Travel: Santa Cruz Revisited

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The Boardwalk still beckons our inner child, but this laid-back beach town is perfect for grown-up pursuits as well. Come rediscover why Santa Cruz is a sublime spot to go coastal.

As teenagers, we loved the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The rickety-rackety, herky-jerky thrills of its Giant Dipper and the surrounding rides, arcade stalls and kitschy shops represented a micro-Disneyland of sorts, with an added edge of enticing, oceanside seediness. It wasn’t squeaky clean or the happiest place on Earth, but it was cool, as long as Mom and Dad didn’t get in our way. Now that we are the adults, however, can the thrill of visiting Santa Cruz be recaptured? What’s there to do beyond the Boardwalk?

Hang on tightly because you’re in for a fun ride: Santa Cruz is a fabulous place for those who want more from a vacation than cheap thrills on a roller coaster and lots of saltwater taffy. From dawn to dusk&emdash;or more accurately, considering this is laid-back Santa Cruz we are talking about, from well past dawn to well past dusk&emdash;possibilities too many to mention greet you in this historic seaside destination. From brunch at Zachary’s to a nightcap at the exquisitely romantic Red, you are in for a lovely day or, better yet, several of them. When my wife and I recently left Santa Cruz after a long weekend, we knew we’d have to return soon for more exploration.

When you go, be sure to pack a pair of comfortable walking shoes and a hearty appetite. Santa Cruz is a pedestrian’s paradise and the big meals practically demand compensatory exercise, although there are a few attractions that require an automobile’s assist.

Start Your Day

Plan on a three-hour drive from Sacramento via the most direct route, from Interstate 80 to Interstate 680, then Highway 17 over the coastal mountain range to Santa Cruz. Going through San Francisco to southbound Highway 1 takes longer and is more scenic, but that option was unavailable to us in mid-May due to rock slides between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay.

Late breakfasts on the weekends seem to be the rule, not the exception, perhaps due to a sleepy beach ambiance and to the late-awakening students of UC Santa Cruz, home of the Banana Slugs and, scattered on a hill north of town, one of the most forested campuses you’ll find anywhere. Two popular morning hangouts, Walnut Avenue Cafe and Zachary’s Restaurant, are within the four-by-eight-block downtown area that includes the Pacific Garden Mall and constitutes Santa Cruz’s central business district. Walnut Avenue Cafe, just off bustling Pacific Avenue, is a slightly more upscale choice with sidewalk seating.

Locals will tell you that Zachary’s, at 819 Pacific Ave., is as much an experience as it is a good place to eat. You can’t get more Santa Cruz than Zachary’s, says Diana Newcomb, who grew up in Sacramento, attended UCSC and never left town. It’s got a wood floor, slightly grungy. Hippy-style. You’re going to be waited on by people with their bellies exposed.

Brion Sprinsock, who runs the bed-and-breakfast Adobe on Green Street, praises the restaurant’s huge omelettes, home fries and pancakes, and recommends the coffee cake, which changes daily. For many locals, Sunday breakfast at Zachary’s is going to church, he says.

Once you have stuffed your stomachs and mellowed to the town’s relaxed pace, stretch your legs with an orientation stroll along Pacific Avenue. Scout out possibilities for later, such as the Gelatomania Cafe (in the Cooper House at the corner of Church Street) for a cone of cold comfort and the nearby Santa Cruz Cafe & Roasting Company, where on-the-spot coffee concoctions are brewed in dispensers labeled Wild Thing, Green Eggs & Ham and Captain Underpants. Also check out the energetic El Palomar Taco Bar, which Sprinsock describes as fun, fast and tasty, behind the roasting company.

Browsing doesn’t get much better than at Book Shop Santa Cruz, at 1520 Pacific Ave. Step in anytime between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. and you are likely to find something worth reading, and something about it being a locally owned bookstore likely will have an appeal, too. In fact, locally owned shops seem to thrive here, alongside the occasional Borders or Gap.

A quick reconnaissance in the New Leaf gourmet health food store might inspire a beach picnic. While there, grab the latest copy of Good Times, a free newspaper that gives the scoop on local entertainment and has counter-culture stories in the spirit of Sacramento News & Review. Among many other things, the weekly will tell you what’s playing at the two downtown indie theaters, the Nickelodeon and the authentically art deco Del Mar, the latter of which has midnight screenings on Fridays and Saturdays.

Late mornings are a good time to venture out a bit, so consider returning to your vehicle for a short tour of Greater Santa Cruz.

Out and About

Soquel Avenue is one of three roads that head east from the downtown area and pass over bridges to a part of town that is mostly residential. The Buttery, a bustling bakery at No. 704, sells artisan breads and a wide selection of baked goods, plus sandwiches. Check out its cute outdoor area. Four blocks farther east, Black China Cafe beckons with gazpacho, savory bread pudding and plates of mixed greens. Its vegan cakes, sold for $5 a slice in the cafe (but which can be had for $3.25 at New Leaf; chalk it up to Black China’s Zenlike atmosphere), will sweeten you silly if you don’t show a little restraint. It’s tucked behind an eclectic home dcor boutique, one of several in the area.

Across the street, at 1116 Soquel Ave., Malabar receives raves from locals for its generous portions and low prices. This simple Sri Lankan restaurant outdoes itself with gado gado, a plate of steamed vegetables whose peanut sauce is yummy yummy.

By now, your feet should be itching to walk on one of Santa Cruz’s  many beaches. From Soquel, turn right on Seabright Avenue and make your way past Hart’s Fabrics&emdash;a fabulous find for those with a fabric fetish&emdash;to Seabright Beach, part of Twin Lakes State Beach. Take off your shoes and tread gingerly over the bark- and stick-infested outer sands to the smoother pebbles near the waves. Wander to the right a few hundred feet to Twell Park, where you can gaze across San Lorenzo River to one of the West Coast’s most distinctive wharfs and, before it, the Boardwalk. Hear the Giant Dipper riders’ screams, even from this fair distance.

Speaking of screaming, you will appreciate that toes rhymes with froze if you dip your little wigglies into the ocean. I almost expected to see ice cubes bobbing in the surf on that windy afternoon in May, as my outermost extremities threatened to turn shades of a dark color usually associated with Sacramento basketball fanatics.

Once your feet are dry and sand-free, if not yet toasty, reshoe yourself and drive inland a few blocks to Murray Street, turn right and head farther east to Lake Avenue, where another right turn leads you by the marina district. Kayak rental shacks and more restaurants are between you and the sailboats, some of which participate in Wednesday evening races from April to October. (For details, visit santacruzharbor.org.) Around the bend on East Cliff Drive, you might, depending on the time of day, encounter a white parked truck that sells permits for $5, allowing you to park anywhere along the beach from Second to 38th avenues.

For one last look at the ocean, along what is the best seaside hike in town, return back across the San Lorenzo River and finagle your way&emdash;one-way and oddly angled streets are bound to be temporarily discouraging&emdash;toward Lighthouse Field State Beach, south of downtown by a mile. Assuming you find a spot, park your car and walk as far as you can on the pedestrian and bicycle path that runs parallel to West Cliff Drive. Initially, you and many other onlookers are bound to see surfers braving the rocky waters below.
Then the animal kingdom takes over: first, as you pass the no-surprise-why-it’s-called Seal Rock and then, on a small but spirited beach where, starting daily at 4 p.m., owners can let their dogs run rampant. Decide for yourself whether the surfers, seals or frolicking canines are more entertaining.

Former Sacramentan Newcomb, who since her UC Santa Cruz days has added a husband and two daughters to her menagerie, enjoys family trips to Natural Bridges State Beach and its collection of tide pools. Hearty hikers can reach there in an hour from Lighthouse Field State Beach. If you manage to do so, or even if you make it only part way, no doubt you are ready for a drink and, later, dinner.

Make an Evening of It

As you return to downtown, keep a sharp eye out for blue-poled parking meters. For whatever reason, they are a far better deal than their orange-poled brethren. Specifically and rather oddly, the blue meters have a 12-hour limit and for a mere quarter grant 100 minutes of ticket-free parking, whereas orange meters impose a two-hour limit and demand 25 cents for every 60 minutes. Why? Hey, this is Santa Cruz and, as you knew coming in, it can be quirky. Find a bundle of blue parking meters near the intersection of Center and Union streets.

If, like me, you think pre-dinner drinks represent one of the absolute joys of traveling, you have three exceptional options in downtown Santa Cruz. Diana Newcomb and her husband, Joe Netro, are partial to Red Restaurant, at the corner of Cedar and Locust streets (and very near those precious blue-poled parking meters). On the second floor of what used to be the Santa Cruz Hotel, patrons sink into sofas by a flickering fire and sip convivial beverages in a room warmed by dark woods and thick, crimson upholstery. Red is the kind of place that envelopes you, reports B&B innkeeper Sprinsock. You can disappear into this place for hours and forget that the outside world exists. Service can take awhile, so don’t go there ready to eat immediately.

Wine enthusiasts may prefer the rather new and trendy Soif Wine Bar, at 105 Walnut Ave. Its sophisticated menu suggests a complementary wine for each entre, and appetizers include cheese plates and toasted Marcona almonds. Across the street, at 99 Bottles of Beer, you will find a warm and cozy bar that refreshingly is not burdened with background music (Thursdays excepted). Happy hours (extended until closing on Thursdays) are delirious occasions pricewise, with draught beers discounted $1 for pints and $3 for pitchers. On Wednesday nights, 99 Bottles conducts a spirited trivia contest.

Around the corner from Red, at 910 Cedar St., Gabriella Cafe is another romantic escape. The Mission Revival building boasts an especially intimate atmosphere, including a private patio, and hosts jazz artists on Friday nights after 6:30. At the time of our visit, Gabriella’s spring menu included pasta, steak, seafood and lamb chops, and boasted organic and seasonal ingredients.

My wife and I were very impressed with Cafe La Vie at 429 Front St. Interested in a healthful meal? Nowhere in town is better than this gem, where the fresh juices, entres and desserts aren’t the only all-organic offerings&emdash;so are the alcoholic beverages. Santa Cruz is a raw-foodists’ and vegetarians’ paradise, and eating at Cafe La Vie celebrates that culture in the best way possible, with innovative food and friendly service. We adored the pasta-less vegetable lasagna (accompanied by a massive side Caesar salad with macadamia cheese) and the raw, velvety chocolate mousse torte with bananas on a Brazil-nut crust.
More conventional palatewise, but profoundly left-of-center in the political realm, is Chocolate, at 1522 Pacific Ave. The openly liberal eatery was buzzing with chocoholics late the Saturday night we strolled by.

Somewhat more restrained in terms of donkeys and elephants, Saturn Cafe is another popular late-night-munchies destination. Saturn dominates the corner of Laurel and Pacific streets with an extensive all-vegetarian menu of diner grub (burgers, fries) that includes a killer chocolate sundae.

The town’s hot music club for three decades has been the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, downtown at 320 Cedar St. Mondays and Thursdays are its signature nights; for a complete schedule, visit kuumbwajazz.org. In terms of local bands, Newcomb says Beatles-inspired White Album always plays before packed houses.

Some Santa Cruz attractions are seasonal. Festivals of all manner abound in the region, including the world-renowned Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Aug. 1–13; Shakespeare Santa Cruz, through Aug. 27; and the Greek Culture and Food Festival, Sept. 5–7. Throughout the summer, free concerts of 1960s, ’70s and ’80s music are held Friday evenings on the Boardwalk. October includes two Santa Cruz signatures: the Open Studios Art Tour, always the first three weekends of the month; and Halloween, where downtown puts its freak on starting midafternoon. The Kayak Surf Festival in late March claims to be the largest of its kind.

So, yes, you can find joy again in Santa Cruz, even as an adult. But your inner child might be tugging at you to once again ride the Giant Dipper, an imposing wooden structure that since 1924 has rattled more than 40 million riders and whose 65-foot initial drop is not just a quaint experience, but a tantalizingly terrifying one.

My wife and I could not resist its scream-inducing ups and downs, and I imagine next time we’re aboard, she’ll open her eyes.

-Somewhere To Stay

If your trip to Santa Cruz is a grown-up getaway and you are agreeable to paying $150 per night, you can do no better than Adobe on Green Street.

Privacy, simplicity and thoughtfulness are the hallmarks of this bed-and-breakfast, which Brion Sprinsock and his wife purchased a year ago. Their goal was to create an oasis in the middle of the city, and they have succeeded.

A short walk from downtown on a steep hill near Mission Santa Cruz, Adobe is set on a half-acre, far back from a quiet residential street, and is peacefulness personified. Outside are lush tropical gardens, inviting chairs, bistro and picnic tables and gurgling fountains. Inside, uncluttered common rooms are warmed by natural light pouring in from ample windows. Guests are invited to make some tea, heat up a snack or cook a meal in the fully equipped kitchen, or simply help themselves to sparkling drinks and waters in the fridge. Comfortable seating surrounds a fireplace in the living room, where you can curl up with a chunky throw and peruse the latest editions of Architectural Digest, The New Yorker, Forbes and the like.

All four guest rooms in this rambling 1948 adobe are equipped with televisions and DVD players; choose from a selection of well-reviewed and popular films from the 1960s onward. Compact-disc players, which double as radios and triple as alarm clocks, can be employed to play CDs of indie-folk music that Sprinsock has burned to enhance the soothing atmosphere. Our cozy bedroom had tall windows looking out on the garden and a private entrance; our bathroom boasted gorgeous hand-painted tiles, thick cotton towels and some whimsy: a rubber ducky in the bathtub.

Floors throughout the B&B are dark wood or terra-cotta tiles, walls are adobe-thick and the dcor is masculine and warm, with lots of iron fixtures. The surrounding gardens beckon guests to enjoy breakfast outside, anytime from 8 to 11 a.m. We helped ourselves to bagels and pastries, granola, steaming oatmeal from a pot in the kitchen, juice, gourmet coffee and a selection of teas. Everything here is self-service, actually; you are unlikely to see Sprinsock during your stay, his way of preserving guests’ privacy. At times, we felt we had the home and gardens to ourselves.

Adobe on Green Street is at 103 Green St., near the intersection of Highway 1 and Chestnut Street. For more information, visit adobeongreen.com or phone (831) 469-9866.