What To Do in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a town located at the northern edge of Monterey Bay, about an hour south of San Jose. It is known primarily for its beach, surfing, and its university. It has plenty of places to stroll, relax and people watch. Here are some suggestions on things to do.
The Beach Boardwalk is home to an amusement area with more than 25 rides right on the edge of the waterfront. While you can enter the area for free, you pay for the rides. It has a 1911-era hand-carved carousel and a Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster built in 1924. While the park was closed by the time we arrived in the evening, we could see the long line of arcades and oceanside shops selling the normal fare of popcorn, funnel cakes, and saltwater taffy.
The Santa Cruz Pier
Located right near the beach boardwalk, the pier was built in 1914. It was (and still remains) the longest wooden pier in the country at 2,745 feet. It is one of the only remaining of the original five city’s piers. The pier has evolved from a steamship and fishing wharf to a walking destination. Although you can also drive down the pier, it is more interesting to walk along the number of seafood restaurants. During your walk, you can spot sea lions, harbor seals, and even an occasional elephant seal lounging on some of the decks below the walkway.
West Cliff Drive
West Cliff drive is a pretty street that goes along a cliff. Stroll down the sidewalk that overlooks the beach, the pier, and the ocean. You might even see surfers catching the waves.
The Surfing Museum is located at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse which is along the cliff walk. It tells the history of surfing and especially the city’s own surfing culture from its birth in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes who were attending school on the mainland commissioned a local wood sculptor to craft 180-pound boards made of redwood, through the sport’s growth in the 1930s (with the formation of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club) to the present.
Santa Cruz’s main street is lined with stores and restaurants.
University of California Santa Cruz
The pretty, very spread-out campus is nestled among groves of redwoods and overlooks Monterey Bay.
Natural Bridges State Park
The park overlooks a beautifully rugged coastline and a sea stack in which a hole has been eroded and atop hundreds of seabirds nest.
Swift Street Courtyard
A number of old warehouses are in an area that is more popularly known as Surf City. It has been converted into a lively home for several wineries, breweries, and casual restaurants.
Santa Cruz Wineries
The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to dozens of wineries. Unfortunately, many of our favorites had tasting rooms that were either still closed or were open greatly reduced hours due to the pandemic. Call ahead to find out opening hours and if you need a reservation. On this trip, we were able to find a couple of open tasting rooms.
- Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard produces wines from native French varietals. It is also home to its sister label Quinta Cruz, which produces grapes from Spanish and Portuguese varietals. They source their grapes primarily from local vineyards in Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, and Santa Lucia Highland, with a few of the Portuguese varietals from Lodi and the Sierra foothills. We tried a big, savory, dark-fruited 2014 Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir and a big, dark, tannin 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. Our Iberian tasting was more varied. The 2020 Arinto had a pleasantly crisp, citrus, and green apple taste. The interesting 2017 Touriga was floral yet earthy. The 2018 Graciano was smokey and savory. We ended with two classic port varietals. The 2010 Rabelo (Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao) had a fruity nose and a somewhat sweet, fruity palette. The second was a fortified Tawny made from the same grapes.
- MJA Vineyards produces a range of whites and reds from grapes sourced through central California. We focused exclusively on its reds. The 2016 DaVine Cellars Pinot Noir was very fruity-forward. The Hollister-sourced 2019 Sangiovese was very earthy. The 2012 Tempranillo (Amador County) was savory. We finished with three Cabernet Sauvignons sourced from different Napa and Sonoma Valley appellations which MJA labels as Serene Cellars Cabernet Sauvignons: a 2016 from Alexander Valley, a 2011 from Calistoga and our favorite, a big, complex, nicely balanced 2016 from Atlas Peak. While expensive ($125), it was lovely.
Santa Cruz Restaurants
We had better luck with Santa Cruz’s wineries than we did with its restaurants or at least the two we chose.
- Mozaic is a downtown Greek restaurant where the saganaki and hummus were both satisfactory. The nondescript gyros sandwich was loaded with surprisingly thick slices of the beef and lamb kofta mixture but had little taste.
- Our inn recommended Riva’s Fish House despite its being on the wharf. We should have followed our instincts and passed. The wine list forced Tom to get a beer instead of wine (a nice, Firestone Brewing Luponic Distraction IPA). The dinner selection was larger and more interesting, but the execution was lacking. The steamed white wine garlic broth for the steamed mussels had virtually no taste. Somewhat better (but not great) was a casserole of scallops and shrimp with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers in a spicy, chipotle butter sauce.
Santa Cruz Lodging
We were much more pleased with our room at the 1888 vintage WestCliff Inn, at the base of the above-discussed West Cliff Drive. As is all Four Sisters Inns, this is a beautiful place. This old mansion was turned into a B&B. It is located a short walk from the pier and has a beautiful view from the balcony of the waterfront and beach. Happy hour consisted of a plate of cheese, crackers, nuts and a cookie, and some OK wine. Our breakfast consisted of a hot dish (blueberry French toast) and a bagel, plus fruit, yogurt, and granola. Due to Covid regulations, they delivered the food to your room. The room had bathrobes, a refrigerator, a Keurig machine, a fireplace, and a large TV. You also had 24-hour access to coffee and tea downstairs. The place does not have an elevator if that is an issue. As with most Four Sisters properties, it was expensive but nice. The only disadvantage is that the person above us started moving about at 5:40 AM and you could hear every footstep. We could also hear the person moving in the next
And if you go to Santa Cruz, Don’t Miss Felton
Felton is a small mountain town near Santa Cruz that is noted primarily for its covered bridge, a large redwood structure, totally unlike the smaller, quaint bridges of Vermont, it is made of redwood and is claimed to be one of the tallest in the country.
Henry Cowell Redwood State Park
This pretty park is also in Felton. It has steep paths that lead through a rather small grove. While a pleasant walk, the trees are less mature and less impressive than those in the neighboring Big Basin State Park (most of which is still closed due to fires) MUCH LESS Muir Woods.
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