Santa Cruz’ Small Town Charm

by Matt Baume

Santa Cruz isn’t small ­– it’s California that got big.

The roller coaster at Santa Cruz’ famous boardwalk

The coastal nook to the south is like an alternate version of San Francisco that somehow managed to stay cozy while other towns grew into cities. Instead of skyscrapers, Great Highways, and hippies, they have campgrounds, a boardwalk, and even more hippies.

It’s also highly affordable (also known as “cheap”), so extended trips are tempting. Stunning sunsets, spunky UC students, and a smorgasbord of surfer-magnet beaches are just a short drive down Highway 1, or Highway 17, but watch out for traffic.

You could even go car-free by taking Caltrain to San Jose, then transferring to the Santa Cruz Metro 17 line. It’s a bike-friendly town, so unless you’re toting a family or heading to one of the hilly state parks nearby, you won’t miss fossil fuels. Stop in at Santa Cruz Bike Tours to get the lay of the land, or Electric Sierra Cycles to pick out a sweet pair of wheels. And Family Cycling Center knows their audience: they boast a massive assortment of beach cruisers.

Make the beaches your first stop. And your second. And third, fourth, and fifth. It’s easy to get hooked. You might start with Seabright, near the tourist-magnet Boardwalk, then stop for a drink at the Seabright Brewery.

From there, branch out to West Cliff Drive, a two-mile beach stretch that’s perfect for walking, biking, dogs, and wheelchairs. You’ll wind up at Natural Bridges, a beach that doubles as a butterfly sanctuary.

Santa Cruz boardwalk temptations include salt-water taffy and twinks, er, deep-fried Twinkies!

Camping out? New Brighton Beach has tidy bathrooms and showers, but book well in advance. Pleasure Point is great for surfing, and you might catch a glimpse of a dolphin at New Brighton Beach or some nudity at Panther Beach.

There’s no more romantic sight than a Santa Cruz sunset, but you need to eat sometime. Prime date spots include Chocolate, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that specializes in, you guessed it, chocolate. Soif Wine Bar is friendly and well-stocked, and the dim lighting of Cafe Limelight make it a perfect place to steal a kiss.

Head downtown for a folksy shopping trip. Antique fairs happen every second Sunday, and a Farmers’ Market pops up on Wednesdays. From March to September, shops all over town hold sidewalk sales on the last weekend of the month. And keep your eye out for special discounts every Tuesday, from $2 tacos at Acapulco Restaurant and Bar to a free mini-vibrator when you spend more than $25 at Pure Pleasure.

And for you literary types, hit the bookshops along Pacific Ave, from neighborhood fixture Logos Books and Records to the academic rigor of Literary Guillotine. Altantis Fantasy World and Comicopolis boast comics galore, and Bookshop Santa Cruz offers staff recommendations that are always spot-on — and one of the nicest public restrooms in town.

Surfer statue and scenic flora

For gay nightlife, there isn’t much.  The Mad House Bar & Lounge opened about a year and a half ago and hosts two dance clubs weekly, The Rainbow Room and Lollipop. While the club caters to a mixed crowd, it attracts many of the local queer women (update, from Go Girls).

Elsewhere, gays and straights mingle together in the same venues. (Shocking.) Ambitious drinkers will love 99 Bottles, where you’ll get a free t-shirt once you’ve ordered each of the bar’s 99 varieties of beer. Meet some college kids on the dance floor at Blue Lagoon, and hunker down for some drunken Jenga or Scrabble at The Poet and the Patriot.

As you can see, it’s easy to assemble a jam-packed agenda for a Santa Cruz trip. And we didn’t even have time to mention the wacky midnight movies at the Delmar Theatre, serene picnicking at the botanical garden at University of California Santa Cruz, disc golf games at DeLavenga Park, and the kid-friendly tidepool touch-tank at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Or how about the annual Musical Saw Festival in nearby Felton? Okay, maybe that one has limited appeal. But the No Attitudes Beach Volleyball tournament and Polynesian Festival, also in August, are sure to be crowd pleasers.

In fact, for a town as “little” as Santa Cruz, there’s tons to see and do. It’s enough to make you feel like San Francisco’s the younger sibling after all.

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