I routinely sidestep taxis, crosstown buses and delivery bicyclists in New York. But on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, you must learn to dodge wetsuit-clad men racing down the street with longboards. When word of five-foot swells starts to circulate in town, surfers materialize, shed their street clothes and hurtle the fences surrounding the cliffs at Steamer Lane.
If you were directing a buddy movie about two over the hill surfers starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, you would film in Santa Cruz, California. It’s a quintessential West Coast beach town with breath-stopping Pacific vistas, an historic boardwalk, and enough Norcal funk to make you want to quit your day job and join the skateboarders.
Start your day like the locals do and head out to West Cliff for a walk along the ocean. You can begin or end at Natural Bridges State Park, featuring a beautiful beach and the Monarch Butterfly Boardwalk. Approximately 100,000 of the winged insects migrate to the park’s eucalyptus grove each year, arriving in October and departing in February. Call before visiting for a current population estimate.
Did anyone say funnel cake? Next stop is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, continuously operated for over 100 years. There are thrill rides and tame kiddy fare, plus a casino where you can practice, practice, practice until you have perfected your mad skeet ball skills. Don’t skip the Giant Dipper, a classic wooden roller coaster with panoramic Pacific views (if you keep your eyes open!), and the 1911 Looff Carousel. Heard the expression grabbing the brass ring? The reference is to old-timey carousels with an arm that holds metal rings you try to grab while going round and round and riding up and down. One or two of the rings would be brass, entitling the lucky rider to a prize, usually a free spin. In Santa Cruz, they restored and maintain the arm; riders who are dexterous enough to grab a ring, try to toss it into a giant clown’s mouth, lending a bit of excitement and danger to what’s normally a snooze cruise.
The Santa Cruz Wharf is your next strolling stop. You’ll wonder why as you sidestep the families gathered along the edges fishing for seasonal catch like halibut, perch and rockfish. Non-descript souvenir shops and restaurants dot the wharf. My daughter was curious as we walked the million mile march. “Where are we going?” “To see the sea lions.” She was not convinced and even tried to persuade me that the distant barking we heard was piped through the loudspeakers. I spotted one frolicking off the wharf and pointed it out to her. A young girl overheard me and said “Go over to the other side – there’s a ton of them!” Literally. Piled on an underdeck were dozens of them co-sleeping and jockeying for a spot in the warm California sun.
Watching and listening to the sea lions gets a bit creepy after awhile and since we’d deflected the Boardwalk’s deep-fried Twinkies and corn dogs on a stick, it was time for a bite. If you’re patient, join the long queue at The Picnic Basket, located at the intersection of the wharf and Beach Street. It features simple meals made grand because of the quality of the locally-sourced ingredients. The menu changes regularly. Recent offerings included a porchetta sandwich with Meyer lemon, arugula, and whole grain mustard or roasted sunchokes from Little Organic Farm, with sesame kale, dried plums, and fromage blanc. If you’ve got a bit more energy, head east from the beach onto Pacific Avenue and check out El Palomar. The restaurant is split in two, with a very pretty dining room in front and a casual taco cantina out back, so you can dine as your mood dictates. I enjoyed their “award-winning” burrito de camarones. It was huge and delicious, basically my only criteria for judging Mexican food.
Before departing, we visited a curbside psychic (it’s Cali, baby), watched some intense beach volleyball games, and took one more shot at the brass ring. Life actually is a carnival in Santa Cruz, believe it or not.