Where better to hit the sand than Santa Cruz? Its beaches are legendary, and they’re way warmer than others around the Bay Area. The reason? They face south on crescent-shaped Monterey Bay and get drenched with sun all day, and though the water is cold—a chilly 55º on average—you can often laze on the sand in mid-winter with your shirt off.
But the people, not the beaches, are what make Santa Cruz so notoriously—and deliciously—weird. There’s a rich stew of odd and alternative characters here, from lesbian moms and tie-dye-clad potheads, to Silicon Valley millionaires and internationally famous academics. And they all seem to hug each other: you can’t walk half a block downtown without seeing two friends embracing on the sidewalk, while a nearby bag man rants on the corner about the Bush Administration (there’s active political discourse even among the homeless here).
Which begs the question, why are Santa Cruzians so aggressively political? Here’s my theory: Santa Cruz is the southernmost edge of the Bay Area Bubble. South of here, Los Angeles’s sphere of influence predominates. Santa Cruzians stand guard at the gate, and when you’re the sentinel, you have to be militant.
As spring season wears on, I’ll add more to see and do, but for now it’s all about celebrating the return of the sun. Check back in coming weeks for more.
- Scream aboard the Giant Dipper, a classic roller coaster.
- Establish a base tan in time for summer.
- Rediscover the joy of wearing flowers in your hair.
- 85 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Parking sucks. Big time.
- Limited nightlife, unless you’re still in college.
See & Do
The sugary-sweet smell of cotton candy mixes with the salty air at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the oldest beach-boardwalk amusement park on the West Coast. If you’ve never ridden a vintage wooden rollercoaster, make a beeline for the 1924 Giant Dipper, which clackety-clacks high above the beach before the bottom drops out; sit in the last car for the whip-crack effect. Ride a painted pony aboard the fabulously retro 1911 Loof Carousel, with a real brass ring to grab. Afterward, lose a filling on a caramel apple or salt-water taffy at Marini’s, an old-fashioned confectionery shop on the boardwalk since 1915.
Unlike modern amusement parks, you’re not held hostage here: because the boardwalk sits smack dab on the beach, you can amble back and forth between your beach-towel basecamp and the boardwalk’s honky-tonk fun. Cheapskates: park free if you arrive shortly before closing; the attendant leaves before the boardwalk’s rides shut down for the night. Rides operate on weekends only till April. On Friday evenings in summer, look for free concerts by performers one step up from the county-fair circuit (think Bay City Rollers).
But for my money, the best beaches lie further south, flanking the Santa Cruz Harbor. North of the harbor, Seabright Beach is one of SC’s widest beaches and has fluffy-light sand, perfect for building castles. South of the harbor, Twin Lakes Beach (named for the two horrid little ponds across the street from the sand), has a cute little lighthouse at the end of a rock jetty—the perfect Santa Cruz photo op. There’s also a branch of El Palomar here, Santa Cruz’s top Mexican restaurant. The food is good, but the service is abysmally slow (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Still, it’s nice not to have to leave the beach to eat lunch.
Dogs are (sort of) allowed on Its Beach, just north of the surfing statue and the lighthouse on West Cliff. This is the only dog beach in town, and though it’s technically illegal to bring your pooch on the sand, between 10am and 4pm, nobody obeys the rules (welcome to Santa Cruz).
If you’re too antsy to spend the day lying on a towel, take a mile-long walk from the boardwalk down West Cliff Drive to Lighthouse Point, and poke your head in to the itty-bitty Surfing Museum in the base of the lighthouse. The collection is limited—there ain’t much space—but there are some cool old redwood surfboards, and chatty, grey-at-the-temples docents tell stories about surfing back in the day.
Bicycling is huge in Santa Cruz. Cruisers are all the rage—nobody rides a mountain bike here. Ride along East Cliff Drive toward postcard-pretty Capitola, or head west along West Cliff Drive to the lighthouse.
Surfing is huge in Santa Cruz; winter is prime season, when storms kick up the biggest waves. Ogle the surfers plying the waves at famous Steamers Lane, just south of Lighthouse Point. Tempting though it may be, do not climb the nearby statue of the surfer, or expect to get your ass kicked by a dude in wetsuit. Seriously.
Spring is an ideal time for learning to surf because the waves are dying back, but not overly intimidating (usually). Contact Santa Cruz Surf School for lessons; unless you’re a total spaz, you’ll be standing on your board by the end of the day.
Skip the Wharf, unless you’re shopping for kitschy items to sell in your next garage sale (or on eBay in 20 years, if you’re lucky). But if you do find yourself here, walk to the end and listen for the barking and braying sea lions that live under the pier. Kids love ‘em.
Watch the sunset at Natural Bridges State Beach. Though the natural rock bridge fell years ago, the giant rock formations jutting up from the water still look very cool. The angle of the sand and the easy drive-to access make this the perfect spot to ooh and ah as the sun dips below the horizon.
Shopping is surprisingly good in Santa Cruz—if you know where to look. Most shops are clustered along Pacific Avenue. Check out the gorgeous hand-blown-glass dishware at Annieglass. Some of Annieglass’s pieces are in the White House (purchased of course by the Clintons, not the Bushes who I’m sure prefer Llardo—blech). Record collectors and bibliophiles: Logos carries a vast selection of used and rare books and records. If you’re into surf culture, drop by the main branch (on Cooper St) of the famous O’Neill Surf Shop, which began here (Jack O’Neill is a local; keep your eyes open around town for an unassuming guy wearing an eye patch). Galla Cabana sells hip and stylin’ women’s wear what you see in Hayes Valley in SF; bring your credit card—you’ll need it.
To find out what’s really happening in Santa Cruz, head to Bookshop Santa Cruz. Owner Neil Coonerty is the guy responsible for the ubiquitous “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper stickers, but became a local hero when he set up a tent the day after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when every other business remained closed, and established the unofficial meeting point for dazed locals. He knows e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y. If you’re an avid reader, you’ll love the store too.
Possibly the most beautiful university campus in all California, UC Santa Cruz is famous for its important architecture, most of which is hidden in groves of redwoods or built into the rolling hills. The undergraduate university is structured on the British college system, with separate schools, each with its own academic emphasis and architectural style; every single one is a world of its own. Pick up a map at the gate. UCSC also has the best views in town: from the school’s hilltop location, you can see clear across the bay to Monterey.
For a wacky side trip, take a drive to the Mystery Spot, one America’s last great roadside attractions from the days before Disney brainwashed us into believing that shiny is better than weird. Some call the Mystery Spot an energy vortex because normally straight-as-an-arrow redwoods grow in S curves and electronics fail (skeptics: just try placing a cell-phone call from here). Make reservations! If you don’t, you’ll wait and wait to get in, and there ain’t nothin’ to do up here in the woods—and that includes killing time on your (non-functioning) Crackberry.
Santa Cruz Restaurants: Cheap Eats
A line forms early at Zachary’s ($), a hole-in-the-wall breakfast-only joint in the busy shopping district along Pacific Avenue. Portions are gynormous. If you’re feeling gluttonous, order ‘Mike’s Mess,’ the kitchen-sink scramble.
For real New York-style bagels (read: boiled, then baked), head to the Bagelry ($). The schmears and spreads are delish, especially the egg salad and the humus. For insight into the local culture, the bulletin board here is the best in town.
If a day by the beach makes you crave chowder and fried fish with tartar sauce and hunks of lemon, head for the Dolphin ($), a coffee-shop-style joint at the very end of the Municipal Wharf—an easy walk from the boardwalk. There’s table service inside, but it’s more fun to order at the window, sit outside at picnic tables, and giggle at the barking sea lions.
For pizza and beer, Engfer Pizza Works ($) is the best around. The pies are fired in a wood-burning oven and made with homemade sauce and unusual combos of toppings, like the “no name” pizza, which is basically a giant salad baked onto a pizza. Play Ping-Pong while you wait. Perfect for kids.
The classic Italian deli, Zoccoli’s ($) has great salami sandwiches, picnic supplies, and take-away meatballs and sauce to heat up for dinner at home—a real timesaver if you’re here for the day, but don’t want to fuss with making dinner once you get home.
Santa Cruz Restaurants: The Best
At last Santa Cruz has a stylin’ restaurant that could make it in food-savvy San Francisco. Soif Wine Bar ($$$) serves a sophisticated, seasonally driven menu of up-to-the-minute Euro-Cal cooking, with 50 wines by the glass, including many unusual varietals, available in two-ounce pours so you can sample a bunch without breaking the bank. To pair with them, there’s a changing, sensibly priced small-plates menu, with dishes from $4 to $6. Depending on the time of year, standouts might include Manchego-stuffed paquillo peppers; octopus salad with arugula, olives and mint; watermelon with fresh goat cheese; or a candied stuffed tomato for desert. Entrées are equally inventive—duck breast with peaches, butter-poached salmon with braised endive. This is one of the few places in town where you can wear high heels and a sexy black dress (though most of the crowd sports denim). Dinner only.
West of downtown, mom-and-pop Ristorante Avanti ($$) makes earthy Italian cooking like your grandmother would have if she’d gone to culinary school. Chicken cacciatore is the specialty, but it’s hard to resist the homemade ravioli or lasagna with lamb, chicken, and fontina cheese. Before ordering, be sure to check out the nightly list of specials, which includes some knock-out seasonal dishes, such as roasted chicken with heirloom tomato salad and corn fritters. Portions are huge. The well-conceived wine list includes some terrific Italian varietals. The vibe is down to earth, folksy even, with the owner’s pottery collection adorning the walls. Wear jeans. Open for lunch Mon-Fri and dinner nightly. Reservations essential at peak times.
For a lingering lunch with your paramour, hippie-chic Gabriella Cafe is long on charm, particularly outside in the sun-dappled garden. Though the earthy Euro-Cal bistro cooking is flavorful and pretty on the plate, it’s the garden that makes Gabriella so special. (NB: tables inside are very close together; if you like lots of space, choose somewhere else.)
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Santa Cruz Motels, Hotels, and B&Bs
Santa Cruz has scores of motels, but few of them stand out for anything beyond their outrageous weekend rates.
The best deal in town, the Sunset Inn ($–$$) has generic-looking motel rooms, but they’re super-clean and have lots of space. Sure, you’ll have to drive to the beach—and everywhere else in town for that matter—but at these prices, who cares?
Smack dab on the beach atop a cliff with grassy lawns, the Sea & Sand ($$$) is my favorite motel in Santa Cruz. Rooms are small and the bathrooms need updating, but how fabulous it is to fall asleep to the sound of barking sea lions and crashing waves, then awaken to the sun glittering on the roiling waves. Double-queen rooms have the most space.
A meandering stream cuts through the lush gardens at the Babbling Brook Inn ($$$–$$$$). Though it feels like you’re in the woods, you’re actually within walking distance of downtown. Rooms are decorated with a nod to French-provincial style, with some luxe details like goose-down pillows and featherbeds. And most have fireplaces (both gas and wood-burning), a nice touch on a foggy night.
Alas, the Compassion Flower Inn has closed—the world’s only medical-marijuana-inspired B&B is no more.
Overlooking the ocean and the Wharf, the Casa Blanca Inn ($$$–$$$$) was built around a former mansion. The place looks like it was decorated by somebody’s grandmother in the 1980s, with a quirky mix of white wicker and dark wood, but rooms are comfy and most have water views. If you’re a hipster, you may roll your eyes, but Betty White apparently enjoyed her stay here.
The generic Best Western All Suites Inn ($$–$$$$) could be anywhere, but every room is a suite that sleeps four and has a kitchenette, making it an ideal choice for families with kids.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $150
- $$$ = $150 to $200
- $$$$ = $200 and up