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Historic Coastal Retreat

Capitola and the beach and wharf as seen from the bluffs, image
Photo caption
From the bluffs, you can look down on Capitola, the wharf, and the beach.


Situated within the necklace of beaches that curve around California’s Monterey Bay, Capitola sings a siren song for thousands of visitors each summer. Less than an hour’s drive from San Jose, the funky Mediterranean-looking village packs in Silicon Valley day-trippers. But day outings often disappoint because traffic to and around this seaside spot can be brutal on weekends. Plus, it’s not unusual for this beach town to sit under a fog bank until two o’clock in the afternoon.

The secret to enjoying Capitola is to set aside a full weekend for the visit. Establish a base at a beach- or cliffside inn and explore this compact resort by foot. Or, just relax on the beach and watch a sunset before ambling back to your room to change for dinner.

The historic village of Capitola, which is snuggled between two bluffs on a flat, wide patch of beach at the mouth of Soquel Creek, has lured hot and harried inlanders for 125 years. Railroad passenger service established in the late 1870s by the town’s founder, F.A. Hihn, initially enabled Capitola to become a summer resort. The high old trestle that bisects Capitola is testimony to the town’s past. Freight trains still rumble overhead twice a day.

To Capitola’s early visitors, who fled blistering summers on inland valley farms, the town’s cool mornings were much-appreciated natural air conditioning. Today, many wish the sun would make its appearance earlier in the day. But sunny or not, this coastal gem continues to draw vacationers. Top on the list of attractions is the annual Begonia Festival. In its 47th year, the week-long fall flower fest features a parade of begonia petal-laden rafts floating down Soquel Creek and other family-oriented events, such as a sand castle contest. This year the fun runs September 5 through 12. If you can’t make this event, Capitola still offers plenty to do year-round.

At the west end of Capitola’s beach, Soquel Creek streams to the sea during the rainy season, but each spring for more than a hundred years locals have made a sand bar to trap the water in a shallow lagoon. Festive bars and restaurants rim the lagoon, as do brightly painted, tiered townhouses. Some of these units, built in the 1920s and 1930s, are privately owned, while others can be rented at reasonable rates through the Capitola Venetian Hotel. Each unit is a few steps from the beach.

Over the bridge and past the Stockton Bridge Grill (poached salmon is the signature dish), you immediately hit the Esplanade. The wide sidewalk fronts a chorus line of restaurants and saloons that overlook the beach and include the reliable beatnik-era throwback Mr. Toots Coffeehouse and such hot nightspots as Margaritaville and Zelda’s. Past the vendors, the Esplanade provides an expansive view of the beach and is lined with benches perfect for watching sunsets.

At the end of the Esplanade, a protective rock jetty beneath the cliff now sits on the former site of the Hotel Capitola, a 160-room palace that was built in the late 1890s and burned to the ground in 1929. From here a visitor can either head straight up Depot Hill, or loop back into the shopping district (better known as the Village). Forging uphill first, you’ll find the old train station, which is now the elegant 12-room Inn at Depot Hill. The decor is stunning, the service first-rate. Room themes include a three-level "Library" full of books and comfy spots to read them, and a striking "Kyoto" room fit for a samurai with a deep soaking tub and a bamboo garden on its private patio. Local wines, such as a rich chardonnay from Devlin Wine Cellars, are poured at the cocktail hour, and berry tarts and other goodies send visitors to bed happy.

Back down in the Village, you’ll find a mix of surfer chic and local arts and crafts. The young Teva and toe-ring crowd browse the Mercantile for beachwear, while the Craft Gallery and other boutiques and galleries sell pottery, glass, and paintings.

Both children and adults will enjoy the one-room schoolhouse-style Capitola Historical Museum on Capitola Avenue. Prowling online auctions and sweet-talking local collectors, curator Caroline J. Swift has found plenty of material for her quarterly exhibits. A recent display on swimwear from the last century featured thick woolen bathing dresses and bloomers.

You can pick up provisions for a gourmet beach picnic at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria. Expect a wait: Especially on the weekend, customers line up to choose from a wide array of deli offerings, such as piquant olive- and pepper-sparked tuna sandwiches, as well as a virtual art gallery of desserts.

Perched on a hillside above Soquel Creek amid ferns, waterfalls, koi ponds, and rock walkways, Capitola’s famed Shadow-brook Restaurant (upper right) is best reached by its own quaint red tram. The six-person "hillavator" spares patrons the considerable hike to and from the restaurant. The stars among the extensive menu options are seafood specials prepared a number of ways. The sword-fish, for example, marinates in jalapeño pepper one day, soy sauce the next.

Rather catch your own dinner? Serious anglers can fish for halibut by renting a 16-foot skiff at the end of the Capitola Wharf—or throw your line in from firmer footing on the pier. If you seek more adventuresome aquatic pursuits, some of the best surfing waves are at nearby Pleasure Point, at the foot of 41st Avenue—Capitola’s less-charming commercial area. At Capitola City Beach, kids ride milder waves on boogie boards.

Monterey’s world-class aquarium and other delights are an hour south. Santa Cruz’s famed Beach Board-walk is a few minutes up the coast. If you miss the Begonia Festival, Antonelli Bros. extensive begonia gardens are a couple miles toward Santa Cruz on Capitola Road.

When you hear the train’s whistle, imagine the days when the railroad dropped off women wearing frilly frocks with parasols in hand and men sporting suits and bowlers. Styles have changed—but Capitola is still very much in fashion.

Photography courtesy Artico/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in September 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.