Santa Cruz: A Place to Catch Your Breath

By Cheryl Ryan

During those years when I declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in our family, Santa Cruz was always my destination of choice. I’ve often gone over the hill just to catch my breath and look at things from a new perspective. Although it feels like a world away, it’s only 70 miles south of San Francisco and right over Highway 17 from Silicon Valley. But there is a lot more than meets the eye in this quaint Pacific beach town. It’s happening shop-lined downtown, the University of California Santa Cruz and historic beach boardwalk and wharf are nestled against redwood-covered mountains on one side and views of the Monterey Bay on the other.

Its waters are rich in sea life. From otters, whales, white sharks and dolphins, you only have to take a sailboat from the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor to spot marine wildlife.

Fall and spring are ideal for beach loungers and surfers alike. The summer can bring fog and lake-like conditions, the scourge of surfers, and winter can bring storms yet still occasional sun and good surf. The water temperature is too cold for my taste, but that doesn’t stop the wetsuit-clad surfer crowd of Santa Cruz.

East & West

The shoreline can be divided into west and east. On the west side is Wilder Ranch State Park and Natural Bridges Beach, leading into West Cliff Drive. It’s the meandering coastal road with large homes on one side and a picturesque walking trail and surf spots like Steamers Lane on the other. Just stopping along this stretch to watch surfers from the cliffs is so mesmerizing that you have to pull yourself away. I

And it all leads to the historic 1907 Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, home of the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and a large sandy beach next to the San Lorenzo River. 

Views of Capitola and Monterey Bay from East Cliff

Once past the San Lorenzo river, you can cruise along East Cliff Drive, which brings you to the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, Twin Lakes beach, and Pleasure Point before dropping into Capitola

Taking time to look around

As with most coastlines in beautiful locations anywhere, there can be a lot of traffic. But if you’re lucky enough to get there early and take a morning walk before the others arrive, it is so peaceful. The sound of the birds and ocean and the view of surfers, paddle boarders and sailboats are a spectacular way to start your day. My recent trip in May is not typically the best time for surfing since the water can look like a kelp lake, as it did the day I was there, but it’s a great time if you’re a paddle boarder or coastline stroller like myself.

Always a surfer entry spot

Things are quirky and diverse in Santa Cruz. Housing prices have gone up dramatically and many homes are being torn down or updated. But the sometimes edgy and often laid back population remains. A cool thing that I noticed is that even in the most upscale neighborhoods, there is always a path for surfers to get to the water.

Something for everybody

I also found a free book and pantry along the road on a recent evening walk. You know the ones where people put their old books out for others to read. But this one also offered food items like canned beans and evaporated milk for those that may be hungry. Santa Cruz is that kind of place. Even though homelessness is an issue, people put food and books out for anyone that might need it. That is just so Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz style free book and pantry

It’s a creative place, so it stands to reason that some excellent restaurants exist. Another little-known tip is that some biggish musicians sometimes add a stop on their tour and play at one of several small concert venues before heading to the larger Shoreline or San Francisco concert locations. We’ve seen a couple of great concerts this way. Unfortunately, they don’t always put it on their websites, so you need to check the Santa Cruz venue schedules.

Another beach entry for surfers

If you need to get away for the day or book a couple of days, don’t forget this local gem. If you are heading over from the bay area on a weekend, get an early start because the traffic can get gnarly (surfer talk). If you leave later at 9 am, it can really mess with your zen. 

Things to do

I’m going to list a few fun locations that I know of but I hope you’ll share some of your tips with all of us as well.

Here are some music venues. We’ve been to the Catalyst and Rio Theatre.

Restaurants in west Santa Cruz: Humble Sea Brewing Co. and Mozaic Santa Cruz

and in East Santa Cruz: Lillian’s Italian Kitchen and Home

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