I’ve visited the California beach resort of Santa Cruz when I was young enough to eat the fried clams and candied apples without mentally planning two weeks of Atkins, when I was pregnant and too large and nauseous to do anything more than loll on the beach and try not to get mistaken for a distressed whale, when I was celebrating career triumphs, when I was nursing a giant case of professional rejection.
And never once have I had anything but a fine old time.
There is just something about the kitschy, rowdy, unabashedly retro charms of Surf City, USA,* that gets me every time.
Here are some tips if you’re thinking of visiting.
HOW TO GET THERE
About 70 miles south of San Francisco. Take I-280 to CA85 from San Francisco, I-880 to CA 17 from the east side of the bay. Traffic can be hideous, definitely don’t hit 17 at 11 a.m. on a summer Saturday, try for early or late and check traffic apps ahead of time so you’ll at least know what to expect.Once you’re there, map out everywhere you want to go on a smartphone app. This city isn’t built on a grid system and random one-way streets will further mess you up.
WHERE TO STAY:
Splurge: If you’ve got the bucks, the Dream Inn is IT. Every room an ocean view, modern, bright, room service if you want it from the very excellent Aquarius restaurant, fancy in-room coffee machines, nice bathrooms and a fabulous pool/hot tub area overlooking the beach. It’s a short walk from the Boardwalk but distanced from the string of cheap motels and eateries that cluster around the amusement park and it’s bang on the West Cliff Drive hiking/biking path, a picturesque 3-mile cliff-top path that ends at Natural Bridges state beach. (I am old enough to remember when there were actual natural stone bridges at this beach, as opposed to indeterminate hunks of rock.)
Save: If you don’t have the bucks, the Sea & Sand Inn next door to the Dream Inn is quite a bit cheaper (although still far from cut-rate), clean, same views. But take earplugs. Walls are thin and there are metal security gates that clang all night long and will have you tossing and turning and casting your vote in favor of some nice, quiet cat-burglary.
Steal: If you’re really counting pennies, Ocean Pacific Lodge is about a block inland from the Dream Inn/Sea & Sand location. No view and rooms are a bit basic, but clean and so, so much cheaper than the ocean-fronters.
WHERE TO EAT
So much fried clam. So little time. For dining al fresco, go to The Dolphin at the very end of the Municipal Wharf and order from the takeout window: clam chowder in a bowl with a side of fried clams and hot chocolate if the weather’s a bit on the nippy side, which it can be. Eat fast. The seagulls are hungry and have mad food-stealing skillz. Check out the sea lions that bask on the pier supports; there are viewing holes cut in the deck. There are several other restaurants on the wharf; I’ve eaten at most of them. What can I say? You get a beautiful view but the food is pretty standard seaside fare. The one exception is the aforementioned Aquarius which has a delightful setting above the beach and serves some reasonably good California rustic cuisine, roasted vegetables, nicely cooked steaks, etc., not to mentioned a darned fine old-fashioned. Be prepared to part with some serious coin.
PRO TIP: Don’t eat anything sold at the Boardwalk unless you are under 12 years old.
WHAT TO DO: Walk/run/bike along the West Cliff path. Stop at the Surfing Museum, open Thursday-Mondays 12-4 p.m. Not a ton to see but it’s free and the chomped-on surfboards are worth a gander. Check out the surfers braving the waves, and sharks, and currents, along Steamer Lane. At the far end of the path is Natural Bridges beach, which has an information center and a walk that takes you to a grove where monarch butterflies congregate during the winter. Plan on spending at least one afternoon at the Boardwalk. If you’re not much for rides you can just walk around for free and watch other people’s antics. If you’re riding, look into buying an all-day bracelet, it’s probably cheaper and during slack seasons you can find two-for-one deals. Don’t miss: The Giant Dipper, a wooden rollercoaster which will not only scare the pants off you, it will do it in a very historic way. This is a 100+ year old institution. Ditto the carousel, which is very beautiful and nicely restored and the perfect way to end your visit. There are real brass rings to grab for and a clown’s mouth to hurl them at. Does life offer much more? Finish up with a leisurely stroll along the Santa Cruz beach in front of the Boardwalk and watch the sun slide slowly into the ocean.
*Huntington Beach in Southern California also lays claim to the nickname Surf City, but AS IF.