Santa Cruz should be your next escape. The laid-back vibe makes it the ideal place to relax. Hit the waves with the surfers, the Boardwalk with the fun-seekers, or be in town with the locals and discover everything from casual to upscale.
Santa Cruz is one of those locales where any time of the year is a good time to visit. It’s less than two hours from San Francisco — either along the coast on Highway 1 or through the Santa Cruz Mountains via Highway 17. Here’s what we discovered.
You can’t beat beachfront in Santa Cruz, and the Dream Inn sits right on Cowell Beach. From our top-floor room, we lounged on the balcony (every room has one) and took in the view — across the Monterey Bay, up and down the Boardwalk, and farther north along the coast. The property offers comfortable rooms, modern interiors, and friendly service (844-510-1746, dreaminnsantacruz.com).
With equally stunning views, the Sea & Sand Inn is just up the beach. This property is smaller and more intimate, and some rooms have Jacuzzis for two. Enjoy complimentary continental breakfast in the morning; and most afternoons from 5–7 p.m. guests have wine and cheese on one of the landscaped patios (831-427-3400, seaandsandinn.com).
Downtown, find Hotel Paradox, a contemporary boutique hotel. The front desk is made from a giant redwood, coffee tables from redwood stumps, and colors reminiscent of the woods. At night, cozy up next to fire pits by the pool (831-425-7100, hotelparadox.com).
PLAY & SHOP
Nicknamed “Surf City,” mainland surfing began in Santa Cruz. In 1885, three Hawaiian princes vacationed here: They took to the waves, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today it’s a Mecca for young and old — find your wave and you’re golden. To watch the action up-close, Steamer Lane is a renowned surfing spot. It’s right by the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (dedicated to a young boy who drowned while surfing). The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (831-420-6289, santacruzsurfingmuseum.org) is here and celebrates 100 years of surfing history in the city. For outdoors enthusiasts, find other sports like kayaking, stand-up paddle surfing, sailing, cycling, beach volleyball, and hiking.
With more than 35 rides and attractions, the Beach Boardwalk has it all. Explore arcade games, food booths, and rides in a prime area on the Main Beach. And don’t forget the Giant Dipper roller coaster (opened in 1924). And if you really want to get in the spirit of things, try the cotton candy and shaved ice (831-423-5590, beachboardwalk.com).
Nearby, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center has a variety of exhibits examining marine life and the issues impacting the protected ecosystem (831-421-9993, montereybay.noaa.gov/vc/sec/welcome.html).
It’s easy to walk downtown from the beach, but definitely more fun to take the Trolley, which runs daily. In the center of town, visit The Museum of Art & History, known for its contemporary art and depiction of local history (831-429-1964, santacruzmah.org). The city of Santa Cruz also sponsors public art as well as a number of self-guided historical walking tours.
Depending upon the time of year, the pools at both the Dream Inn and the Hotel Paradox (with cabanas) offer relaxing places to people-watch and unwind.
Don’t miss the original O’Neill Surf Shop at the entrance to Cowell Beach, now an official California Point of Historical Interest. Jack O’Neill, the wetsuit pioneer, opened the shop in 1959 (831-459-9230, oneill.com).
Downtown, find lots of unique shops around Pacific Avenue selling handcrafted jewelry, ceramics, books, art, and clothing. The True Olive Connection (831-458-6457, trueoliveconnection.com) is a family owned tasting room offering a collection of extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars from around the globe. And don’t forget the interesting gifts at the local museums.
As we drove into Santa Cruz, we stopped on the east side at the Crow’s Nest. A local favorite, the restaurant sits right on Twin Lakes State Beach next to the Santa Cruz Harbor. Outside dining is a must. Build your own omelet, sip a bloody Mary, and you’ve got the perfect brunch. The casual atmosphere, great views, friendly people, and delicious food make this spot one you’ll come back to. Join a game of beach volleyball afterward. Many nights there’s live music and comedy (831-476-4560, crowsnest-santacruz.com).
Downtown, the most idyllic place for lunch is on the lush garden patio at Laílí. This Mediterranean- and Afghan-inspired restaurant infuses spices from the Silk Road in its distinctive food. We loved the Kadoo boranee (butternut squash, garlic, qurut yogurt, and mint), the spinach bolani (crispy filled flatbread), and the maush-awa soup (three bean, braised lamb, qurut yogurt) to start. Both the lamb kabob and the garlic lime beef filet kabob were tender and juicy and served with saffron basmati rice and arugula (831-423-4545, lailirestaurant.com).
Try dinner beachside at Aquarius, the signature restaurant at the Dream Inn. You’ll be mesmerized by the views through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Seafood abounds and you can’t go wrong with the clam chowder, steamed manila clams or seared salmon. If you need a beef-fix, try the braised short rib with polenta. Specialty cocktails and wine from California are featured. And when you’re done, take the elevator home. (831-740-8138, dreaminnsantacruz.com/santa-cruz-restaurants/aquarius).
Santa Cruz Visitors Council: santacruzca.org
Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce: santacruzchamber.org
City of Santa Cruz: cityofsantacruz.com