Story By: Laurie Jo Miller Farr
“This Is How We Cruz!”
Every Californian appreciates the incredible diversity of the Golden State, a feature that’s especially easy on the eye along its stunning coastline. Underscore that natural beauty by taking a shore-hugging drive from Napa to Santa Cruz — home to 300 days of sunshine, 29 miles of beaches, and the birthplace of surfing on the U.S. mainland.
Against the quintessential beach town backdrop of white spray and wetsuits, there’s much more to the Santa Cruz County story, including distinctive wine, towering redwoods, and the pretty pastel-painted seaside village of Capitola.
THINGS TO DO
Along West Cliff Drive, villas on the bluffs with enviable ocean views line the way to Steamer Lane. Head to the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Have a look inside for its compelling display on the evolution of the sport. On the lawn overlooking the famous surf break that attracts experienced surfers, a bronze plaque tells the story of three Hawaiian princes who introduced surfing to Santa Cruz using hand-carved surfboards made from local redwood trees in 1885.
It’s startling that a 20-minute drive separates ocean waves from a majestic old-growth redwood forest, but that reality defines Santa Cruz County. Embrace the local outdoor culture by taking a picnic to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park; to find a picturesque spot, just follow the Redwood Grove Loop Trail on a leisurely three-quarter-mile hike.
For something completely different, visit Annieglass Studios and retail shop in Watsonville. Known for its quality and unique designs, two Annieglass pieces are on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Reserve ahead for Pour & Tour, a wine bar and Craftbar for an introduction to the handcrafted pieces produced onsite and embellished by several highly skilled artisans. // www.annieglass.com
“America’s Premier Mountain Appellation” is one of California’s oldest wine regions, dating back to the 1870s when Paul Masson and Charles Lefranc planted their precious Burgundy cuttings. Here, in the large Santa Cruz Mountain AVA that spans three counties, wineries tend to be small, family-owned-and-operated, no-nonsense affairs tucked into rugged landscapes.
Seventy wineries farm 1,300 acres of vineyards, evenly divided among Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and other varietals, notably Merlot and Zinfandel.
One of the most picturesque is Lester Estate Wines at Deer Park Ranch in Aptos. It’s a sprawling 210-acre site about three miles from Monterey Bay. Among rolling hills, pastures, and redwood groves, 15 acres are dedicated to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines planted in 1998 by Dan and Pat Lester. Production is small, so guests who reserve for the Tasting Barn or an outdoor wine tasting on a Saturday afternoon are indeed fortunate. // www.deerparkranch.com
Nicholson Vineyards is a small production winery and farm run by 11th generation Californians Marguerite and Brian Nicholson in the Corralitos foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Open on weekend afternoons, a dog-friendly patio has tables and sunbrellas right beside the vineyards and olive groves. // www.nicholsonvineyards.com
In Downtown Santa Cruz on Church Street, there’s a pleasant option for wine tasting at Birichino Wine Tasting Room. Curated wines from Central Coast and beyond are served by knowledgeable staff at an attractive custom cast pewter bar; floor-to-ceiling windows look onto tables and sunbrellas that spill out onto the sidewalk. Founded in 2008 by two industry pros and winemakers, Alex Krause and John Locke. Their Saint Georges 2018 Pinot Noir was poured for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House in 2021. // www.birichino.com
EAT & DRINK
Downtown is as lively as the city’s young mayor, Sonja Brunner, who also runs operations at the Santa Cruz Downtown Association. Stroll along tree-lined Pacific Avenue with its sidewalk tables, public art, street performers, vintage cinemas, and a staffed visitor kiosk. Keeping everything friendly, tidy, and ticking over nicely, helpful Downtown Ambassadors work seven days a week on Pacific Avenue and side streets to support a positive experience for visitors, workers, and residents alike.
Also downtown, family-run since 1948, Zoccoli’s is Santa Cruz’s favorite deli. Gabriella Café is a charming date night magnet. Anchoring it all, Abbott Square is a dynamic plaza and marketplace with six restaurants, two bars, and courtyard seating where free music performances and public art are staged. Five years in the making, the new plaza is adjacent to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Tip: Work up an appetite browsing the shelves in the spacious and historic Bookshop Santa Cruz Bookstore nearby, such a rarity these days.
Set into the cliffs above Capitola Village overlooking Soquel Creek, Shadowbrook is a destination restaurant with no fewer than four cozy fireplaces, known as one of the nation’s most romantic dining spots since 1947. // www.shadowbrook-capitola.com
Several restaurants also worth a look are Bittersweet Bistro, La Posta (from Soif proprietor Patrice Boyle), Sanderlings at the Seascape Beach Resort, and Avanti. Alderwood and Mentone (from David Kinch of Manresa) were recently “tagged” in a new category by Michelin, indicating that the inspectors may see star potential.
Drinks and a tasty meal with a seaside view are always a good idea. Onsite at the Santa Cruz Dream Inn and adjacent to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge welcomes guests with its nostalgic black-and-white photos of the surfing legend and wetsuit pioneer, as well as images of his original surf shop, plus live music nights for a true sense of place. // www.jackoneillrestaurant.com
WHERE TO STAY
For sandy days on Cowell Beach, afternoons strolling the Santa Cruz Boardwalk or riding the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster and evenings walking the Santa Cruz Wharf jutting a half-mile out into the sea, the retro-chic Santa Cruz Dream Inn delivers. Valet parking is a treat, and a room with a view is guaranteed—all the guest rooms face the ocean. There’s a heated outdoor pool and hot tub surrounded by chaise lounges, cabanas, fire pits, and a poolside bar for drinking in spectacular sunsets. Sweet dreams. // www.DreamInnSantaCruz.com
In addition to B&Bs such as the Victorian-era West Cliff Inn, new hotels are opening in spring 2022: Courtyard by Marriott near Main Beach and a Tapestry Collection by Hilton in Aptos.
The Visit Santa Cruz County website is filled with up-to-date information. To plan a visit, log onto www.visitsantacruz.org.