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Santa Cruz, Calif., in Summer

Summer fun surges into a classic beach town that has a flair for the offbeat.

Santa Cruz surfer on bike
Photo credit
Photo: Catherine Karnow
Photo caption
Catch a wave, cruise the wharf, play on the Boardwalk, or lounge on the beach.

Three Hawaiian princes slipped into the water off Santa Cruz in 1885, carrying boards made from coast redwood. Their ride toward shore marked the birth of surfing in California and the start of an undying local craze. About an hour and a half south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz now calls itself "Surf City," but the label doesn't quite suffice. Sure, the swell is sweet. But so are the sunset strolls, the saltwater taffy, and the sea lion watching along the wharf. Santa Cruz gets raves for more than waves.

The city's best-known draw is its famous Boardwalk, the West Coast's Coney Island, with kitschy gift shops, humpbacked roller coasters, and a 1911 carousel of 73 original hand-carved wooden horses and two chariots. But another big attraction is the downtown shopping district, a neighborhood ringed by Front, Laurel, and Center streets. Although badly damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, it has been revitalized with upscale restaurants and boutiques; it's a tribute to the beach town's resilient spirit.

Long a haven for artists, Santa Cruz celebrates its eccentricities. A popular bumper sticker encourages people to keep santa cruz weird. The interior of Atlantis Fantasyworld, one of the oldest comic-book stores in California, was built to resemble a Star Trek spacecraft. L.H. Selman Ltd., a gallery specializing in glass art, boasts an impressive display of paperweights. In the warmer months, street performers ply their trade downtown.

Parking can be scarce, but many visitors don't realize that parking is permitted on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Summer parking hours are Sun.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–11 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–1 a.m.

Although the city defies easy description, its shape is defined clearly by the coast. A good place to appreciate the splendor of the shoreline is Natural Bridges State Beach, 2.5 miles north of the wharf. It's a peaceful spot and a year-round gathering ground for shorebirds, which roost on the dramatic rock outcrops. A paved footpath, popular with cyclists and in-line skaters alike, continues south from Natural Bridges along the ocean, offering breathtaking views. It winds past an overlook at Steamer Lane, one of the top surf spots. Passersby often pause here to watch the acrobatic spectacle of expert surfers, slick as seals in their shiny black wet suits, carving through the waves. At the lip of Steamer Lane stands the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, named for a surfer who drowned nearby in 1965. The building has been transformed into a surfing museum, replete with snippets from surf films and exhibits on local shark attacks.

An easy walk from Steamer Lane, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf juts half a mile into the water. Gulls wheel above it, sea lions bark beneath it, and atop it a host of sea-themed shops sell maritime collectibles. Shark teeth, sand dollars, and seashell necklaces can all be had here, as can saltwater taffy. Marini's candy store, a Santa Cruz institution, relies on the same taffy recipe that Victor Marini used when he opened on the nearby Boardwalk 90 years ago. Stagnaro Bros., another family-run business, specializes in fresh seafood: oysters, wild salmon, halibut, mackerel—whatever the daily catch brings in.

A short drive inland, the SoWat District—south of Water Street—has emerged as a trendy artists' neighborhood. It's perhaps best embodied by a café called the Attic Tea House, a soaring, loftlike space that offers lattes, food, and live music.

Marianne's ice cream parlor serves 72 flavors. The Epicenter Sundae rocks with four flavors, four toppings, four cookies, and fixings. 1020 Ocean St., 458-1447.

Even the downtown district, the hub of commerce, reflects the city's artsy spirit. The Museum of Art and History showcases a mix of contemporary art and features a permanent exhibit on local history. The museum's rooftop sculpture garden is also worth a look.

But no downtown business better captures the quirky essence of the city than Gelatomania café. Run by Buddhists, it's both a cafe and an oxygen bar. For $5, patrons can spend 10 minutes inhaling air with hints of chamomile and lavender, or perhaps rosemary and mint. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do—and when in Santa Cruz, try the oxygen that's scented like the beach.

This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.