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Capitola, Calif.: Seaside Getaway

Need sun, sea, and a bit of kitsch? Grab your flip-flops and head to this easygoing resort town.

Capitola's Esplanade
Photo caption
You can kick back on the Esplanade or eat under the umbrellas at Zelda's.

Consider the flip-flop. The top-down convertible of warm-weather footwear. The sole-and-strap symbol of summer that says to the toes: Relax. Take in the air.

I can remember some of my favorite vacations by the sandals I wore. Summer before fifth grade, Old Orchard Beach, Maine: ratty red flip-flops. Spring break ’92, Cancún, Mexico: fluorescent green zories. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, August 2005: a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost under the stars, with the King of Navarre in tall boots, me in all-purpose navy flips.

Recently, I broke in a pair of brown synthetic leather flip-flops while weekending in the tiny resort of Capitola-by-the-Sea. Located below the stiff upper lip of Monterey Bay, four miles east of Santa Cruz along the coast, this small town covers two square miles. You can wander from the fossil-caked cliffs near 41st Avenue to the shaded paths on Soquel Creek, then smack into a beachfront downtown crammed with galleries, restaurants, and knickknack shops.

To get a sense of Capitola’s size, I walked past the candy-colored bungalows of the Venetian Court (which claims to be the state’s first condominium development) and out to the Capitola Wharf, built in 1857. You can watch anglers yank bucketloads of striped bass and anchovies over its wooden rails while paddlers rent kayaks to explore the quiet cove below.

At a picnic table in front of the Wharf House Restaurant, Roger Spotswood and his wife, Janet, sat spotting dolphins in the bay. "There goes another one—see it?" said Spotswood, a heavy-shouldered man wearing a baseball cap and, yes, flip-flops. He spoke with the bubbling enthusiasm of a tourist. But when I asked him where he’s from, he pointed to a cluster of beach houses a few steps from the pier. "Just over there," he said. "The way I see it, why leave paradise?"

Spotswood’s piece of heaven is a busy seaside village fronted by Capitola Beach, a broad though rather short swath of sand and surf interrupted by a rock jetty. Near-by, hemmed in by a string of restaurants, sits a lagoon fed by Soquel Creek. Depending on the tide, moving from street to sand to surf takes about 30 seconds.

During summer, and especially on those rare fog-free weekends, the village jumps with an intensity that will make you think you’ve uncovered a lost stretch of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Stroll the bustling oceanfront Esplanade to soak up the scene. It’s not unusual to find, say, a beach volleyball game beside a wedding party photo shoot. Or a reggae band jamming on the deck at Zelda’s, down the street from a jewelry sale at Flying Lizard Design. What emerges is a rich microcosm of California beach life, in which commerce and nature, kitsch and coast, shoppers and surfers come together in close proximity, complete with lifeguards and ice cream parlors and twirling Frisbees and T-shirt shops.

Just up from the Esplanade, Capitola Avenue serves as the area’s main shopping hub. You’ll discover a collection of small businesses on this short strip that sell everything from abalone earrings and Gucci sunglasses to 10-foot balsa longboards. At Big Kahuna, I contemplated buying a silk aloha shirt for my father-in-law but opted instead to munch on a handful of sizzling cinnamon jelly beans from the Jelly Belly store.

On August 18, 1961, thousands of seabirds crashed into Capitola, littering streets, disrupting power lines, and, in some cases, biting residents. Director Alfred Hitchcock, who owned a home in the area and had already written a script based on a Daphne du Maurier story about avian invaders, caught wind of the incident and requested that copies of the local newspaper be sent to him in Hollywood. Two years later he released The Birds.

The city hosts free summer concerts at Esplanade Park on Wednesday nights. Families spread out on blankets and feast on huge pies from Pizza My Heart, a gastronomical mainstay whose homemade pesto makes braving the lines worth it. Every fourth Sunday in July, the streets thrum with footfalls from "the best little road race in California." The six-mile Wharf to Wharf Race (which starts in Santa Cruz and ends here) attracts some 15,000 runners, many of whom stick around for one of the biggest beach parties of the year.

It seems that people have been rushing here for quite some time. Founded in 1874 as a vacation retreat for inlanders escaping the valley heat, the town promotes itself as the oldest beach resort in the state. "No one has proved us wrong yet," says Carolyn Swift, director of the one-room Capitola Historical Museum, a sort of community garret with grainy old photos and early-20th-century trinkets, such as antique swimsuits and fishing gear. "Capitola is what Carmel used to be 40 or 50 years ago, before it began taking itself so seriously," Swift adds.

There’s nothing more serious than the picnic-perfect food at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, located a short shuffle up the hill from the museum. I ordered the oak-roasted chicken—golden, crispy yet juicy, and rubbed with a whisper of garlic and paprika—and instantly fell in love. The food at Gayle’s calls out to you, siren-like, from behind eight gleaming cases. Standouts include spinach Gorgonzola pasta, a soy-garlic marinated chicken sand-wich served on homemade sourdough, and a chocolate-slathered éclair swollen with vanilla custard.

One night, looking to further elevate my dining experience, I traded my thongs for penny loafers and headed to Capitola’s oldest restaurant. Set on a hillside overlooking Soquel Creek, Shadowbrook uses a small cable car, or "hillevator," to ferry patrons from the street to one of its seven dining rooms. Inside, warm wood and white tablecloths complement tasty and hearty fare, such as prime rib and creamy artichoke soup.

Nights in town can go on till late. (I preferred the "zin-fun-del" flights and live flamenco music at the new wine bar Cava to the dance-clubby Margaritaville.) But it’s in those still, pink moments before dawn that Capitola takes your breath away—when waves suck against the shore and the only noise on the beach comes from hundreds of sooty shearwaters that rise and fall in close formation.

"This really is a neat little town," says local surf legend and wet suit pioneer Jack O’Neill. His motto, "It’s always summer on the inside," is a paean to the feel-good values of surf culture, and even at 84, the man lives in flip-flops.

O'Neill directed me to one of his favorite local spots, New Brighton State Beach, less than a mile down the coast. Backed by cliffs of tall cypress and eucalyptus trees and grass-covered dunes, it has a quiet, woodsy vibe. Dogs are allowed, on leashes, and there’s plenty of space to throw a Frisbee without always having to yell out to strangers "Heads up" or "So sorry." I kicked off my flip-flops. Relax, the soft sand said to my toes. Take in the ocean air.

Photography by Jessica Brandi Lifland

This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.