Travel Notes from Santa Cruz, California USA

santa cruz beach boardwalk

From San Jose, speeding South on CA-17, the dark emerald Santa Cruz mountains loom ahead and the road narrows and snakes, bordered by evergreen roots and metal guard rails. Uphill, 45-degree turns hug the mountain, and vehicles roar past dense stands of eucalyptus trees, runaway truck ramps, and the usual police radar spots.

At the summit, the road plateaus, widens and drops into gradual hills opening up to the seaside town — Santa Cruz, just ahead.

Some say Santa Cruz, a.k.a. Surf City, is one of the true remaining California surf towns. From its nostalgic beginning in 1907, the Beach Boardwalk has drawn thousands of beach enthusiasts, including 1950’s Hollywood stars and beauty pageant celebrities. More recently, punk music fans know that the politically-charged band, Good Riddance had its start in Santa Cruz.

Year-round, thousands of picnic-goers, campers, hippies, and rockers visit Santa Cruz. Yet beyond the touristy facade, visitors may discover the town as a haven for those with a self-confident, free-spirited nature, and strong individuality.

A Downtown with Flavor

A first stop on Pacific Avenue, the main strip through town, anything from pizza to subs to Starbucks coffee is an option. However, Santa Cruz caters best to the Asian or Middle Eastern pallet and alternative tastes — with menus for vegans, lacto ovo (with dairy) or lacto vegetarians (no eggs) fruitarians (fruit only), raw food only, macrobiotics (grain-based diet, little or no dairy), and all others in-between.

Despite the higher prices downtown, locals support businesses offering organic food and unique products. “It’s easy to be vegetarian here because it’s readily available,” says Eric Gies, a gardener and longtime resident of Santa Cruz. He prefers to shop the downtown farmer’s market, and Staff of Life, an organic food and spice grocer on Soquel Ave.

If a sweet, frosty snack is wanting, stop by Jamba Juice on Pacific Ave. The California-based chain offers over 20 blends of fruit, vegetable and yogurt smoothies, with an option to add boosters like green tea, soy milk and protein.

Fruit drink in hand, find a bench curbside and enjoy a bit of people watching. It’s not uncommon to see hippies draped in red checkered skirts, groups of dreadlocked teenagers playing harmonicas and African drums, or the latest human-statue painted head-to-toe in spaceship silver. Itinerant residents sometimes stroll along discussing philosophy, and the occasional costumed fairy may skip by wearing pink Converse hi-tops.

Who needs theater, but if a movie suits you, try Regal Cinemas Santa Cruz 9 for current shows, or the Del Mar for oldies and independent films — both found along Pacific Ave.

Further down the Avenue, stores filled with silk garments, hemp jewelry, earthen bowls, and iron statues overflow with shoppers. Bookshops line both sides of the street, glass makers offer lessons at the back of their shops, and posted signs for yoga lessons are not hard to find.

Inspiring Tastes

Quick Facts:

  • Lang: English, Spanish
  • Currency: USD, dollar
  • Time zone: GMT -8 h
  • Tel. country code: +1

For dinner, Eastern-inspired cuisine sans alcohol is well-served in Santa Cruz. Downtown, at 810 Pacific Ave, the Pakistani/Indian/Afghan restaurant Khyber Pass (Open Hours, 11am-10pm daily) is one worth coming back to. This inexpensive small establishment serves up wonderfully sweet chutneys, and fiery dishes featuring cumin, cardamom, mint, and ginger. The chicken biryani, or kadu (spiced squash with yogurt) may inspire you to try Indian cookingIndian cookbook yourself.

For vegetarian/vegan Sri Lankan cuisine, do not miss Malabar restaurant at 514-B Front Street. (Open Hours, 5pm- 9pm, Mon thru Thur, 5-9:30 p.m. Fri and Sat. Closed Sundays.) The aromatic scent of spices in the air and a large Buddha on the wall create a pleasant dining atmosphere. Spicy dishes delightfully surprise, with flavors such as coconut, lemongrass, or pomegranate. Try the almondy Persian Nights drink to start the evening.

For anytime, but especially Sunday brunch, visit The Crepe Place at 1134 Soquel Ave. Ask for a seat in the garden courtyard on a sunny day. It’s worth the wait! In addition to the full menu, diners can order from a large selection of savory crepes from spinach to Greek-style or try the sweet cheese-filled blintz or fresh fruit crepes with ice cream. Established in 1973, the restaurant includes a large bar area, and hosts regularly scheduled live music performances. (Open hours, Mon thru Thur 11am-12 midnight, Fri 11am-1am, Sat 9am-1am, Sun 9am-12 midnight)

Carnival Santa Cruz-style

santa cruz beach

At the end of Washington Street, diagonal to a busy skate park, luck will find metered parking available at the popular Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Open hours at the historic amusement park vary by season. A day pass runs about $30. Season passes and individual ride tickets are also available for purchase.

Good rides like the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster, Loggers revenge, the sky lift, and a whole lot of hotdogs and cotton candy will keep the kids satisfied. If you’re a gamer and don’t mind crowds, try the warehouse-sized Casino Arcade, a low-lit maze of game rooms next to the amusement park.

Summer concerts and events bring energy to the already lively Beach Boardwalk. Or if in town, catch the annual gay Pride Parade on Pacific Ave.

Rollerbladers may enjoy taking the curvy skate path along West Cliff Drive. The paved path runs 2.5 miles long between Santa Cruz Pier and Natural Bridges beach.

For a low-key look at local sea life, stop in the Seymour Aquarium adjacent to Long Marine Lab. Learn something new at one of the fish and crustacean exhibits, or join a marine mammal research tour.

The Scene

Built in 1913, Santa Cruz Wharf draws a colorful mix of tourists, skateboarders, beach lovers and surfers.

A lifeguard command station sits beside the often packed pier parking lot. Upscale seafood restaurants serve fresh catch daily, and souvenir shops lining the pier sell everything from tee-shirts to seashells. All day, fisherman cast their poles from the pedestrian walkways, and lounging 1500-pound sea lions can be heard barking for scraps on the pilings below.

Santa Cruz also lies along the migratory routes of many marine mammals, including Humpbacks, Blue, Gray, and Killer Whales. Sight-seeing trips vary by season, and information can be found at the booth of Stagnaro Fishing Charters & Whale Watching Cruises on the pier.

On sunny days, super Frisbee enthusiasts and clans of volleyballers take to the sand adjacent to the pier. Sun-tanners, too, have plenty of room, on the wide, powdery beach.

If you would like to try surfing or boogie boarding, rent a four-millimeter wetsuit and board at Shoreline Surf Shop. The shop owners usually offer lessons, and start you on the smaller waves — if that’s what you want.

Chasing Waves

santa cruz surf

The high-crested waves that break at Santa Cruz have made it a haven for surfers for decades. Local surfers have their own preference, and with over a half dozen spots, choices are made based on natural barriers like reefs, size of wave swells, floating seaweed, and crowded conditions. Although sharks are common around Santa Cruz, surfers concern themselves more with rocks hidden below the foamy, deep blue.

For beginners and novice surfers, Cowell’s beach off of West Cliff Drive is generally recommended, albeit crowded. Take a longboard and try out the long rolling waves. Steamer Lane is likely the most famous spot in Santa Cruz for professional surfing. Elite surfers display guts and ability year-round to the delight of crowds which gather to watch. For those with tested surfing skills, the massive waves and the competitive atmosphere of Steamer Lane offer an excellent challenge.

Locals know that surfing the popular spots becomes especially competitive in summertime.

“You don’t catch a wave by yourself. It just doesn’t happen in Santa Cruz,” says Katie Paultre, a decade-long California surfer.

Katie’s best picks around Santa Cruz are Pleasure Point at 41st Ave, a rocky spot with 6 to 8-foot waves, and its southern tip, called the Hook. Manresa State Beach, her favorite — surfing a six-foot shortboard — tends to be less crowded, with solid breaks on a low wind and big swells after a storm.

In winter, when massive 20-foot swells break from the north at Mavericks Beach in Half Moon Bay, larger waves come to Santa Cruz. However, resident surfers might say conditions are best in the fall, when the water is warmest at 59°F (15°C) and the crowds taper off.

Hiking

natural bridges

Walk the trails of Natural Bridges State Beach Park to glimpse one of California’s most beautiful seascapes. There’s possibility to bike or picnic among eucalyptus and Pacific pines or view the mudstone cliffs and tide pool filled with sea anemones, crabs, and barnacles. In mid-October through February, visitors can also see thousands of overwintering Monarchs at the butterfly preserve.

Greyhound Rock is another breathtaking spot just off of Highway 1 heading towards Davenport. A small picnic area sits next to the parking lot. Bring your camera and walk the short trail lined with sea flowers and cactus leading down to the beach. The high cliffs create a strong wind and blue-black mussel shells and bulbous seaweed lie strewn across the sand.

Visit Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park for hiking in the woods. It’s easy to spend a day walking the miles of sandy trails filled with pine, fir trees, and old-growth redwoods. Horseback is permitted in some areas, and picnic and campgrounds are available.

Accommodations

After a long day, it’s good to know most hotels in Santa Cruz cluster a block or so from the pier. For couples, the Sea & Sand Inn offers every room with a seaside view, and the Carousel Motel has inviting deals for families. Downtown, book the refreshing and quaint B & B, Adobe on Green Street or award-winning Pleasure Point Inn on East Cliff Drive.