The popular beach resort and college town of Santa Cruz (pop. 64,725) sits at the north end of Monterey Bay, a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, at the foot of a 3,000-foot-high ridge of mountains. It’s best known for its Boardwalk amusement park, which holds the oldest surviving wooden roller coaster on the West Coast, and for the large University of California campus in the redwoods above. The city was named by Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolà and shares the name Santa Cruz (“holy cross” in Spanish) with the ill-fated mission settlement begun here in 1777. Modern Santa Cruz was all but leveled by an earthquake in 1989 but has since recovered its stature as one of the more diverting stops on the California coast.
The downtown area lies a mile inland, so from Hwy-1 follow the many signs pointing visitors toward the wharf and the beach, where plentiful parking is available. Walk, rent a bike, or drive along the coastal Cliff Drive to the world’s first Surfing Museum (Thurs.-Tues. 10am-5pm July 4-Labor Day, Thurs.-Mon. noon-4pm Sept.-June, donation), which is packed with giant old redwood boards and newer high-tech cutters, as well as odds and ends tracing the development of West Coast surfing. Housed in an old lighthouse, it overlooks one of the state’s prime surfing spots, Steamer Lane, named for the steamships that once brought day-tripping San Franciscans to the wharf.
A large part of the Santa Cruz economy still depends upon visitors, and there are plenty of cafés, restaurants, and lodging options to choose from. Eating and drinking places congregate east of Hwy-1 along Front Street and Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, which has a number of engaging, somewhat countercultural book and record shops along with cafés like Zoccoli’s (1534 Pacific Ave., 831/423-1711), which has great soups and sandwiches. The best burgers, veggie burgers, and fries are a block west of Pacific at Jack’s Hamburgers (202 Lincoln St., 831/423-4421). More good veggie food can be had at the Saturn Café (145 Laurel St., 831/429-8505), while the stylish Soif (105 Walnut Ave., 831/423-2020) has fine wines and tasty tapas-like treats.
Motels line Hwy-1, and some nice-looking Victorian-era B&Bs stand atop Beach Hill, between the Boardwalk and downtown, where the Seaway Inn (176 W. Cliff Dr., 831/471-9004, $129 and up) is nice, clean, and reasonably priced. You can also avail yourself of the HI Santa Cruz Hostel (321 Main St., 831/423-8304, dorm beds $30 and up) in an immaculate 1870s cottage. Among the many nice B&Bs is the rustic The Babbling Brook Inn (1025 Laurel St., 831/427-2437 or 800/866-1131, $180 and up).
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The bay-front Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (831/423-5590, daily summer, weekends fall-spring, rides vary in cost, all-day ride pass around $30) should be your main stop. Besides the dozens of thrill rides and midway games, it boasts the art deco Cocoanut Grove ballroom and two rides that are such classics of the genre they’ve been listed as a National Historic Landmark. The biggest thrill is the Giant Dipper roller coaster ($7), open since 1924, a senior citizen compared to modern rides but still one of the top coasters in the country—the clattering, half-mile-long tracks make it seem far faster than the 55 mph maximum it reaches.
Near the roller coaster is the beautiful Charles Looff carousel ($5), one of only six left in the country, with 73 hand-carved wooden horses doing the same circuit they’ve followed since 1911; grab for the brass rings while listening to music pumped out by the 342-pipe organ, imported from Germany and over 100 years old.
Along with these and many other vintage arcade attractions, the amusement park also features a log flume ride, a sky ride, a two-story miniature-golf course installed inside the old bathhouse, plus a bowling alley and all the shooting galleries, laser tag, and virtual reality machines you could want. The Boardwalk has a concrete concourse but retains a great deal of charm and character.
In the hills above Santa Cruz, two miles north of Hwy-1, the Mystery Spot (465 Mystery Spot Rd., 831/423-8897, daily, $8 per person and $5 per car cash only) is one of those fortunate few tourist traps that actually get people to come back again.
Like similar places along the Pacific Coast, the Mystery Spot is a section of redwood forest where the usual laws of physics seem not to apply (trees grow in oddly contorted corkscrew shapes, and balls roll uphill). Among those who study vortexes and other odd geomantic places, the Mystery Spot is considered to be the real thing, but you don’t have to take it seriously to enjoy yourself.