Welcome to Santa Cruz

Posted on September 18, 2018

“Surf City USA” was once the marketing moniker for both Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz, but a judge’s careful listening to the words of the iconic Jan and Dean song resulted in the use of the tagline being awarded solely to Huntington Beach. However, that decision didn’t diminish the dominance of the surf culture in life-loving Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a premier surfing destination

Three Hawaiian princes brought surfing to the area in 1885, and Duke Kahanamoku followed 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. Because Santa Cruz legend Jack O’Neill invented the wetsuit in the 1950s, surfers can wait longer for the perfect wave in NorCal’s notoriously chilly water. How important is surfing in this community? Watch the movie Chasing Mavericks.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, housed in a former lighthouse on West Cliff Drive, overlooks Steamer Lane and is an ideal spot to observe the local talent. The sidewalk along this clifftop is my favorite place to walk because the view includes sandy coves, offshore otters, and a colorful parade of local eccentrics. On a good day, I start at Natural Bridges State Beach and finish up at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a distance of just under three miles. Natural Bridges is home to the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where beautiful black and orange beauties hang out from mid-October through mid-January.

Santa Cruz

A lighthouse overlooking the ocean is home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

The boardwalk has been a big attraction since it opened in 1907 and is one of the last classic seaside amusement parks in the country. The vintage rides include the 1911 Looff Carousel with horses carved by European immigrant Charles Looff, who also produced Coney Island’s first merry-go-round. The Giant Dipper roller coaster dates from 1924 and offers a spectacular view of Monterey Bay and the long stretch of sand between the Boardwalk and the sea. Both the Giant Dipper and the carousel have been designated National Historic Landmarks.

Santa Cruz

The Boardwalk is one of the last classic seaside amusement parks in the U.S.

Not far from the boardwalk, a long wharf lined with eateries stretches into the bay. Aldo’s, perched above the Small Craft Harbor, also offers a view and is known for their cioppino and calamari. However, the locals who flock to Tramonti, located in a very unpretentious area of SC, are motivated solely by great Italian food. My favorite is their mushroom ravioli.

Santa Cruz

Aldo’s offers water views and fresh seafood

More ways to have fun in Santa Cruz

Surfers aren’t the only ones who flock to this laid-back spot on the Central Coast. Graduates of SoCal high schools seemingly can’t wait to become Banana Slugs — and that explains why my husband and I are well acquainted with this destination. Our Bishop’s grad chose UC Santa Cruz and (until she got her own car) we made regular trips up and down the coast. And, like the surfers who just stop by to check out the waves and never leave, our daughter settled in Santa Cruz after graduation, resulting in many, many more trips.

Considering all that, I was recently surprised to learn that UCSC has a wonderful arboretum that I had somehow managed to overlook. And what a joy it is! I recognized some of my favorite plants in the New Zealand section and in the succulent garden, but it was the protea collection in the South Africa garden that really blew me away. I’ve never seen such healthy specimens outside of Cape Town.

I was also happy to experience a Roaring Camp Railroad excursion for the first time. We boarded the vintage steam train in Felton, adjacent to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and chugged up Bear Mountain under a canopy of beautiful old growth redwood trees. The size of the trees and the beauty of the area really are remarkable.

Santa Cruz

A canopy of old growth redwoods

Another vintage train carries passengers from the mountains to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and back. This trees-to-the-sea route, which opened in 1875, goes through the redwoods, down the scenic San Lorenzo River Gorge, across a 1909 steel truss bridge, and through an 1875 tunnel before arriving at the boardwalk.

Santa Cruz

Roaring Camp Railroad’s vintage steam train carries passengers through the redwoods

Once at the beach, there’s plenty of time to check out the expansive view from the Giant Dipper, soak up the Santa Cruz vibe, and watch the local talent enjoying a sport introduced by three Hawaiian princes more than 100 years ago.   Elizabeth Hansen

Santa Cruz

The walk along West Cliff Drive provides great views of waves and offshore otters

Photography courtesy of Adams/Hansen Stock Photos