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Famed for its twenty-nine miles of beaches, Santa Cruz lures visitors with surf, sun, and a Coney Island-esque beach boardwalk. Food wise, it leans very casual for settings, but the quality of food can be quite elevated. The weather is generally pleasant, and it’s a great place to tour on bikes.


Lodging

There is an ocean view from every guestroom at the Dream Inn ($169–$629), a beachfront high-rise that was originally built in the 1960s. After a full renovation circa 2020, the hotel reopened with a whimsical retro-surfer décor, which nods to the inn’s origins and Santa Cruz’s history as a surfing mecca. I haven’t seen the rooms, but the public spaces are very cute, and the **restaurant is good and has great views.

Just across the street from the Dream Inn, the West Cliff Inn ($195–$425) is a good choice for a quieter, more romantic getaway, in a historic Victorian mansion.

Chaminade Resort & Spa is the other ‘higher end’ hotel option that often comes up. While a bit corporate, it’s a pretty spot up in the hills. We haven’t tried the restaurant yet, looks like a good cocktail option with an ocean view.

Food

  • **Bad Animal (1011 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060) is a fun ‘concept’ location with a very well curated selected of used books, a wine store, and an ambitious restaurant. They’ve put a lot of effort into a small, locally sourced menu, serve natural and more obscure wines, dress the tables well.
  • *Big Basin Vineyards – Tasting Room & Wine Bar (525 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060) is right between the Boardwalk area and the sketchier part of downtown. It’s a bit of an Oasis for that neighborhood, but prices are very high for wine that is just okay.
  • **Copal opened in the summer of 2020, focused on Oaxacan cuisine, and in particular  moles. It’s a fairly fine dining experience for the area. Outdoor seating is limited and can be very loud (road traffic). Food is a little hit and miss, really depends on what you order.
  • *Crow’s Nest Restaurant (2218 E Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95062) at Twin Lakes State Beach is a casual dining option down near the harbor with a good outdoor patio overlooking the beach and boats. They have a daily happy hour with 50% off appetizers (3-6 pm). Quality of the food and drinks isn’t very good, but it’s a fun scene.
  • *El Jardin: a fairly run of the mill Mexican place. Large space and easy parking. Not bad, but doesn’t particularly stand out for the food.
  • **Hula’s Island Grill (221 Cathcart St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060) is a cheerful, casual place with curbside outdoor dining at the edge of downtown. Hawaiian and Asian food, big cocktail list.
  • **Steamer Lane Supply (644-670 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060) A seaside snack shack dishes up affordable, from-scratch, handheld meals across from Steamer Lane, the city’s most iconic surf break. It’s all food-truck style, with Poke bowls, fresh fish tacos, and panini-pressed quesadillas scrambled eggs. There are outdoor picnic tables popular with the stroller set. Very casual.
  • **Sushi Garden is a favorite of my parents. Setting is unremarkable (in a shopping center), but they have a 30+ long list of creative rolls and good bento boxes.
  • **Venus Spirits (427 A Swift St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060): Since opening his westside distillery in 2016, Venus Spirits owner Sean Venus has racked up awards for his organic, small-batch spirits including single-malt whiskeys; California’s only blue agave spirits; and signature, floral gins that dial down the juniper for softer botanicals such as cardamom and citrus. The modern-stylish restaurant features excellent cocktails and food, with a regularly changing menu. Expensive.

Activities & Shopping

  • **Berdels (1233 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060) Very cute local surf shop, wide selection, lots of locally sourced stuff.
  • **Seymour Marine Discovery Center is part of UCSC, a small museum of sorts explaining local sea life. Check in advance for tour times – they give a short tour several times a day of the dolphin area. It’s a pretty seaside spot, with interesting exhibits and a nice walk around the grounds.
  • I’m a fan of **Wilder Ranch State Park – it’s just past the beach area (super easy to get to on bikes), reasonably flat, with lots of walking/biking trails and pretty coves with sandy beaches. There are several surfing spots, and you’re likely to see otters and seals. Don’t miss Fern Grotto beach.

Articles 


Felton


I have fond memories of camping in **Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, an oasis of giant redwood trees. It’s beautiful, tends to be sunny, and the campgrounds are spacious and private.

At nearby **Roaring Camp, you can ride a historic steam train through the redwoods. A line connects through central Santa Cruz. It’s a fun experience, great with kids.

Continuing on up the hill, the **Trout Farm makes for a fun afternoon. It’s a big pool area, perfect for lounging. Don’t miss the frozen palomas. The restaurant is apparently very good too.


Moss Landing

We really enjoyed our ‘family tour’ of Elkhorn Slough with **Kayak Connection, which offers guided tours and kayak rentals (from $35 for a four-hour rental). Safe, easy paddling with lots of seals and otters.


**Sea Harvest, right next to it, offers good seafood to go, with a wide menu and big, if rather windy, patio.


Pescadero


North of Santa Cruz, **Costanoa was a favorite for years. They have normal camping, cabins, and nicer glamping with nice BBQ areas, social amenities. On my 2024 visit, it was much fancier – an “eco-adventure resort” – with fairly premium pricing. There’s a decent restaurant on site, Cascade (reserve in advance, request indoor dining) with burgers, seafood dishes, sandwiches, and the like. 

I love the beaches nearby, and visiting **Año Nuevo State Park during Sea Lion pupping season.

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