Follow Highway 17 south over the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains toward the coast, where you can relax and play in this ultra-mellow beach town. Santa Cruz has a decided 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.
But at its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town. This is where the sport was originally introduced in California, and top surfers know that the place to be is Steamer Lane. Need more proof? Around town, one can still feel the influence of late resident Jack O’Neill, the legendary surfer and pioneer of the wetsuit. Shop at any of the three O’Neill Surf Shops in the Santa Cruz area—one of the shops is just steps from Cowell Beach.
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 boardwalk, the big star is the Giant Dipper, a burly wooden coaster first opened in 1924 and generating screams, squeals and squinted-shut eyes for decades. These days, it’s not the only thrill ride in town; the boardwalk also features the 125-foot-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).
Your road trip ends back in San Francisco, where you can explore by foot, bike, or clanging cable car.