This ultra-mellow beach town along Highway One has a decidedly split personality—and both sides are cool. First, there’s the family fun of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a yesteryear-style esplanade lined with classic coasters, arcade games, corn dogs, and a historic carousel. Then there’s downtown Santa Cruz, where local college students browse for vintage and boho chic, and relaxed restaurants focus on organic, local ingredients.
If you love nature, this small city makes an excellent launching pad. Take a boat tour out from the wharf for excellent whale-watching—greys, blues, or humpbacks, depending on the time of year— or head just a bit inland to see the ancient trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
And there’s one other nature-inspired gem tucked in these mountains: a generous selection of wineries, most specializing in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
But at its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town. This is where the sport was originally introduced in the U.S., and top surfers know that the place to be is Steamer Lane.
Need more proof? The late legendary surfer Jack O’Neill, pioneer of the wetsuit and elder statesman of everything surf in the Golden State, used to live nearby.
This remarkable preserve, California’s oldest state park, is an emerald gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. With more than 80 miles of trails winding through redwood groves and other lush habitats, Big Basin makes an appealing weekend getaway for people in the Silicon Valley, about an hour’s drive west. Mums and dads love letting the kids loose to dip their toes in clear streams, or watching them conjure up enough courage to kiss a banana slug (ask a local; it’s a belt-notch experience for many a Northern Californian).
Big Basin offers a variety of campsites, including 38 walk-in sites—a short walk lets you pitch your tent in ultimate peace and quiet. Hike, mountain bike or ride horses on designated routes. Trekkers love the 10.5-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail, which runs along Waddell Creek to the ocean and nearby Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve. There are also plenty of gentle, scenic rambles, such as the 4-mile Sequoia loop trail (complete with a small waterfall), and 0.5-mile Redwood loop trail that takes visitors to some of the park’s tallest trees. Collect maps and hiking tips from rangers at park headquarters, and ask about guided twilight hikes and campfire programmes.
A wide beach and splashable waves are always inviting; add a colourful boardwalk with rides, games, and music—well, how can you say no? Not many people do—this popular waterfront boardwalk is a summertime ritual for countless California families, a wonderful way for you to relax and play just like the smiling locals. While there are countless attractions lining the historic boardwalk, the big star is the Giant Dipper, a burly wooden coaster first opened in 1924 and generating screams, squeals and squinched-shut eyes for decades.
These days, it’s not the only thrill ride in town; the boardwalk also features the 125-foot/38-metre-high Double Shot tower for heart-in-throat adrenaline lovers. For tamer rides, especially for little ones, take a spin on the painstakingly restored 1911 Looff carousel (yes, that’s real horse hair in the tail of your painted steed). A noisy but fun indoor arcade offers laser tag, mini-golf, skee-ball and countless video games. Peace out with a ride above it all in the overhead Sky Glider funicular (providing GoPro-worthy views of the beach, rides and Santa Cruz Mountains. On Wednesdays in summer, stick around for free outdoor movies on the beach; and on summer Fridays, for free concerts.
This town’s shopping scene is eclectic, even funky. Downtown Pacific Avenue offers many shops with a local twist, including the venerable O’Neill’s where surfer guys and girls can find a bikini or board shorts, flip-flops or a wetsuit—the creation and design of the city’s favourite son, the legendary Jack O’Neill (he still lives here, a beach ball's throw from the beach). The independent Bookshop Santa Cruz is packed with happy locals, especially during frequent author talks, and many other boutiques offer art, clothing and home furnishings. Antique hounds should head to the Santa Cruz Antique Faire (8am to 6pm on the second Sunday of the month, on Lincoln St. between Pacific and Cedar Streets).
Winding into the Santa Cruz Mountains, you expect the towering redwoods and the misty ocean views. But wineries? It’s surprising but true: the Santa Cruz wine region boasts more than 70 wineries, producing a wide range of varietals from its mineral-rich soil. One of the state’s first AVAs, the region is best known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Micro-climates abound, with warm sunny days, nights brushed with fog and almost everything in between.
Wine experts note that the rugged region practically forces character into wine. On the often-foggy slopes, the grapes ripen slowly. Marine air cools the vines at night, keeping acids intact (a good thing). Flavours mature in the grapes before sugar levels spike too high, allowing lower alcohol levels in the end. These are lively, interesting, arresting wines. Mountain soils here are often thin and stony, and this is a good thing too: Vines that struggle in poor soil produce fewer, better grapes, with more concentrated flavour.
A must-see example of the region’s remote, low-key wineries is Ridge Vineyards, perched on a steep slope on the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge first hit the wine scene with a flourish at the famous 1976 Paris blind tasting (the subject of the 2008 film Bottle Shock); a Ridge Cabernet was ranked by the world's top tasters above some classic Bordeaux. Ridge wines are still considered top shelf. Bring a picnic, buy a bottle and relax with a stellar view east across the Silicon Valley.
In-town tasting options are another way to sample local wines. Stop by Storrs Winery, located in a former mill, to sample Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. At Pelican Ranch, enjoys tastes of Burgundy- and Rhone-style varietals.
Few can resist the funky, sunny, life-lovin’ vibe of the surf culture in Santa Cruz. Legend has it three Hawaiian princes brought surfing here in 1885, with legendary Hawaiian surfers such as Duke Kahanamoku following in their footsteps. Locals soon took to the consistent, easy waves at Cowell’s, and right-handed point breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, and they’ve been carving it up ever since.
Thanks to local legend Jack O’Neill's 1950s invention of the wetsuit to battle the Pacific’s notoriously chilly waters, newbies and experienced surfers alike can spend more time out there waiting for the perfect wave. If you want to give the sport a try, the friendliest breaks are found at Cowell’s next to the Santa Cruz Wharf; breakers fronting Capitola are usually novice-friendly too. Club Ed Surf School offers lessons for all abilities; equipment includes wide, easier-to-balance long boards and wetsuits.
To learn more about the local surf scene and its legends, visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, quaintly housed in a former lighthouse along West Cliff Drive. Look over the seawall to see top surfers riding the break at Steamer Lane. And to chill out like a legend, visit the beachside Jack O’Neill Lounge at the Santa Cruz Dream Inn. Surrounded by surfing memorabilia and a great view of Monterey Bay, sip a signature cocktail, or ask for Jack’s favourite after-surf libation, a Ketel One Martini. In October, the O’Neill Coldwater Classic attracts many of the world’s best surfers.
The over-a-century-old Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden pier in on the West Coast—a staggering 2,701 feet long. Walk to the end to get a bird’s eye view of Steamer Lane surfing to the north. Come at dusk to watch the lights glow on the colourfully lit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Near the base of the wharf, hire kayaks, stand up paddleboards or motorboats. As you walk further out on the wharf, strolling past the requisite fresh fish restaurants and souvenir and trinket shops, strike up a conversation with the local fishermen angling for perch, rockfish and lingcod. Better yet, join ’em. You don’t need a licence to fish from the pier; local tackle shops can get you fully outfitted too.
Sure, you can get your fill of corn dogs and candy floss down on the boardwalk, but tucked into historic buildings in town, and in nearby communities, there are surprising finds, with talented chefs and artisan food makers tempting you to try their latest creations. First, let’s talk coffee. Warm up on foggy mornings with a rich, tasty brew at two local favourites, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and Lu Lu Carpenter's. For decadent pastries along with your java, try Kelly’s French Bakery, a happy find tucked among warehouses on the west side of town. For a lunch break from the beach, head to Zoccoli’s Delicatessen (we dare you not to love the hot tri-tip sandwich), and double-scoops of lively flavours (ginger snap or lemon poppyseed) at Penny Ice Creamery. Marianne’s is another favourite for ice cream, with innovative flavours such as spicy Mexican Chocolate or Northern Oregon Blackberry.
Hopefully you’ll have room for an amazing dinner. There’s a huge range of options—get fresh seafood and sunset views at Johnny’s Harborside and Crow’s Nest; or for Italian cuisine settle in at homey and charming Lillian’s (black truffle-stuffed gnocchi for grown-ups, classic meatballs for kids). La Posta, in the Seabright neighbourhood, features a fresh, market-driven menu.
The Santa Cruz Mountains were once a vibrant logging area, and with logging came railways. Today, logging is largely gone, but one remnant of that bygone era is this charming scenic railway. Century-old steam engines take passengers on entertaining rides into redwood country, offering intimate views and big views of towering redwoods. All year round, trains depart from tiny Felton to make an hour-long loop through forests to the summit of Bear Mountain. Along the way, conductors share interesting stories and information about the region and its railway history.
For an entertaining treat, join a themed train ride, offered throughout the year. Consider a ride on the Starlight Evening Train, ride to a campfire supper and sing-along on the Western Moonlight Dinner Train, or root for the hero during a Great Train Robbery. Roaring Camp itself is a recreated 1880s logging camp, with sites including a covered bridge, a period opera house and a classic general store. Kids enjoy watching demonstrations in blacksmithing and making candles by hand.
Daily in summer (weekends in spring and autumn), Roaring Camp also operates a return trip Santa Cruz Beach Train, picking up and dropping off passengers in Felton and at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
When it comes to thrills, turns out rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk aren’t the only option in the region. Nearby Mount Hermon lets you “fly” through coast redwoods on a soaring zipline, suspending you some 150 feet/46 meters above the forest floor. And it’s not just about ziplining here; this forest adventure includes the zipping as part of a spectacular, two-hour canopy tour, with an informative guide helping you navigate two thrilling sky bridges as you learn about the coast redwoods and their unique ecosystem.
Mount Hermon bumps up the excitement even more with an Adventure Course featuring 14 activities ranging from clambering up cargo nets to traversing swinging logs and sky bridges.These courses are suitable for anyone at least 57 inches/23 centimeters tall and weighing between 75 and 250 pounds/34 and 113 kilograms (ages 10 and up). Groups of smaller kids (ages 6 to 11) can get in on the forest fun at Mount Hermon’s pint-size adventure course, with ropes, mini-zip-lines, and platforms. And pretty trails around the property are open to all, with a creek for splashing and ferns, wildflowers, and flittering birds.
While Santa Cruz gets thumbs-up for its hang-loose surf scene, oceanfront amusement park, flawless beach, and classic wooden pier, there’s another giant treasure lurking just beneath the surface. Migratory whales, including grays, blues, and humpbacks, can all be spied off the coast here at different times of year, and dolphins, sea otters, and seals are observed year round. See for yourself on exciting whale-watching cruises, chartered sailing excursions, or—for staggeringly intimate encounters—on guided kayak paddles when waters are calm.
What makes Santa Cruz such a prime spot for whale watching? According to Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at U.C. Santa Cruz, the town’s location on the northern end of Monterey Bay puts it on the edge of some of whales’ favourite undersea dining rooms. “The whales are here feeding on sardines, anchovies, and plankton, which have been attracted by blooms of microscopic plants such as diatoms,” explains Dr. Griggs. What’s more, Monterey Bay’s unique geology produces an area of relatively calm bay waters, where, according to Dr. Griggs, “plankton, small fish, seabirds, whales, and dolphins congregate to share in the food.” It makes for a fascinating, lively mix, and a great opportunity to learn more about California’s fascinating and delicate ocean ecosystems.