Visitors to Santa Cruz often shake their heads in wonder that anyone should be so fortunate to live in this college and beach town where the bumper stickers urge everyone to Keep Santa Cruz Weird, and the independent cafes – always full to overflowing – vastly outnumber Starbucks. The weather is often so spectacular that many visitors leave convinced that a cloud never casts a shadow across its skies. Wedged between the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other, the real question is not should you come visit, but when. In late spring, you and the kids can go berry picking for olallieberries, the sweetest little berry on earth and one that’s completely unique to the northern coast of Santa Cruz County (www.hinds-house.com/activities.berries.html).
Locals generally concur that October is the most beautiful month, when the tourists have departed and the town’s many artists open their doors to welcome you to their Open Studios. Still, it’s a hard call, since November has the best sunsets. And of course, summer boasts sun, sand and surf, along with several major arts festivals.
At Shakespeare Santa Cruz (www.shakespearesantacruz.org), the family can feast on a picnic blanket while enjoying one of The Bard’s plays performed in an outdoor glen nestled beneath towering redwoods. This summer, the 28th season, will highlight three plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, and Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. Santa Cruz is a paradise for adults, but with its beaches and old-fashioned boardwalk and arcade, it’s even more fun to share with your children. If you’re planning a three-day visit, make it as jam-packed or easy-going as you like:
Begin your visit by acclimating the family with a leisurely walk along West Cliff Drive, the 2.5-mile path that follows the ocean from Natural Bridges State Beach (www.santacruzstateparks.org/parks/natbridges/), renowned for its yearly migration of monarch butterflies (best seen in November), down to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (www.beachboardwalk.com), a 102-year-old amusement park. You can walk or rent a bike and ride West Cliff, but be on the lookout for dolphins, otters and, depending when you go, whales.
And, of course, don’t miss the surfers – especially once you get to the lighthouse at Steamer’s Lane, one of the most famous surfing spots in the world. The lighthouse doubles as a surfing museum and you can see vintage surf boards and other memorabilia for a nominal fee. At the Boardwalk, take a spin on the 1911 Carousel, a national historic landmark, and try your luck throwing a ring in the clown’s mouth. Then go for broke on the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, another national historic landmark.
For a late lunch, head over to the Municipal Wharf and check out Riva’s Fish House, a local favorite. Make sure you get a table by the window, so that you can watch the pelicans nose-dive into the ocean. Next, head downtown and meander through the shopping district, stopping in one-of-a-kind stores like Annie Glass (www.annieglass.com) to see the handmade glass table art (well, maybe not if you’ve got little kids in tow) or Bookshop Santa Cruz (www.bookshopsantacruz.com), one of the best independent bookstores in the country. Here you can burrow into a cozy armchair and browse through selections from the fabulous children’s literature section.
Hungry again? You can feed your family on the cheap with bagels spread with homemade humus, guacamole and egg salad at The Bagelry. Or if you prefer spicier Mexican food, try El Palomar, located in the center of downtown, with its taco bar and thirst-quenching margaritas. If it’s sushi you love, you’ll find no place better than Shogun Japanese Restaurant. Wander along Pacific Street to watch the street musicians and jugglers, and treat yourself to a Dr. Midnight or Cahootz! cookie at Pacific Cookie Company (www.pacificcookie.com) – or at least linger outside its open door to inhale the smells. If you’re not too tired (and if you can get a babysitter), you may want to check out one of the clubs. Don Quixote’s International Music Hall in nearby Felton (www.donquixotesmusic.info/) is a gold mine for folk music buffs. Moe’s Alley (www.moesalley.com) is the place to dance and hear the blues. Or catch a movie at one of the many movie theaters, including two art houses.
On Saturday, after a long easy-going breakfast at Zachary’s on Pacific Avenue, it’s time to hit the beach. If you’ve got little ones, the safest beaches are Main Beach and Cowell’s Beach, where the waves gently roll in and you can rent boogie boards or sign up for surf lessons. But if you hope to spend any substantial time in the water, a word of warning: rent a wetsuit. The water is brisk even in summer. Unless you’ve got the blood of a polar bear, chances are you won’t find it very welcoming.
When you’ve had enough sand and sun, jump in the car for a five-minute drive north to Wilder Ranch State Park (www.parks.ca.gov), a Victorian-era dairy farm that’s been restored to its1880s ambiance. Besides touring the farmhouse, Wilder is also a great place to walk along the bluffs overlooking beautiful beaches, coves and tide pools.
Or drive to the Mystery Spot (www.mysteryspot.com), a quirky tourist attraction 3 miles out of town. Here, the laws of gravity don’t apply. This is a place where balls roll up instead of down and chairs sit on the walls. The kids will be amazed! It’s like visiting a carnival funhouse, but it’s for real.
By now, you’ve built up an appetite. If your family likes Chinese food, you’ll want to try one of the most popular places in town: O’Mei Restaurant, an unprepossessing eatery (at least on the outside) located at the end of a strip mall on Mission Street. It’s pricey and can be spotty, but at its best, it’s worth it. If you’re dining sans enfants, check out Soif Wine Bar downtown, where the food is often unforgettable and the wine list is wonderful.
Sunday morning begins with breakfast at Kelly’s French Bakery (www.kellysfrenchbakery.com), with its fresh crusty breads, elegant pastries and famous poached eggs in polenta. Get there early, since this traditional French Provencal bakery fills up fast and the line for goodies often stretches way out the door. You can find a place indoors but if the weather is nice the courtyard – with its landscaped gardens and dog-friendly tables – is the place to see and be seen. Once you’ve filled your belly, it’s time for a final must-see. You simply can’t leave Santa Cruz without hiking – or at least strolling – through one of its redwood forests. The easiest, least demanding hike for families with little kids is Henry Cowell Redwood State Park (www.parks.ca.gov), a 15-minute drive up Highway 9 to the entrance in Felton. If you don’t want to pay the $6 state entrance fee, park outside the gates and trek in; it’ll take about 10 minutes. The hike is navigable for both strollers and wheelchairs, but the grandeur and immensity of the forest is just as awesome as in the most inaccessible forests. Once your kids hear the nearby lonesome train whistle, they’ll probably clamor to see the train. You can comply with their request by buying tickets on one of the historic trains at Roaring Camp (www.roaringcamp.com) and travel by steam train up a narrow-gauge track through the Big Trees to Bear Mountain or by beach train down the scenic San Lorenzo River to the sunny beaches of Santa Cruz. Beware: These rides are not inexpensive. But like so much else in Santa Cruz, they’re pure pleasure.
Sara Solovitch raised three boys in Santa Cruz and is an associate editor of Bay Area Parent.