There’s no place like Santa Cruz. Not even elsewhere in the wacky Bay Area can you find another town that has embraced the radical fringe of the nation and made it into a municipal-cultural statement quite like this.
In Santa Cruz, you’ll find surfers on the waves, nudists on the beaches, tree-huggers in the redwood forests, tattooed and pierced punks on the main drag, and families walking the dog along West Cliff Drive. Oh, and by the way, that purple-haired woman with the tongue stud might well be a dedicated volunteer at her local PTA.
With the kind of irony only Santa Cruz (a town that has openly decriminalized marijuana) can produce, a massive illegal fireworks storm erupts over the beaches in patriotic celebration each Fourth of July.
Most visitors come to Santa Cruz to hit the Boardwalk and the beaches. Locals and UCSC students tend to hang at the Pacific Garden Mall and stroll on West Cliff. The east side of town can get dicey, especially a few blocks from the Boardwalk, while the Westside tends more towards families with children. The food of Santa Cruz qualifies as a hidden treasure, with myriad ethnicities represented.
The Santa Cruz area includes several tiny towns that aren’t inside Santa Cruz proper, but blend into each other with the feeling of beach-town suburbs. Aptos, Capitola, and Soquel all lie to the south of Santa Cruz along the coast. Each has its own small shopping districts, restaurants, and lodgings. They’ve also got charming beaches all their own, which can be as foggy, as crowded, or as nice to visit as their northern neighbors.
While it can be fun to explore Santa Cruz just by using your innate sense of direction and the bizarre, those who want a bit more structure on their travels can hit the Santa Cruz Visitors Center (1211 Ocean Ave., 800/833-3494, www.santacruzca.org) for maps, advice, and information.
If you’re driving to Santa Cruz from Silicon Valley, you’ve got two choices of roads. Most drivers take fast, dangerous Highway 17. This narrow road doesn’t have any switchbacks and is the main truck route “over the hill.” Most locals take this 50-mile-per hour corridor fast—probably faster than they should.
Each year, several people die in accidents on Highway 17, and I once crashed my vehicle into an overturned pickup truck on Big Moody curve. So if you’re new to the road, keep to the right and take it slow, no matter what the traffic to the left of you is doing. Check traffic reports before you head out; Highway 17 is known to be one of the worst commuting roads in all of the Bay Area, and the weekend beach traffic in the summer jams up fastin both directions too.
For a more leisurely drive, you can opt for two-lane Highway 9. The tight curves and endless switchbacks will keep you at a reasonable speed; use the turnouts to let the locals past, please. On Highway 9, your biggest obstacles tend to be groups of bicyclists and motorcyclists, both of whom adore the slopes and curves of this technical driving road. The good news is that you’ll get an up-close-and-personal view of the gorgeously forested Santa Cruz Mountains, complete with views of the valley to the north and ocean vistas to the south.
Visitors planning to drive or bike around Santa Cruz should get themselves a good map, either before they arrive or at the visitors center in town. Navigating the winding, occasionally broken-up streets of this oddly shaped town isn’t for the faint of heart. You’ll find that Highway 1 at the interchange to Highway 17, and sometimes several miles to the south, is a parking lot most of the time. No, you probably haven’t come upon a major accident—it’s just like that all the time.
Parking in Santa Cruz can be its own special sort of horror. Downtown, head straight for the parking structures. The same goes for the beach and Boardwalk areas.
In town, the buses are run by the Santa Cruz METRO (831/425-8600 www.scmtd.com, adults $1.50/single ride, passes available). With 42 routes running in Santa Cruz County, you can probably find a way to get nearly anywhere you’d want to go on the METRO.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition