If you don't happen to have time to tour the entire state of California, we found a place that almost seems like a microcosm of the state. You have your beaches, your surfers, your Redwood forests and, just an hour away, one of the state's largest and most cosmopolitan cities.
Give up? Try Santa Cruz. Hugging some of California's most scenic coastline, this city offers a sampling of some of the state's most interesting attractions all in one relatively small area. If you're planning a Northern California vacation, don't overlook Santa Cruz.
We were amazed, for example, when we topped off a morning of beach sightseeing with a little seven-mile drive up to the sleepy town of Felton. Almost instantly we were taken from a bustling beach town to a forest so thick you could hardly see through the trees. It's no wonder that the famed "Bigfoot" was spotted in the Redwoods not too far from here, and that today there is a Bigfoot Museum beckoning both the curious and the amused.
Fifteen minutes later we were back in Santa Cruz, enjoying the sweeping coastal views and watching as visitors and locals basked in the winter sun while enjoying lunch at one of the city's many outdoor cafes. Most likely their menu choices included lots of fresh produce - apples, berries, spinach, squash, tomatoes, etc. - as these and other fruits and vegetables are all grown right here. In fact, there does seem to be a lot of attention paid here to diet and exercise. It's hard to be unhealthy in a place where you can easily jog along spectacular ocean cliffs or hike the trails of a half-dozen area state parks.
If we were so inclined - and we weren't on this particular trip - it would be a reasonable day trip from here into the San Francisco Bay area. And that's why you'll want to allow plenty of time for your visit: there is something new every direction you turn.
If you have the opportunity, we'd suggest a midweek visit. That's what we did and, while it's not exactly a ghost town during the work week, there do seem to be plenty of wide-open spaces to explore with little or no concern about traffic. Motels and inns had big empty parking lots during this January visit, and we're told all of that changes on weekends.
Our base of operations was the Hilton Scotts Valley, a good choice for travelers who want their lodging a little ways away from the bustle of the beach. It's just a 10-minute drive from Scotts Valley to the main tourist attractions in the area so it's not at all remote. Yet this particular hotel offers oversized luxury rooms with all of the Hilton amenities and, we might add, some of the most courteous and helpful hotel employees we have encountered. Since the hotel is just a little north of Santa Cruz, it's a convenient location for doing daytrips in all directions. In addition to the Redwoods and Santa Cruz attractions, there are about 40 Santa Cruz mountain wineries also within an easy drive.
Driving into Santa Cruz, you first wind your way through the downtown area where it soon becomes apparent that this is a beach city in every sense of the term. Like many other coastal cities, this beach berg does attract down-to-earth non-conformists who, for example, don't have any hesitation using hair colors that looked like they were chosen from a box of crayons. Think about your worst fashion nightmare for your teenage kids, and that's what you sometimes see on the streets of Santa Cruz - which, of course is part of the charm. You don't travel just to see places exactly like home.
Out on West Cliff Drive, where the views from these coastal bluffs are painting-perfect, you encounter the surf crowd. On any given day, dozens of free-spirited surfers are paddling out to ride some of Northern California's most challenging waves. Long, narrow concrete stairways give the surfers easy access to the water not far from where the waves break. On the bright, sunny day we visited, maybe half of the pedestrians along West Cliff Drive were carrying surfboards.
Indeed, this part of town is Surf Central. There is even a small but informative Surfing Museum where we enjoyed looking at exhibits that detail the decade-by-decade evolution of the sport. Housed in a former lighthouse, the Surfing Museum includes lots of memorabilia and examples of different types of surfboards - some so big and heavy that one wonders how the original surfers ever managed to get these things to and from the beach.
About a five-minute drive and we were downtown again. Just another few blocks out to the beach and we had arrived at the city's famed boardwalk. The roller coaster, thrill rides and buildings of the Boardwalk are an indelible part of the local skyline and visitors enjoy the nostalgia of visiting the West Coast's only seaside boardwalk. The 75-year-old roller coaster is said to be just as thrilling as any of the newer ones, and that has been augmented by a host of other, more modern rides. Of course there are the bumper cars, the carousel, the huge arcade and, uniquely, a broad and beautiful beach where you can sun yourself and, in summer, enjoy a dip in the ocean.
The boardwalk area is only one of the many beaches and coastal vantage points in the area, a region many people put at the top of their list for California beach vacations. Several state beaches are just south of Santa Cruz in the Capitola and La Selva Beach areas. You can designate a morning or afternoon and take a scenic drive north on Highway 1 where you'll pass through Davenport and come to more beaches including Waddell State Beach. An interesting non-beach excursion takes you north from the city on Highway 9 to the Roaring Camps Railroad where you can ride a historic steam train into the Redwoods.
Our own drive north on Highway 9 was short but productive. Not only did we get a look at Henry Cowell State Park with its towering redwoods, trickling streams and recreation trails, but we also had a chance to stop by the small, inconspicuous wood building that now houses the Bigfoot Museum. Most days, proprietor Mike Rugg is watching the store all by himself and, no doubt, will be more than willing to share with you his many Bigfoot stories — as he did with us.
Understand that Mike has never actually seen a Bigfoot - at least not that he can say with any degree of certainty. But he became convinced about the creature's authenticity when he did a college term paper on the subject. While the professor gave him only a "C" on the report and dismissed his research as having as much - or little - validity as a UFO sighting, Rugg was undeterred.
Bigfoot is supposed to be a creature perhaps eight feet tall that resembles a gorilla and is said to roam remote mountain regions of the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and other locations. While little scientific evidence supports the claim, there are hundreds of sightings reported and one grainy home movie that Rugg is convinced is the real deal. The Bigfoot Museum features a six-foot-high blowup of a frame from that movie and Rugg has numerous footprint casts and other items on display to help convince you he's right. Since the museum opened in July, visitors have added many more sightings to his wall-size pin map showing just where Bigfoot has been spotted.
Whether it's hairy creatures in the mountains or colorful creatures downtown, Santa Cruz offers a surprising collection of curiosities and attractions that make it a unique destination - a truly flavorful slice of California.
WHERE: Santa Cruz is on the California coastline between San Francisco and Monterey. Those planning California beach vacations will find the beaches are never far away.
WHAT: A particularly scenic area that offers many miles of scenic beaches, coast drives, state parks and several access points to Redwood forests and parks. The city itself offers the West Coast's only beachfront boardwalk. Accommodations range from inexpensive motels to luxurious spa resorts. Whether you're into cheap vacations or total pampering, the area has something for you.
WHEN: Year-round, as temperatures are typically moderate. In winter, the boardwalk is open only on weekends. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, it is open all week. You'll find great travel deals in the winter so be sure to check with the Visitor Bureau for any vacation packages. If you have last minute travel plans in the winter, you'll have no trouble finding accommodations.
WHY: You'll find many different getaway experiences and visitor attractions in an area that is easy to navigate. It's an ideal spot to include in your Northern California vacation itinerary.
HOW: For more information, contact the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitor's Council at (800) 833-3494 or visit http://www.santacruz.org. For more information on the Hilton Santa Cruz/Scotts Valley, phone (831) 440-1000 or visit www.santacruzscottsvalley.hilton.com. For a recommended list of local lodgings, please click here.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If this coastal city is your idea of a California vacation, be sure to check out California Weekend articles on other destinations not far from the Bay area: Sausalito, Monterey and Point Reyes.