For nearly a century, Santa Cruz has been synonymous with “beach and boardwalk,” as if this seaside city of 50,000 exists solely to sustain what is now the only major beachside amusement park left on the Pacific Coast. Considering that the annual number of boardwalk visitors is 62 times greater than the city’s population, it’s no surprise that Santa Cruz’s other highlights are all but ignored by the hordes of thrill-seekers who head straight for the waterfront each year. ↓
What it all comes down to, of course, is money. Tourism is the big draw here: some 3 million annual visitors help fill the county’s coffers, which in turn is doing everything possible to make Santa Cruz a respectable, safe place to bring the family.
The result? A little of everything. Walk down gilded Pacific Avenue and you’re bound to see the homeless mix it up with the alternative lifestylers within a sea of yuppie shops and shiny cafes. The cultural dichotomy is painfully manifest, but nobody seems to mind; rather, most locals are pleased with the turnout. As one resident put it, “Anything but Carmel.”
Not that the boardwalk (now a cement walk) isn’t worthy of the limelight. Ranked among the top amusement parks in the nation, with a higher attendance than either Marine World or Paramount’s Great America, the privately owned amusement park has cleaned up its once-tarnished act by pouring a pile of money into improvements and security; the boardwalk is truly safe and clean these days.
Then, of course, there’s the legendary Giant Dipper, considered by those-who-would-know to be the greatest roller coaster ever built, and the hand-carved horses of the Looff Carousel, the last bona fide brass ring merry-go-round in North America. These two rides alone are worth a walk down the boardwalk.
Yet even without its celebrated amusement park, Santa Cruz would still be one of California’s top coastal destinations. Where else can you find a vibrant, cross-cultural (remember, this used to be the LSD capital of the world) college town perched on the edge of an immense bay teeming with marine life, ringed by miles of golden beaches, and backed by dense redwood forests?
Remove those boardwalk blinders for a day and you’ll find out that there’s a whole lot more to Santa Cruz than boardwalk cotton candy and arcades.
So much to see and do
When it comes to shopping, Santa Cruz doesn’t fool around. Walk down Pacific Avenue and hay caramba! More than 250 shops and restaurants are crammed into Santa Cruz’s 29-block business district, which has recovered rather nicely from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (the epicenter was only 10 miles away). As you make your way down the mall, look for the Octagon Building, an ornate, eight-sided Victorian brick edifice built in 1882 that has survived numerous quakes. Previously serving as the city’s Hall of Records, it’s now part of the McPherson Center for Art and History, which showcases 10,000 years of the area’s past as well as contemporary art of the Pacific Rim. (Open Tues–Sun, noon–5pm (Fridays till 7pm); 705 Front Street at Cooper Street; 831/429-1964.)
The best ride on the boardwalk isn’t the Giant Dipper roller coaster, it’s paddling a sea kayak around the Santa Cruz coast. Vision Quest Kayaking, located on the northeast end of the Santa Cruz Wharf, rents single-, double-, and triple-seater kayaks for exploring the nearby cliffs and kelp beds where a multitude of sea otters, seals, sea lions, and other marine animals congregate. No experience is necessary, and all ages are welcome. Guided tours are also available; (831)425-8445.
The perfect antidote to an overdose of sun and sand is a walk through the redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Only a few miles from downtown Santa Cruz on Highway 9 (from Mission Street, turn north on River Street/Highway 9 and continue north), the 1,800-acre park has 20 miles of trails through thick, cool forests and golden meadows. Top pick for a leisurely walk is the 3/4-mile Redwood Grove Trail, a wide and flat loop around an ancient stand of giant redwoods. On summer weekends at 2pm, docent-led tours of the Grove Trail start from the Nature Center, but call ahead first; (831)335-7077 or (831)335-4598. (Secret tip: About 11/2 miles south of the main entrance on Highway 9 is the Ox Road Parking Lot. Park here–for free!–then take the short trail down to the locals’ favorite swimming hole, the Garden of Eden.)
Mildly entertaining for adults but a blast for kids are the aquarium and marine exhibits at the Long Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, a seaside research facility partly run by UC Santa Cruz. Top billing are the shallow touch tanks that allow visitors to handle–and learn about–sea stars, anemones, sea cucumbers, and other slimy sea creatures. You can also see scientists studying dolphins and sea lions in the lab’s marine mammals pools. Behind the gift shop are the humbling skeletal remains of an 85-foot blue whale. At the Marine Discovery Center, visitors get to play “marine scientist” and learn first hand of how real marine scientists study the seas. (Open Tues–Sun, 1–4pm; $2 for adults, kids 16 and under free. From Highway 1 in west Santa Cruz, turn south on Swift Street and right on Delaware Avenue to end; 831/459-4308.)
One good thing about a college town—it knows how to party. The Cruz’s coolest blues are at Moe’s Alley, featuring live music (and dancing) nightly (1535 Commercial Way, 831/479-1854). For traditional and modern jazz, it’s the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a nonprofit (and nonsmoking) landmark that’s been around for the past two decades (320 Cedar Street, 831/427-2227). Local rock, reggae, blues, and world-beat bands mix it up at the Catalyst, which occasionally pulls in some big names, too (1011 Pacific Avenue, 831/423-1336). Even bluegrass, Hawaiian, and folk music find a venue at cavernous Palookaville dance club, which also has its share of rock and reggae (1133 Pacific Avenue, 831/454-0600).
Santa Cruz is a bicycler’s heaven. The pedal-friendly downtown area is flat and wide (ditto the wharf and boardwalk), and the shoreline bike path along West Cliff Drive is sensational. If you can’t bring your own wheels, the Bicycle Rental & Tour Center rents touring, tandem, and mountain bikes at hourly, daily, and weekly rates, and even throws in free helmets, packs, maps and locks (131 Center St, two blocks from the Municipal Wharf; 831/426-8687).
Within the small brick lighthouse building off West Cliff Drive is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Photographs, videos, antique surfboards, and piles of other memorabilia depict the history and evolution of surfing around the world. After the tour, walk to the point’s edge and watch the sea lions waddle around Seal Rock. (Open every day but Tuesday, noon–5pm; 831/429-3429.) Between the lighthouse and the boardwalk is that famous strip of the sea known as Steamers Lane, the summa cum laude California surfing spot (savvy surfers say this is the place–not Southern California–to catch the best breaks in the state).
At the north end of West Cliff Drive is Natural Bridges State Beach, named after archways carved into the rock formations here by the ocean waves (only one of the three original arches still stands). Popular with surfers, windsurfers, tide pool trekkers, and sunbathers, the beach does a brisk winter business as well: between October and March up to 200,000 monarch butterflies roost and mate in the nearby eucalyptus grove. Skip the $6 parking fee at the West Cliff Drive entrance and walk in from Delaware Avenue (just east of the entrance off Swanton Boulevard) for free; (831)423-4609.
If you had to pay just to drive down the famous Santa Cruz Wharf, you’d probably feel ripped off. Fortunately, you don’t: the first 30 minutes of parking are free, which is plenty of time to rubberneck the touristy shops, fish markets, and seafood restaurants that line the side of this venerable octogenarian. Dining tip: Within the wharf’s sea of pricey establishments is the Riva Fish House, a surprisingly inexpensive restaurant with good food and a superb view (Building 31, Municipal Wharf; 831/429-1223).
Santa Cruz’s real premier attraction isn’t the beach or boardwalk; it’s the 2-mile walking-biking-jogging path along West Cliff Drive. Proof positive is that locals don’t go anywhere near the boardwalk, but you can see them in droves exercising up and down the 2 miles of paved coastal trail from the wharf to Natural Bridges State Park. The best time to visit is at sunset, when the alternative-lifestylers gather near the lighthouse to bang their drums and flail around.
Locomotive buffs, kids, and closet tree-huggers should hop aboard the historic Roaring Camp Train for a 6-mile, 11/4-hour round-trip excursion up the steepest narrow-gauge grades in North America. The steam-powered locomotive winds s-l-o-w-l-y through dense, cool redwood groves to the summit of Bear Mountain and back. A second train outfit, called Big Trees Railroad, offers an 8-mile ride through mountain tunnels and along ridges (with spectacular views of the San Lorenzo River) before stopping at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Both trains are located on Graham Hill Road off Highway 17 in Felton (follow the signs), though the Big Trees Railroad can also be boarded at the east end of the boardwalk. Call for specific departure times. (Roaring Camp: Trains run weekends December through March, daily rest of the year; 831/335-4484. Big Trees Railroad: Trains run weekends and holidays, September through November, with daily runs in summer; closed December through April; 831/335-4484.)
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is one of the largest parks in central California and also one of the least known. The entire forest was clear-cut less than a century ago; today, however, a solid canopy of mostly second-growth redwoods shades the 21/2-mile dirt road leading to the trailhead, where more than 30 miles of trails–ranging from cakewalks to lung-busters–disappear into the 10,000-acre forest. The most popular hiking trail is the Loma Prieta Grade, a 6-mile round-trip past the wooden remnants of a turn-of-the-century lumber camp. Mountain bikers and leashed dogs are also welcome. (At the end of Aptos Creek Road off Soquel Drive; free; open year-round; 831/763-7062)
Capitola’s Mediterranean-style buildings, curved streets, white-sand beaches, outdoor cafes, and perpetually festive atmosphere seem more suitable for the French Riviera than Monterey Bay. The verdict? If you’re staying on the coast for more than a day, a visit to this ultra-quaint hamlet is highly recommended. Park the car anywhere you can, feed the meter (bring quarters), spend an hour browsing the dozens of boutiques along the esplanade, then rest your bones at Zelda’s sunny beachside patio with a pitcher of margaritas. That’s the Capitola shuffle.
Other than a handful of B&Bs and a few state beaches and parks, Aptos has little in the way of tourist entertainment, leaving that messy business up to neighboring Capitola and Santa Cruz. The focus here is on quality lodgings in quiet surroundings. The only drawback is that the beaches are too far to walk to from town, but if you don’t mind the short drive, Aptos is the ideal place for a peaceful vacation on the coast.