie/yoga aspirations, the kind of place Cheech and Chong might retire to, or Jeff Spicoli would flunk out of if he ever got in.
Which makes it a great place to escape to for a breather from all that Bay Area striving. But don’t expect some sleepy beachside village. The entire Santa Cruz metro area is large, over 260,000 including the cities of Aptos, Soquel and Capitola, stretching for 15 miles along the coast at the north end of Monterey Bay with the Santa Cruz Mountains at its back. And while the beach is the emphasis here, there’s plenty of non-beach stuff to do too (and traffic to deal with if you’re visiting on a nice weekend). For example, the Seymour Marine Discover Center, which also happens to overlook the ocean. It’s not very big, and doesn’t take long to tour, but the organization does really good work and the whale skeleton they have on display makes it worth the trip. If you have kids, it’s almost a must visit.
At 90 minutes south of San Francisco, it’s an easy daytrip. But there are also plenty of hotels if you choose to crash for the night. It seems the whole area along the main drag of Ocean Street and near the Beach Boardwalk is nothing but hotels, mostly of the Best Western and indie motorlodge variety. Like much of California, there’s a lack of hotels (and development in general) along the water, only two by my count, and a few more in pricier Capitola. Or you can do what we did, and stay near the big trees in Scotts Valley, which borders Santa Cruz to the north and is the first place you come to after driving over the mountains on Hwy 17, with downtown about 5 minutes away.
Which brings up the other non-beach, nature-related attraction. Redwoods are abundant here, whether you drive through the campus of UC Santa Cruz, or hike Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The latter is ideal if you just want to do a little forest bathing amongst old-growth redwoods without working up a sweat. Its most popular hike is the flat .8 mile loop trail near the visitor center that young children or the walking impaired find perfectly suitable, and that offers a self-guided tour with facts and history about the park. There are other more challenging hikes too. And the expansive Wilder Ranch State Park borders Santa Cruz to the west, though it offers more live oak prairie than forest.
But back to the beaches. And there are a lot of them, running along pretty much the entire 15-mile coastline. Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the most popular, partly due to the mudstone arch just offshore, and partly because it’s small and secluded. It’s located at the end of Cliff Drive, which winds atop the bluffs, offering views of the ocean on one side and neighborhood beach homes on the other. There’s a paved path atop the bluff with benches here and there, and is usually busy with joggers, strollers and bikers. You can park at one of several lots found along the way and join what feels like a daily community gathering. Or check out the old lighthouse, now surfing museum, that overlooks a popular surf spot known as Steamer Lane.
Moving east on Cliff Drive, next up is the beach that fronts the Boardwalk. It’s the busiest, mostly because the boardwalk is such a big draw. But it’s big, so it never feels crowded. This is the “city” beach, where free concerts are held in summer, and where we rarely ever go because parking is a pain and there’s nothing nice around it nature-wise. It’s a great place to drink a beer and throw a Frisbee around with your buddies, or to take the kids after riding the rides at the Boardwalk.
Seabright State Beach is where we go, our default beach when we want a quick visit to the ocean while in town but don’t want to drive far. In other words, it’s convenient and easy to access. Just drive to the end of Seabright Ave and find a parking spot in the neighborhood there, then take the stairs down to the sand. It’s never crowded. You can walk to Walton Lighthouse at its tip, or build a fire in a fire pit and watch the sunset.
Continuing east to Aptos is Seacliff State Beach. It’s quiet here, and is known mostly for the hull of the S.S. Palo Alto, a half-sunk concrete ship that was towed to the end of a pier here in 1930 and used as an amusement attraction. Until recently you could walk around its deck, but it’s since been closed for repairs. Rio Del Mar State Beach is just across a pedestrian bridge where you can find a market and a few slightly divey bar/cafes.
My favorite is Manresa State Beach, even though it’s the farthest to get to, about 12 miles southeast of downtown and another five minutes off Hwy 1. Regardless, it’s still somewhat popular, probably because it feels so expansive and removed, like it’s just you and the sky and ocean. The beach disappears into the distant mist in both direction, and the few homes here are set back and up on the bluffs, so there’s less intrusion from civilization. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset, preferably from high on the bluffs.
The Boardwalk is one of the neatest things about Santa Cruz, and kind of defines what the city is all about: laid-back, low-rent, old-school fun, and beaches. Opened in 1907, it’s one of the last remaining oceanfront amusement parks in the U.S., harking back to a time when every coastal city had one. There’s no admission fee, so it’s free to simply stroll past rides (35 in all), carnival games and fair food concessions, or buy a large beer and stake out a bench to watch the world go by. If you have young kids, it’s a thrilling day out, especially if you combine it with beach time. Parking is a challenge if you don’t want to park in the adjacent lot ($10-$20 all day) or it’s full. There’s limitedstreet parking, or park downtown and take a city shuttle or trolley.
FOOD & FUN
Santa Cruz is not what you’d consider a foodie destination. You won’t find any Michelin starred restaurants or famous chefs, but you also won’t have sticker shock when you read the prices on the menu. On our recent trip here, we went to Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, considered one of the best restaurants in the city. We’re talking straight-ahead traditional Italian fare, no nouveau or fusion anything, with healthy and hearty portions and pasta entrees all under $20. It’s also family friendly.
But that’s typical for Santa Cruz, which is all about neighborhood fare, but good to great neighborhood fare. Just down the street on Seabright, La Posta is another excellent Italian restaurant, though with a bit of pretense to it. Next door is Tramonti, more hip and modern but great for casual Italian and pizza. Across the street, Engfer Pizza serves up decent brick-oven pies, with a fridge full of craft beers and a ping pong table for the kids.
Seabright Brewery is nearby, but its beers are just okay and its dining area a bit shabby. But there are several other craft breweries in town, like Lupulo, Humble Sea and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing that offer outdoor beer gardens. You’ll also find a few beer joints on Pacific Avenue, the pedestrian-friendly main drag in old town, with restaurants, bars, shops and an excellent bookstore. It’s tree-lined and pleasant, if a little grungy, and has long been friendly to street musicians, some of whom are pretty good. Verve Coffee and Santa Cruz Coffee both have cafes on the street, which is one of the city’s best exports – really good coffee. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite coffee shops in the Bay Area is here, the Abbey Coffee Lounge.
But wherever you are in Santa Cruz, the call of the sea is too strong, which means we always seem to end our visit at the beach (or Marianne’s Ice Cream, which has been around forever and serves up dozens and dozens of interesting flavors).