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Jeromey Lopez will tell you that the coastal city of Santa Cruz has multiple personalities, and they’re all cool.

“The beautiful thing about Santa Cruz is that it has everything,” he says. “We have mountains, forests, and beautiful parks to go hiking and mountain biking. We have ocean activities like surfing, whale watching, kayaking, and fishing. We have the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and a lively downtown with shops and restaurants. Everybody finds something they like here.”

Lopez, a 20-year Santa Cruz resident, is the assistant general manager at Hilton Santa Cruz/Scotts Valley. The 178-room hotel is set on a redwood-studded hillside just 15 minutes from Santa Cruz’s shoreline. The few miles between the hotel and the beachfront bustle lead to a serene getaway, Lopez says.

“It’s definitely more woodsy and quieter up here in Scotts Valley. The hotel hosts a lot of business retreats and weddings. There’s a large arbor on the veranda that’s surrounded by big trees and a neighboring meadow. It’s a beautiful spot for outdoor ceremonies and celebrations.”

The best chill-out spot is the Hilton’s pool deck, Lopez says. “The pool is on the hillside behind the hotel, surrounded by trees. It’s a nice, peaceful area where guests sometimes spot deer,” Lopez says. “It’s a great place to relax all year round. The jacuzzi is always warm.”

Lopez says the best part of his job is “playing concierge” for hotel guests, he says.

“We get so many guests who come from out of town and aren’t familiar with Santa Cruz. I get to shape their stay with us by recommending things to do and places to go. What feels really good is when they come back and tell me about the good time they had. That’s rewarding.”

Guests often spend at least one day visiting two local landmarks: the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Wharf.

“If you have kids, the Boardwalk is the main attraction. It’s California’s oldest amusement park, and it has a ton of rides, including the famous Giant Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster,” Lopez says.

The 1924 thrill ride features a 70-foot drop and a bird’s-eye view of the coast. The Boardwalk also has a 1911 Looff carousel with 73 hand-carved horses, a coin-operated fortune teller, and vendors selling cotton candy and kettle corn.

A few blocks away, the Santa Cruz Wharf is another spot for seaside nostalgia. As you stroll along the 110-year-old old wooden pier—the West’s longest at 2,745 feet—you can chew on Marini’s saltwater taffy, chat with local fishermen, or wave hello to lounging sea lions.

“The wharf is a great spot for exploring a piece of local history, and for spectacular ocean views,” Lopez says. “It’s also where the sea lions congregate. There are cutouts in the floorboards where you can see them sleeping on the rafters underneath. Kids especially love seeing the sea lions,” he says.

“My favorite spot on the wharf is Riva Fish House. They serve great fish and chips, but I usually get their calamari. They serve it with the tentacles, which is the way I like it,” he says. “From the restaurant windows, you can watch people surfing and boogie boarding.”

Another way to savor the coastline is to walk along West Cliff Drive, Lopez says. “There’s a wide sidewalk that runs for a couple of miles along the cliffs and past some beautiful homes. You have views over Monterey Bay the whole time. Most of Santa Cruz faces south, but along West Cliff Drive near the lighthouse and surfing museum, you’re on a little jetty where you face west. That makes it an ideal place for a stroll at sunset.”

Visitors can also explore the Santa Cruz Mountains’ redwood forests. “Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is only a 10-minute drive from our hotel. They have a nice visitor center and an easy, self-guided walk through some really big redwoods,” he says. “If you’re an adventurous hiker, there are more advanced trails. The park is family-friendly, and it caters to all levels of hikers.”

If you’d rather admire the redwoods from a comfy seat, Lopez recommends riding the Roaring Camp Railroad’s narrow-gauge steam train, an authentically preserved relic from Santa Cruz’s 19th-century logging era.

“The steam train is a fun ride for adults and kids. You can learn about the history of this area on a narrated tour,” he says. “Most of the train cars are open-air, but a few are enclosed, so even when it's foggy and cool outside, you can still go for a nice train ride.”


Lopez says Santa Cruz/Scotts Valley visitors should check out these spots:

Tacos: Santa Cruz has dozens of taquerias, but my top choice is Taqueria Los Pericos. Hands-down they have the best tacos in town. It’s a very well-known spot, so expect to wait in line. Their carne asada is flavorful and juicy, and you can get it in tacos or burritos. My second choice is Taqueria Santa Cruz because they have the best al pastor. Unlike everybody else, they cook their al pastor on the rotisserie, not the grill. You can smell it cooking when you come in.

Surfing lessons: For beginners who want to try surfing, I always recommend surfing lessons at Cowell Beach, also known as Main Beach. It’s the beach right next to the wharf, in front of the Dream Inn. It's a good spot to learn because the waves are calm. Club Ed Surf School is a popular company I always recommend. They provide the boards, wetsuits, and instruction. In the summertime, they have a trailer right on the beach so you can just walk up. Right across from the wharf next to Cowell Beach is Cowell’s Surf Shop. They rent everything you could want for a day at the beach—surfboards, paddleboards, wetsuits, beach chairs, and umbrellas.

Special-occasion dinner: Shadowbrook in Capitola is a very special, historic restaurant. They have a beautiful location on a hillside next to a creek, and a great menu that appeals to all taste buds. My favorite entrée is the blackened swordfish. The service is impeccable, and it’s a romantic setting that’s great for birthdays and anniversaries. When the weather is nice, I like walking along the pathway that goes down the side of the hill to the restaurant. The path goes through a garden with a little waterfall. After dinner, it’s fun to take the “Hillevator” back up the hill—it’s a vintage cable car elevator.

Downtown Santa Cruz: Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz is a great neighborhood for shopping at small, independent stores as well as larger chains. There are big surf shops like O’Neill and Rip Curl, plus lots of unique boutiques that you're not going to find anywhere else. Bookshop Santa Cruz is a great local bookstore that hosts author events. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has rotating exhibits that are always interesting. You can have dinner at Laili, a wonderful restaurant that serves Afghan/Mediterranean food. It has a nice courtyard for outdoor dining. Or you can go to Abbott Square Market. It’s a food hall with about 10 different restaurants, so it's great if you have a family that can’t agree on what to eat. There's pizza, ice cream, sushi, and a good burger place, Belly Goat Burger.

Bakery: We have some great bakeries in the area. Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola is super popular, and everything they make is delicious. They do a lot of fruit pies and fruit tarts, and they make beautiful cakes. Their pastries are over the top. I love their key lime pie even though I’ve never been a key lime pie kind of guy. Gayle’s is also a great spot for lunch—they make all kinds of sandwiches on their freshly baked bread.

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