Play: 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 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. Find arcade games, food booths and rides in a prime area on the Main Beach. We found our thrills on the 100+ year old Giant Dipper roller coaster. And if you really want to get in the spirit of things, try the cotton candy and shaved ice.
Nearby, the recently opened Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center has a variety of exhibits examining marine life and the issues impacting the sanctuary
It’s easy to walk between downtown and 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. 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.
Vinocruz is a fun tasting room downtown where you can try delicious wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Find a selection of over 150 wines from more than 60 wineries (all for sale). Tasting flights change weekly.
Dine: 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 afterwards. Many nights there’s live music and comedy.
Downtown, we found the most idyllic place for lunch – the beautiful garden patio at Laílí. This Mediterranean and Afghan inspired restaurant infuses spices from the Silk Road in their food with delicious results. We loved the pumpkin boranee with garlic, qurut yogurt and mint, the spinach bolani and the maush awa soup 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. The food at Laílí is distinctive; the flavors are rich and the ambiance is inviting.
Enjoy 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, the manila clams or seared salmon. If you need a pork-fix, try the braised pork belly with kale and corn pudding. Specialty cocktails and wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains are featured. And when you’re done, take the elevator home.
OTHER ESSENTIALS: Santa Cruz Visitors Council; Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce; City of Santa Cruz
PATTY BURNESS can be found on Twitter at @pattygb