Exploring Santa Cruz California

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, its surfing, and its university. It has plenty of places to stroll, relax and people watch.

  • 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.

Santa Cruz boardwalk merry go roundSanta CRuz boardwalk sign

  • The Santa Cruz pier is right near the beach boardwalk. It was built in 1914 and, was and (and still remains) the longest wooden pier in the country at 2,745 feet. It is one of the only remaining of five of the 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 and to spot the sea lions, harbor seals, and even the occasional elephant seal lounging on some of the decks below the walkway.

Sea lions on boardwalk

  • West Cliff Drive is a pretty street along a cliff. Stroll down the sidewalk that overlooks the beach, the pier, and the ocean.

20210810_174519Surfers waiting to catch the wave

  • Surfing Museum is in the Pigeon Point Lighthouse that 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.

Light House

  • Pacific Avenue is the main street which is lined with stores and restaurants.
  • University of California Santa Cruz is a pretty, very spread-out campus that is nestled among groves of redwoods and overlooks Monterey Bay.
  • Natural Bridges State 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 is more popularly known as Surf City. It has a number of old warehouses that have 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 Quinta Cruz winery, 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, tanniny 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. Our Iberian tasting was more varied, beginning with a pleasantly crisp, citrus and green apple taste of its 2020 Arinto, through an interestingly floral yet earthy 2017 Touriga, a smokey and savory 2018 Graciano, and two made from classic port varietals—tanniny Tinta Roziz, earthy Touriga Nacional and more fruity Touriga Franca grapes. The first, a 2010 Rabelo, has a fruity nose and a somewhat sweet, fruity palette. The second, 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 reds, beginning with a very fruity-forward 2016 DaVine Cellars Pinot Noir, a very earthy Hollister-sourced 2019 Sangiovese, a savory 2012 Tempranillo (Amador County) and 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. Expensive ($125) but 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 The 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. For happy hour, we were given a plate of cheese, crackers, nuts and a cookie, and some OK wine. Our breakfast consisted of a hot dish (blueberry French toast) and 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.

Felton covered bridge

  • Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, also in Felton, is a pretty park with 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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