This morning I woke up at my leisure and decided to start working off those extra pounds from the holiday indulging I took part in over the last week. As I hit my iPod on shuffle, Katy Perry’s California Gurls started to play, so I decided to select the 60 minute Monterey Coastal Trail on my elliptical powered by Google maps. As I virtually ran along the west coast watching the waves crash onto the rocks, I couldn’t help but reminisce about our California road trip when we visited Santa Cruz.
When we vacationed for eight days in California, we knew the best way to see the Golden State was to do it by car. With so much to see and do, it was tough coming up with a tentative road trip itinerary outside of the obvious cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. One place that I wanted to make time for was Santa Cruz because it seemed like every time I flipped through a Coastal Living magazine the cute town always seems to make some “best of list.” You know, list like “10 Great Coastal Boardwalks“, “Top 10 Piers” or the “Best Boardwalk Bites.” I am glad we included Santa Cruz on our road trip because it proved to be that classic beach town with a surfer vibe, plus a whole lot more. I truly fell for this quintessential California beach town, so I came up with my top 10 list of why Santa Cruz is the perfect beachside destination.
Top 10 Reasons Santa Cruz is So Dreamy
1. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was named “Best Seaside Amusement Park” in the world by Amusement industry experts. Well, my teenage son, nor I am experts, but we would wholeheartedly agree. Living on the east coast, I have visited both the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey and the boardwalk at Coney Island in New York. Both give you that nostalgic feeling, but the Santa Cruz Boardwalk does the same in a more colorful and pristine way.
The Boardwalk is located on the Santa Cruz Main Beach and has indoor and outdoor attractions. The Casino Arcade and Neptune’s Kingdom (Miniature Golf & the Boardwalk Historium) are indoor and open year-round. We enjoyed spending time at Neptune’s Kingdom, which use to house a large heated salt-water swimming pool from 1907 to 1963.
It was the perfect place for bonding with my teenage son, and he still relishes at the moment when he shares the story of how he beat his Mom in ping-pong. While my son enjoyed playing pinball and miniature golf, I enjoyed the history and appreciated the unique exhibit of the Boardwalk’s first 100 years.
Before leaving Neptune’s Kingdom, we picked up a Historic Walking Tour brochure of the Boardwalk to refer to as we meandered the outdoor park.
The rides in the outdoor section of the Boardwalk offered family, thrill and kiddie rides. I loved the Sky Glider, which offered beautiful views of the bay. Of course, the highlights, were the park’s main attractions, the 91-year-old wooden roller coaster known to roller coaster enthusiast as the Giant Dipper, the Looff Carousel, and the concession stands. I can’t visit California without getting garlic fries.
2. The Santa Cruz Wharf stretches a half-mile over Monterey Bay. The wharf had family-owned fish markets, tasty seafood restaurants and souvenir shops and boutiques. One of those shops was Noland’s on the Wharf where my son spent all of his spending money on a Santa Cruz skateboard. Another fun thing we did was watch the sea lions lazing in the sun. It is free and entertaining.
3. West Cliff Drive. This beautiful two and a half mile path connects the Santa Cruz Wharf and Natural Bridges State Beach. If you are lucky enough to visit Santa Cruz, do not leave town without seeing this scenic ocean vista. No matter if you walk, jog or bike, you will enjoy your time by the bay. Along the route is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum which is inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. Just off the point of the lighthouse, you can watch the surfers ride the waves at legendary surf spot, Steamer Lane.
4. Shopping & Dining in Downtown Santa Cruz. Pacific Avenue is in the vibrant downtown garden mall and has a range of specialty shops and restaurants. Since I am an avid reader, I couldn’t help but check out Book Shop Santa Cruz and Logos Books & Records. I also enjoyed browsing at Pacific Trading Co., but with a teenage boy in tow the visit was brief. Before leaving Pacific Avenue, we decided to grab some lunch. There were numerous options, but after viewing Yelp and Trip Advisor, I knew that Betty Burgers was the place. I still remember what we ate, so you know it must have lived up to the ratings. I had the Smoking Betty, and my son had the Lucky Lady. Delish!
5. The Art – Public murals and artwork are throughout the downtown area. Santa Cruz also hosts a First Friday Art tour spotlighting local artist. The Museum of Art & History is also located downtown and exhibits contemporary art and is family friendly.
6. History. In addition to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Historium and the Museum of Art & History, you can also visit the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park Visitor Center and Santa Cruz Surfing. The Santa Cruz Mission features the only building left of the 12th California Mission, Misión la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz, which was founded by the Franciscans in 1791. The historic building offers one of the best views of the town. The Santa Cruz Surfing chronicles over 125 years of local surfing history that begins when three Hawaiian princes surfed the waves off of Santa Cruz in July of 1885, earning Santa Cruz the title as the mainland’s birthplace of surfing.
7. Explore Nature at the Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the Sanctuary Exploration Center. The Natural Bridges State Park offers a perfect place to explore ocean life in the tide pools. It is also an ideal location to view shore birds, migrating whales, seals, and otters. Also, it is also California’s only state park butterfly preserve. Monarchs return every fall and spend the winters in the protected eucalyptus grove. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History allows visitors to explore forests, wetlands and grassland exhibits. Other cool things to do is watch honeybees at work and grind acorns. The Sanctuary Exploration Center is free and is located down at the beach across from the wharf. The interactive and multi-media exhibits allow visitors to learn about the marine environment and understand their role in protecting the underwater world.
8. The Water. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the Bay. Kayaking easily allows you to access kelp beds and cliffs where you can see otters, seals, and sea lions. Venture Quest on the Wharf rents kayaks and they include a wetsuit and a waterproof bag for your camera. Rent a stand-up paddleboard from Covewater and hit the water. They also offer classes and tours too. Santa Cruz Boat Rentals has motorized ocean skiffs, but they rent out quick, so get there early. Another option is to check out Santa Cruz Whale Watching if you want to take a scenic cruise to see whales, dolphins, and other marine life.
9. Surfing. Adjacent to the wharf is the entrance to Cowell’s Beach which is where wetsuits pioneer Jack O’Neil established his Santa Cruz Surf Shop in 1959. Cowell Beach is one of the best places for beginners to hit the waves. Cowell’s Surf Shop offers rentals and lessons. If you are a skilled surfer or you just want to watch great surfers head over to the small surf community of Pleasure Point. Visiting Pleasure Point was on our list to check out because we had recently watched Chasing Mavericks which is the movie that tells the true story of local surfer Jay Moriarty. We kicked back and relaxed on a bluff side bench and watched the talented surfers ride the gnarly surf breaks. We also visited Pleasure Point Park where there was a memorial for Moriarty.
10. The Dream Inn sits on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first surf shop, adjacent to the wharf and historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and is a short walk from local shops, restaurants, and Downtown Santa Cruz. You really can’t beat the location. Every chic room has a view. It is a dream.