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Santa Cruz is just a short ride over the hill from the Silicon Valley tech scene, but the mañana vibe makes it feel worlds away. The town’s slogan, “Keep Santa Cruz Weird,” speaks to freethinkers, surfers, geeks, misfits and radical environmentalists who sustain the community’s countercultural ethos.
The place is magnetic. In fact, some half-jokingly refer to the curse of Santa Cruz — a vortex of laid-back lifestyles that’s hard to escape. Spend some time wandering the redwoods, paddling in the surf or sipping a saison by the beach and you may wonder why anyone would ever want to.
Here you’ll find the best of Santa Cruz in all its funky wonder.
1. Do the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
If you grew up in the Bay Area, you have the collective memory of sunburns and sugar rushes from a day at the boardwalk. The crown jewel of the oldest amusement park in California is the rickety Giant Dipper, a wood-framed roller coaster that has thrilled children and adults for nearly a century.
Other iconic rides include the Cave Train with its psychedelic black lights and the Looff Carousel. Pro tip: On the carousel, lean off the outer edge of your horse’s saddle and grab a brass ring as you swing by the extended metal arm coming out of the east wall. Throwing rings into the open mouth of the massive clown head on the wall while riding by is a local pastime.
The boardwalk boasts an indoor, pirate-themed, 18-hole mini golf course; laser-tag arena and video-game arcade. It also hosts free “Friday Nights by the Beach” concerts each summer, with a stage overlooking the ocean. (Past bands include Smash Mouth, Los Lobos and the English Beat.)
During busy summer weekends, you can avoid parking misery by leaving your car in a lot downtown and hopping on the historic Trolley for a mere 25 cents a ride, which you can pick up in front of downtown Santa Cruz’s Del Mar Theater, at 1124 Pacific Ave.
2. Check out the surf scene
The best surfers ride the waves at the world-class, right-hand reef-point called Steamer Lane. If you think you can hang with them, jump right in from the cliffs like the locals do.
If not, you can watch from a path that winds in front of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which pays loving tribute to a century of surf culture, complete with a display of buoyant redwood-plank surfboards and some snazzy fiberglass versions.
Not quite ready to surf with the best in the world? Hoof it a half mile in the direction of the Boardwalk to Cowell Beach, with a mild break where you can boogie board in the gentle waves or take surf lessons from Club Ed.
3. Taste some beer
There’s a joke among locals that every time an old business closes, a brewery takes its place. The Santa Cruz area is home to some of the most adventurous brewers in the country, plying their wares in well-appointed taprooms, spacious beer gardens and even farmers’ markets.
Without much effort, you can seek out fresh IPAs made with hops grown on the premises, sip wild ales aged in gin and Tequila barrels, pucker up with some “hella sour” saisons, and sample freaky brews made with chiles and powdered grasshoppers. Many breweries and taprooms even employ specially trained beer experts, called cicerones — the beer world’s answer to sommeliers — who can match you with a beer that just might change your life.
Highlights include Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, which has an international following for its tart and masterful saisons; Humble Sea, known for its dank and hoppy IPAs; and New Bohemia Brewing Co. (NuBo), known for its lagers.
4. Cruise around on a bike
One of the classic ways to explore Santa Cruz is on two wheels, and it’s now easier than ever, thanks to red electric Jump bikes scattered all over town. You can rent one for just 10 cents a minute, or head to an old-school bike rental shop and rent a classic cruiser.
For a good route, start at Shaffer Road and follow a paved two-lane road along the coast past farmlands to Wilder Ranch State Park. Depending on the season, you’ll pass wildflowers, blackberries, horses and hawks, and enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific Coast.
At Wilder Ranch, you can lock up your bike and chill among the resident goats and apple trees, hike to panoramic ocean views or head on the flat Ohlone Bluff Trail to the quiet sands of Four Mile Beach, a favorite, semi-hidden spot among locals.
5. Discover the Mystery Spot
It’s not unusual to walk around Santa Cruz feeling a little topsy-turvy, but if you want to get that feeling without imbibing, head to the Mystery Spot. The tourist attraction has been altering reality in a legal way since 1940.
Deep in the redwoods, you’re invited to examine this lopsided outpost via guided 45-minute tours. We don’t want to give too much away — maintaining the mystery is the whole point! We’ll say this much: If you’re short, go with a group of taller friends to feel what it’s like to finally measure up.
6. Go stand-up paddleboarding
If you enjoy wildlife watching, there’s no better spot to catch marine life in action than Santa Cruz Harbor. For the full, up-close experience, rent a stand-up paddleboard near the Crow’s Nest Restaurant close to East Cliff Drive and Seventh Avenue for $50 a day. On a given day you’ll see sea lions, blue herons, egrets and otters. Want to geek out on marine life? If you’re an intermediate paddler, you can sign up online to take an eco-tour with Helen Cooper, a marine ecologist.
7. Take a hike
The mellow vibe of Santa Cruz is probably best expressed by the mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz: a sleepy, yellow banana slug. One of the best places to spot these gastropods is in the redwoods of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. They’re easy to spot on damp days beneath majestic old-growth redwoods along the nearly flat 0.8-mile Redwood Loop.
If you’re feeling up to a longer hike, the park features 30 miles of trails that lead past open vistas, burbling streams and giant trees.
8. Window shop
Downtown Santa Cruz, once synonymous with patchouli oil and head shops, now has a more sophisticated feel. It’s as though your 70ish hippie grandmother finally broke down and got Botox, but you can still see the evidence of her hard living.
Stroll along Pacific Avenue and you’ll pass buskers and panhandlers camped out in front of craft coffee shops and boutique clothing stores. It’s here you’ll find items like vegan wallets with embroidered owls. Highlights include browsing Bookshop Santa Cruz, hunting for vinyl at Streetlight Records, sampling delights at the Pacific Cookie Co., and fueling up on coffee at Verve Coffee Roasters — all locally owned enterprises.
9. Try the wines
The region’s microclimate makes the Santa Cruz Mountains a draw for wine connoisseurs who want to sample an eclectic variety. Soil types differ from the coast to the redwoods; fault lines are also a distinguishing factor.
The region is best known for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but intrepid vintners are also producing rich Cabs that are making a national splash. You can sample some of the best at Vino Cruz in Soquel, or head straight to the tasting rooms, scattered from Bonny Doon to Corralitos. Highlights include the Storr, Bonny Doon and Lester Family vineyards.
10. Catch a concert
Intimate venues around Santa Cruz let you stand so close to the stage that you might just catch a flying guitar pick.
Santa Cruz has an enormous assortment of performance spaces, including downtown’s dark and cavernous Catalyst Club, which has hosted everyone from Pearl Jam, George Clinton and Snoop Dogg to Midnight Oil, Nirvana and Green Day.
Want a mellower vibe? Check out the Rio Theatre, a vintage 1946 movie theater turned prestigious performing arts venue, with a neon-lined marquee. (Patti Smith and Neko Case have both played here.) Or make a visit to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a sleek space with just 200 seats.
If you have the time and the means, it would be possible to get a healthy, rib-trembling blast of funk, hip-hop, jazz and Americana almost every night of the week.
Amy Ettinger is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz. email: Travel@sfchronicle.com
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