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When you conjure an image of California in your minds’ eye, does it all start with the golden sun beating down on a gorgeous beach?
To experience the scenery, smells and attractions in real life, all you need is a Santa Cruz weekend.
Just two hours south-west of San Francisco, Santa Cruz feels like getting away from it all without the lengthy road trip to match.
It’s got everything a quintessential Californian coastal town could possibly offer locals and tourists alike.
Stunning views, bikes and natural wonders, a thriving boardwalk with games and rides stretching for miles, not to mention the glittering beaches.
So where do we begin? How about the Tourist Information Center? I know that lots of people give them a wide berth, but they’re an amazing resource.
SANTA CRUZ COUNTY
Called the Visit Santa Cruz County office, the tourist information center is a gold mine of information that’s especially useful if you’re not much for planning.
I decided on a Santa Cruz weekend on a bit of a whim, and after visiting The Mystery Spot (more on that later) I was at a little bit of a loss. Of course I knew there were a million great things to do, but which were best for the weekend I was there?
The Water Street office is practically bursting with flyers and maps but if you want the lowdown quick, talk to the staff.
In my experience they were really helpful, asked the types of things I liked to do then made suggestions, drew itineraries on maps that made it obvious they’d listened to my interests and took them into account.
SANTA CRUZ BOARDWALK
No Santa Cruz weekend is complete without a trip to the boardwalk. If you’ve ever watched Grease or similar 70s films, you know all about the boardwalk.
It’s basically a wooden walkway on the beach or over the water. Santa Cruz’s is so great because it’s a carnival.
Spanning a mile of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the boardwalk has more than 40 rides and attractions, restaurants, midway games and mini golf.
During the summertime it hosts a great range of free concerts that bring in crowds from all over the place.
SANTA CRUZ WHARF
While you’re there, take a walk down the Santa Cruz Wharf. You can actually drive down it and park there if you have mobility issues. Parking rates depend on how long you spend there.
You can rent a boat from there, take your pick of one of the many seafood restaurants that line the wharf or go shopping.
My favourite part would have to be seal watching though. And depending on when you visit you may also catch glimpses of dolphins and migrating whales.
SANTA CRUZ SURFING MUSEUM
Even if you aren’t a beach bum keen on riding the waves at every opportunity, the Surfing Museum is worth a stop on your Santa Cruz weekend.
Plus it’s a tiny museum, inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, where you’ll see photographs, surfboards and other “artifacts”.
The best part, though, is that it’s right above Steamer Lane – an internationally renowned surf site, where you can watch surfers catch wave after wave. It’s completely mesmerising.
SWIFT STREET COURTYARD
Being so close to the ocean there are heaps of great seafood restaurants and cafes that you can stop into for lunch or dinner.
But you may want to consider putting together a little picnic lunch and heading over to the beach or a National/State Park to eat it.
Head over to the Swift Street Courtyard and put together a lunch from the grocery store’s salad bar or do what I did and check out Kelly’s French Bakery.
The line was out the door the whole time I was there. The bakery has quite a reputation among locals and I wasn’t disappointed.
Bread, sandwiches, cakes, pastries, soup, fries and salads all grace the menu board and it’s tough to decide what to get.
While you’re in the courtyard, visit a few of the six wine tasting rooms or the gastropub.
MONARCH BUTTERFLY NATURAL PRESERVE
If you’re visiting between October and April you might be lucky enough to see a veritable swarm of Monarch Butterflies.
The preserve sits inside of the Natural Bridges State Beach, and you’ll need to pay an entry fee if you’re bringing a car in. But there is some parking just outside the park and the walk in isn’t too long.
The butterflies arrive in Santa Cruz’s relatively warmer climates during the winter months and hang off the branches and leaves of eucalyptus trees.
As the days warm up, you’ll see them fluttering from tree to tree. It’s a sight to behold.
A QUICK HIKE
From the Monarch butterfly area, follow the Monarch Trail as it connects to the Moore Creek Trail.
It’s an easy short hike, but if you want to get to the beach it involves a bit of a climb. Or at least it did for me.
There must be a way to get around the creek to the beach on solid ground, but I couldn’t find it. Instead I climbed up a little rock face to the beach area.
Most of the hike is through bush land on duck board – making it easy to walk and it means you won’t get your shoes wet while going over the marshy ground.
NATURAL BRIDGES STATE BEACH
I definitely recommend a visit to this beach on your Santa Cruz weekend. Mostly because there’s so much to see on this flat beach.
Unlike a lot of beaches along the California coastline, Natural Bridges isn’t just 10 or 20 metres of sand butted up against cliff faces.
The sand stretches back at least a mile, giving you plenty of space to set up towels.
It’s a great spot to view sea birds, whales, seals and otters offshore. And then there’s the beach’s namesake. Natural Bridges.
One of these arches is a little submerged in water (depending on the tide) and acts as a perch for the water birds. Be warned, it can get a bit stinky if the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction.
Scramble to your right and you’ll find rocky outcrops perfect for a little walk, with waves crashing up at intervals, and tide pools to peer at.
At low tide these pools can have anything from crabs to sea anemones and all manner of tiny creatures.
A sunny day, the ocean and fresh sea air all go nicely together. But do you know what would make that trio even better? A glass of wine.
If you just want a sample, one of the best places to go is Swift Street Courtyard, for some great tasting opportunities.
There are 70 wineries and tasting rooms in the region, so I’ll list a couple here for you:
- Nicholson Vineyards: Tastings on weekends between June and August from 12pm-5pm. Picnic tables overlooking the vineyards are provided on a first-come-first-served basis.
- Bargetto Winery: Currently has the first female winemaker in the winery’s 81-year history. It’s creekside tasting room is open daily and they also do tours of the cellars each day at 2pm.
- Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery: Is open Saturdays year round from midday to 5pm, but only opens Sundays during the summer months. You can taste wine or enjoy a glass on the balcony overlooking the vineyards.
- Vino Primo Winebar: On Santa Cruz Wharf, this winebar is open each evening and specialises in Californian wines.
- Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard: Is open every afternoon for tastings in is close to Natural Bridges State Beach.
THE MYSTERY SPOT
The Mystery Spot is a little further inland than the rest of the spots above, but well worth a trip.
Especially if you’ve never been.
Marketed as a “gravitational anomaly” in the middle of a redwood forest and it’s where you can feel like Superman and a little dizzy all at the same time.
Want to know more? Check out this post!