Seaside Fun in Downtown Santa Cruz
When the day-to-day routine wears thin, think about escaping to Santa Cruz. With its laid-back vibe, it’s the ideal place to reinvigorate yourself. Hit the waves with the surfers, the boardwalk with the fun-seekers, or the town with the locals and discover everything from casual to upscale.
Santa Cruz is one of those locales where any time of the year is a good time to visit. It’s less than two hours from San Francisco, either along the coast on Highway 1 or through the Santa Cruz Mountains on 17. Here’s what we discovered:
You can’t beat beachfront in Santa Cruz. The Dream Inn is the perfect place to idle away the day right on Cowell Beach. From our top floor room we lounged on the balcony (every room has one) and took in the view across the Monterey Bay, up and down the boardwalk, and farther north along the coast. This Joie de Vivre property doesn’t disappoint with its comfortable rooms, modern interiors, and friendly service.
With equally stunning views, the Sea & Sand Inn is up the beach from the Dream Inn. This property is smaller and more intimate, and some rooms have hot tubs for two. A complimentary continental breakfast is offered in the morning, and every afternoon from 5 to 7 p.m. (October through March) guests can enjoy wine and cheese on one of the landscaped patios.
Downtown, the recently opened Hotel Paradox is a contemporary boutique hotel. The interior décor blends elements from the outside, including the front desk made from a giant redwood, coffee tables from redwood stumps, and colors reminiscent of the woods. At night, snuggle next to fire pits by the pool.
Nicknamed “Surf City,” mainland surfing began in Santa Cruz. In 1885, three Hawaiian princes vacationed here; they took to the waves and the rest, as they say, is history. Today it’s a Mecca for young and old; find your wave and you’re golden. To watch the action up close, Steamer Lane is a renowned surfing spot. It’s right by the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (dedicated to a young boy who drowned while surfing). The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is here and celebrates 100 years of surfing history in the city. For outdoors enthusiasts, find other sports such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, sailing, cycling, beach volleyball, and hiking.
With more than 35 rides and attractions, the Beach Boardwalk has it all. Find arcade games, food booths, and rides in a prime area on the Main Beach. We found our thrills on the more than 100 year old Giant Dipper roller coaster. And if you really want to get in the spirit of things, try the cotton candy and shaved ice. Nearby, the recently opened Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center has a variety of exhibits examining marine life and the issues impacting the sanctuary. It’s easy to walk between downtown and the beach, but it is definitely more fun to take the trolley, which runs daily. In the center of town, visit The Museum of Art & History, known for its contemporary art and depiction of local history. The City of Santa Cruz also sponsors public art as well as a number of self-guided historical walking tours.
Depending on the time of year, the pools at both the Dream Inn and the Hotel Paradox (which has cabanas) offer relaxing places to people-watch and unwind.
Vinocruz is a fun tasting room downtown where you can try delicious wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Find a selection of more than 150 wines from more than 60 wineries (all for sale). Tasting flights change weekly.
Don’t miss the original O’Neill Surf Shop at the entrance to Cowell Beach, now an official California Point of Historical Interest. Jack O’Neill, the wetsuit pioneer, opened the shop in 1959. Downtown, find lots of unique shops around Pacific Avenue selling handcrafted jewelry, ceramics, books, art, and clothing. Annieglass sells unusual handblown glass made by owner Annie Morhauser as well as her favorite gifts from craftsmen worldwide. The True Olive Connection is a family-owned tasting room offering a collection of extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars from around the globe. And don’t forget the interesting selection of gifts at the local museums.
As we drove into Santa Cruz, we stopped on the east side at the Crow’s Nest. A local favorite, the restaurant sits right on Twin Lakes State Beach next to the Santa Cruz Harbor. Outside dining is a must. Build your own omelet and sip a bloody Mary and you’ve got the perfect brunch. The casual atmosphere, great views, friendly people, and delicious food make this spot one you’ll come back to. Join a game of beach volleyball afterward. Many nights there’s live music and comedy.
Downtown, we found the most idyllic place for lunch: the beautiful garden patio at Laílí. This Mediterranean- and Afghan-inspired restaurant infuses spices from the Silk Road in its food with delicious results. We loved the pumpkin boranee with garlic, qurut yogurt, and mint; the spinach bolani; and the maush awa soup to start. Both the lamb kabob and the garlic lime beef filet kabob were tender and juicy and served with saffron basmati rice and arugula. The food at Laílí is distinctive; the flavors are rich and the ambiance is inviting.
Enjoy dinner beachside at Aquarius, the signature restaurant at the Dream Inn. You’ll be mesmerized by the views through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Seafood abounds and you can’t go wrong with the clam chowder, the Manila clams, or the seared salmon. If you need a pork fix, try the braised pork belly with kale and corn pudding. Specialty cocktails and wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains are featured. And when you’re done, take the elevator home.
OTHER ESSENTIALS: Santa Cruz Visitors Council; Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce; City of Santa Cruz
Patty Burness can be found on Twitter at @pattygb.