traveling between the forested campus, the surfer-packed beaches, and the cheesy old boardwalk. This town will always have a special place in my heart (which my friends well understand, as I force them to go on a driving tour of all my old houses whenever we’re in town). The hippie beach destination has changed a lot since I was going to school there (it’s gone pretty upscale), but there still are plenty of awesome spots to hit if you want a beachy weekend away from the city.
There are a number of great beaches in Santa Cruz, but Seabright is my favorite. It gets just as packed as the rest of them, but it feels less touristy – in part because its bordering neighborhoods are so cute you want to quit everything and move to a beach bungalow ASAP. When I’m in town, my routine includes grabbing a burrito from Taqueria Vallarta on nearby Soquel Ave., getting beers from next-door Shopper’s Corner, and hightailing it to a sandy spot on this long, flat beach.
This is one of those things you’ve gotta do at least once. Park up by Seabright Beach and walk across the railroad tracks, then down into the labyrinth of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk rides. If you’ve seen The Lost Boys, you’ll want to hit the Giant Dipper, which had a cameo in the movie. Grab one of those chocolate-dipped frozen banana doohickeys too while you’re at it. They’re awesome. The boardwalk ends at the Wharf, which is loaded with local fishermen and touristy restaurants (which can actually be kinda fun for ocean gazing on cooler Santa Cruz afternoons).
There’s nothing like spending a sunny afternoon ogling seals and surfers at this iconic Santa Cruz spot. But don’t just station yourself here – walk the length of West Cliff Drive away from town to get a
sense of all the smaller beaches tucked along the way. At the far end of the winding sidewalk is Natural Bridges, home to picturesque rocks and monarch butterflies.
I miss the days when the tasting room for this local winery was located up in the hills of Bonny Doon, but the good thing about Bonny Doon Vineyard's current location is it’s just off Highway 1 (behind the Safeway as you drive into town from the north). The wines here are amazing – especially the Le Cigare Volant, or flying cigar. Flying things, particularly of the saucer variety, are part of a larger design theme for the winery, which has spaceship-looking sections of the tasting room and restaurant. The whole place feels very Santa Cruz (in the good oddball way), and the food served here is just as good as the wine. [UPDATE: Sadly the tasting room at Bonny Doon has closed for now. See the comments section below for alternative wineries to visit in the area from locals]
Santa Cruz isn’t lacking in spots to take a soak, but Well Within is one of my favorites. For a mere $15 a person you can rent a private room with hot tub, sauna, and view of the Japanese gardens for 50 minutes. It really doesn’t get better than this. Well Within is also centrally located downtown. If all the tubs are booked, Kiva Retreat House is a good alternative, with community and private tubs to get all wrinkly and relaxed in.
I usually crash at one of the cheesy hotels along Beach St., that way I’m walking distance to downtown and the boardwalk (some of the hotels even have swimming pools, to add to the vacation feel). There’s no luxury here (the walls can be paper thin), but I’ve never felt like putting my money into a hotel when there are so many more fun ways to spend your cash in Santa Cruz.
A classic Santa Cruz watering hole. The Poet & the Patriot is a haven for sports and darts that’s generally frequented by a lively mix of college kids and locals. A nice dark place to grab a pint and chat up your neighbors on the next barstools.
This place gets packed for its food, booze, and ambience. The menu is good and very reasonably priced, and the wine and cocktail lists are hearty. (If you need some stronger cocktails, there’s also Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room down the street.) But I love the 515 for its cozy, homey feel. The two-story place has an outdoor deck with heat lamps and plenty of romantic nooks for snuggling into both your meal and your date (I was once seated in a side room where the waiters actually closed the curtains around me and my date).
My old standbys are Zachary’s (if you’re looking for a solid hangover-saving mess of tofu scramble, pancakes, and egg dishes) and The Bagelry (hearty homemade spreads and yummy bagels, and an outdoor courtyard). They’re located so close to one another that if the line’s too long at one, you can always hit the other.
Regardless of whether you enter the Mystery Spot with an open mind, you’ll likely leave wanting to slap one of its yellow stickers on your bumper. The woodsy enclave is an odd bag of tricks (optical illusions) worth the detour if you have an extra hour or so to kill on your way to or from Santa Cruz. I took the tour sober and couldn’t explain why gravity wasn’t behaving normally here. Good times.