As a transplanted Sureño, one of the things I miss most about SoCal is being able to spend a nice day at the beach. San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is a great place to catch pneumonia in a foggy riptide. Alameda is nice as far as Oakland beaches go, but it’s hardly Laguna. But just an hour away there is Santa Cruz, a little spot of sun and sand that’s as good as anything in the O.C. I’ve been touristing in Santa Cruz since the late 70s, and no summer is complete for me without a few visits. While I’m hardly a local, I’ve traveled there enough to know what I like, and here are a few of my favorites.
The Boardwalk – Beachfront amusement parks used to line the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco, but this is the only one still standing. Compared to a modern chain park it’s ridiculously old-school, down to the redwood-timbered Giant Dipper, my favorite roller coaster ever. And unlike those mouse-eared and flag-waving mega-parks, at the Boardwalk you can still buy individual tickets instead of an all-day pass. So if you just want to ride the Dipper a few times, you’ll still have plenty of cash left over for funnel cake. And Dippin’ Dots. And deep-fried candy bars. And salt-water taffy. And by the way, you’ll probably want to enjoy all that deliciousness after you ride the Giant Dipper, not before. I’m just saying.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz– At the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, UC Santa Cruz has one of the best Shakespeare programs in the country. Every production I’ve seen here has been world-class, most recently A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Their outdoor theater, set in a redwood grove on the UC campus, is the perfect place to indulge your taste for the Bard. Bring a picnic and a bottle of your favorite poison, and make like a groundling under the big trees.
Zachary’s – Once you’ve breakfasted at Zachary’s, any other joint is just a greasy spoon. Everything on the menu is delicious, but I’m partial to the sourdough pancakes, the house-made hash, and the unbeatable fried potatoes.
New Brighton State Beach– Lodging in the Santa Cruz area is notoriously over-priced, with your typical crappy motel room costing as much as a three-star in San Francisco. But if you bring your own tent you can enjoy beachfront living and million-dollar views for about $20 a night at this gorgeous state park, located just a few minutes south of town between Capitola and Aptos. The only downside: you need to book months in advance, especially for the summer months.
Pacific Garden Mall– As a general rule I hate shopping, but Pacific Avenue has so many quirky little stores that even I can have a good time here. Independent booksellers, oddball importers, vintage and consignment shops, and a watering hole strategically placed every block or so. So when I grow weary of retail and Mrs. M wants to keep at it, I can sit down for a pint and enjoy the book I just bought.
Motiv– Earlier this year I was crushed to learn that my favorite Santa Cruz restaurant, the Pearl Alley Bistro, had gone down the tubes. But now there’s a new restaurant in the same space, and I’m happy to report that it’s even better. Forget the downstairs lounge, the happening scene is upstairs, where executive chef Anthony Kresge is working some serious Mediterranean mojo. A Napa Valley expat, he’s also brought a great wine list to the place. I was, as they say, completely stoked, and I’m already dreaming up excuses to go back and eat here again.
Stagnaro Brothers Fish Market– Located at the end of the Municipal Wharf, Stagnaro’s sells smoked fish that’s just like I remember it from my boyhood days in Orange County. The flaky goodness of smoked albacore, and the oily, salty, bony deliciousness of smoked herring. The latter, which my family affectionately referred to as “stinky fish,” is just about impossible to find anywhere else these days, and Stagnaro’s does it exactly right. Give me a half-pound, a cold beer, and a breath mint, and I’m ready to climb in the car and drive home. But I will be back. Oh yes, I will be back.