Rain or shine, Santa Cruz is a nature lover’s paradise. On a recent blustery, drizzly Saturday along West Cliff Drive, wetsuit-clad surfers navigated the steep roadside stairwells in droves, nimbly descending to the water below. In front of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point Park, a sizable crowd eagerly watched those hearty enough to take advantage of the late afternoon swell at Steamer Lane. Back toward the boardwalk pilings, lessons were doled out to novices, though everyone involved seemed to be paying more attention to the dolphins that had made their way into the cove.
From surfing to the storied boardwalk, the oceanfront scene here is legendary, and for good reason. But Santa Cruz is blessed with excellent hiking and biking, a thriving local food scene, and layered history. It’s worth sampling a bit of everything the city has to offer.
What to do:
1. A trip to Santa Cruz wouldn’t be complete without a view of the beachfront from the ocean, so go for a paddle with Kayak Connection, which runs a variety of tours from the harbor. The sunset paddle ($30/person), held on Saturdays throughout the year, ventures out into the bay for stunning views of the boardwalk and beaches by twilight, as well as glimpses of otters, seals, and other marine life. (Santa Cruz Harbor, 413 Lake Ave., kayakconnection.com)
2. Just north of the city, Wilder Ranch State Park offers 34 miles of trails for both hiking and biking. “Living history” demonstrations and ranch tours, offered on weekend afternoons, give visitors the opportunity to learn about the site when it was a 1900s-era dairy ranch. (1401 Coast Rd, parks.ca.gov)
3. The Chaminade Resort offers farm to table dinners featuring the best of local growers and vintners. Last year’s series was held from May through October; they will release the 2012 schedule soon. (1 Chaminade Lane, chaminade.com)
Where to eat:
1. The warm, communal atmosphere at Companion Bakeshop, with its brick oven breads and pastries, will set the rainiest morning right. Try the goat-ccino and a perfectly flaky, buttery croissant. If you still have room, indulge in a bacon cheddar scone. (2341 Mission St., companionbakeshop.com)
2. Reserve a table in advance at La Posta, a quirky, vibrant Italian restaurant in the heart of the Seabright neighborhood. The impressive pizzas are all but irresistible, but the in-house pastas (try the pappardelle verde with chanterelle and black trumpet mushrooms, nettles and green garlic) are knockouts. (538 Seabright Ave., lapostarestaurant.com)
3. Across the street, Engfer Pizza Works serves up a variety of pies (including vegan) with a separate room for ping-pong while you wait, or if you’re in need of some after dinner exercise. (537 Seabright Ave., engferpizzaworks.com)
4. Nestled between summer shops at 125 Beach Street, the Picnic Basket dishes up delicious sandwiches (try the Fogline chicken salad, with greens, avocado and pickled onions), Penny Creamery ice cream (made from scratch), Santa Cruz County-brewed beer, and other locally sourced fare. (125 Beach Street, thepicnicbasketsc.com)
Where to stay:
1. Fall asleep to the sound of surf at the Dream Inn, located on the beach overlooking the wharf. A short walk from the historic boardwalk and the scenic West Cliff Drive, the Dream Inn is ideally situated for a weekend getaway. There’s much to take in without ever leaving your room, too: all rooms (from $229) feature a private patio or balcony and ocean views. (175 West Cliff Drive, dreaminnsantacruz.com)
2. The Pacific Blue Inn promotes “green living and a healthy outlook on life.” Utilizing recycled, reused and reclaimed construction materials and hotel décor in the building process, energy efficient lighting and low water use fixtures, the Pacific Blue (from $189) also takes advantage of its central location and offers bikes to boot. (636 Pacific Ave., pacificblueinn.com)
From San Francisco, take the Ferry Building Amtrak bus shuttle to Emeryville. Board an Amtrak Capitol Corridor south to San Jose Diridon station. Transfer to the highway 17 express bus, which stops in downtown Santa Cruz, just three hours after you left home.