Located along Monterey Bay on central California’s Pacific coast, Santa Cruz has become an increasingly popular summer destination spot for visitors of all ages, interests and backgrounds, attracting tourists from every corner of the globe. 70 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz’s unique geography encompasses the best that the state has to offer, featuring awe-inspiring redwood covered mountains, majestic and picturesque sandy beaches perfectly suited for both surfing and adventurous beachcombers, world-class entertainment venues, farm fresh organic farmer’s markets, well established biking and hiking trails, renowned art museums and bookstores, state and national parks, beaches and forests, marine and wildlife preserves, and much, much more. Combine these attractions and resources with Santa Cruz’s famous ‘laid back’ attitude and you have a ‘can’t miss’ vacation experience that is guaranteed to be both memorable and more than worthy of return visits.
The History of Santa Cruz
The earliest known inhabitants of the Santa Cruz region were the Anwaswas, a relatively small Native American tribe whose only significant remaining legacy appears to be the naming of abalone — a large sea snail native to the local waters. The late 18th century saw the arrival of Spanish missionaries and colonists who established Mission Santa Cruz in 1791. Newly independent Mexico took control in the 1820s, and a period of agricultural growth and expansion followed, aided greatly by an abundance of fertile farming and grazing land. The conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848 saw the U.S. take ownership of the region, with California gaining official statehood two years later. Santa Cruz County was soon chartered, with the town itself officially incorporated in 1866.
Subsequently, the completion of the Santa Cruz Railroad opened up commerce, led by the production of leather goods, timber and local limestone mining which all provided the region’s early economic lifeblood. Another major commercial boost came from the California Powder Works, which became an essential (and major) producer and supplier to the U.S. Army and Navy of smokeless powder for their armaments. The industry dominated Santa Cruz’s economy into the early 20th century.
As the new century progressed, so did Santa Cruz in both population and in the diversity of the region’s industry and service sectors. Non-traditional businesses such as organic farming, tourism and technological advancements became identified with Santa Cruz, as well as developing a dedication to a liberal and progressive social and political activism, manifested by adopting unapologetic positions on such issues as immigration, women’s and worker’s rights, marijuana reforms, and standing staunchly opposed to nuclear proliferation.
‘Must See’ Attractions in Santa Cruz
Babyboomers will think they have been magically transported back to the 1950s when visiting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the perfect combination of the classic, the ‘kitschy’ and the modern, offering unending entertainment choices for everyone, regardless of age or interest. Check out the eternally fun-filled Looff Carousel, an always-popular family friendly amusement ride that’s been thrilling visitors since 1911. There’s also the National Historic Landmark Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, providing screams and excitement since 1924. The Boardwalk isn’t all nostalgia and ‘remember when’ however, with acres and acres of shopping, amusement, dining, strolling and leisurely opportunities — all situated just a short walk from sandy beaches and attention-grabbing ocean waves.
One of downtown Santa Cruz’s most popular sites is Bookstore Santa Cruz, the absolute perfect spot for a leisurely morning or afternoon excursion. For over 50 years, thousands of visitors have taken advantage of this landmark establishment, losing many an hour perusing the latest literary releases as well as browsing the Bookstore’s large collection of both rare and used books.
During a visit to the region in 1885, a trio of Hawaiian princes took notice of the excellent ocean waves located up and down Santa Cruz’s shorelines, and taking advantage of the opportunity dragged out their strange-looking plank boards and plunged into the water. Almost immediately, a brand new sport was introduced to the mainland U.S. — surfing. For an educational and entertaining adventure, a visit to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is certain to be an unforgettable experience for both the surfing enthusiast as well as novices to the sport. The museum’s sizable collection offers exhibits stretching back well over a century, chronicling Santa Cruz’s historic place in the popular activity.
It’s a well established fact that Central California produces some of the finest wines in the world, and for the wine aficionado, a Mountains to the Bay Tour should be at the very top of their ‘to do’ itinerary. Every aspect of the winemaking process is covered; from agricultural concerns to harvesting, production and marketing. Always enjoyable and educational, the Tour is guaranteed to deliver.
The world-renowned Seymour Marine Discovery Center should be yet another stop on any Santa Cruz visit. Up close and personal exhibits, entertaining and educational guided tours, and the opportunity to interact with rarely seen deep-sea specimens will leave visitors of all ages clamoring for a return visit.
One of Santa Cruz’s most popular and recognizable attractions is the namesake of Natural Bridges State Beach, a mudstone arch formed by the ocean, estimated to be well over a million years old. This picturesque ‘bridge’ is only the centerpiece of the 65-acre state park, also well known for its annual massive Monarch butterfly migration spectacle.
Santa Cruz’s unique geographical placement is ideal for sightseeing, featuring sweeping vistas, eye-catching natural rock formations, and some of the Pacific Coast’s most spectacular sunsets.
Lodging and Dining in Santa Cruz
As a thriving tourist destination, Santa Cruz quite naturally offers visitors a multitude of dining and lodging options, but unlike other vacation ‘hotspots,’ the area’s well-deserved reputation for being slightly ‘left of center’ extends to their hospitality services. Quaint bed and breakfast inns, frequently housed in homes well over one hundred years old, European styled country manors and all natural farm fresh dining establishments are in abundance, a pleasant and refreshing change from the usual chain lodging and fast food outlets. Some of Santa Cruz’s more unique dining and/or lodging choices include:
The Babbling Brook Inn — Nestled among towering redwoods, with cascading waterfall and yes — a meandering babbling brook, guests will enjoy every aspect and amenity offered at this one-of-a-kind B & B.
The Cliff Crest Bed & Breakfast — Stunning views, spacious comfy rooms adorned in unique decor, combined with unmatched and friendly service makes this turn-of-the-century Queen Anne Victorian-style landmark truly memorable.
The imagination is the only limitation when the subject is dining options in Santa Cruz. A small sampling of options include:
Severino’s Bar & Grill— Breath-taking scenery, an entertaining koi pond and an extensive wine list are just a few of Severino’s unique features,
Your Place — As the name implies, Your Place is a home-away-from-home eatery that features only the freshest in locally grown organic ingredients.
Riva Fish House— Specialty seafood dishes are Riva’s ‘specialty,’ giving diners their choice of the absolute freshest delicacies brought in daily.
From breathtaking natural scenery, historic surroundings, top-notch entertainment, first-class dining and lodging choices, a Santa Cruz vacation is certain to check every box for even the most demanding visitor. Toss in Santa Cruz’s progressive and friendly mindset and rest assured that a visit to this central California oceanside jewel would provide an experience well worth the effort. +