Santa Cruz needs no introduction. The famous city on the Pacific Ocean is known the world over for its great surfing. But my experience with Santa Cruz has always been a bit different. My family had a boat there when I was growing up, and most of my childhood weekends were spent sailing. When we weren’t on the water, we were usually at the beach, leaving a lot of Santa Cruz to be discovered.
Enter my Northern California road trip. My mother and I drive up to Santa Cruz from Monterey and have a lot of exploring to do. Visit California has arranged a stay for us at the new Hotel Paradox, and we arrive ready to see a new side of the city.
The hotel itself fits perfectly with that theme. Located a short drive from the ocean, it eschews the beach vibe for a forest one in a nod to Santa Cruz County’s abundance of mountainous land. The lobby smells of trees and the front desk is made of a giant single piece of wood. Little details like squirrels on the walls round out the picture, and our room is even done in a natural color scheme.
Outside of the hotel, we continue our discovery of Santa Cruz thanks to Christina and Rachel from the Santa Cruz County Visitors Council.
They take us on a tour of Santa Cruz, heading along West Cliff Drive, which borders the ocean. We go out to Natural Bridges State Beach to admire the huge rock formations, then head back along the water to stop at the Surfing Museum, which is in a historic lighthouse.
Next to it is Steamer Lane, one of the most famous surfing spots in Santa Cruz. We watch the surfers for awhile, then head over to a surfing statue on the cliffs.
Back in the city, we make a special stop to see a brand new addition to Santa Cruz’s surfing culture: a mural honoring wet suit pioneer Jack O’Neill on the site of his original O’Neill Surf Shop at Cowell Beach. The 55-foot mural features pictures of O’Neill, a Santa Cruz icon, and its debut coincides with the opening of a lounge in his honor at the adjacent Dream Inn.
After soaking up the beach culture, we drive past the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an oceanside amusement park with roller coasters and fun fair rides that I looked longingly out onto during many sailing trips as a child. But instead of stopping there, we go for a walk around Downtown Santa Cruz.
My mother and I discovered a great place called Verve Coffee Roasters on Pacific Avenue that morning, and we head back to the area for lunch at Laili, a restaurant specializing in flavors from the Silk Road. The flatbreads are excellent, and we eat our fill before a busy afternoon at the farmers’ market.
Our tour guides at the market are chefs from a local restaurant group that owns Soif downtown and La Posta in the Seabright neighborhood near the harbor. Executive Chef Katherine Stern and her colleague Mark take us to the Downtown Santa Cruz market, which is open on Wednesday afternoons, and walk us through their buying process for the restaurants.
We pick up leeks from Rodoni Farms in Davenport, carrots and cabbage from Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, and small turnips from Dirty Girl Produce in Santa Cruz, all the while being introduced to local farms and producers. The experience reminds me how lucky I am to be from a place where fresh produce grows year-round.
After the market tour, we head over to a few of the food shops downtown. First we meet with Susan Pappas, the owner of True Olive Connection on Lincoln Street, to sample excellent olive oils from Greece, California, Spain, and Sicily.
Then we head to the Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street to try some of their inventive seasonal flavors. As we savor parsnip and nutmeg ice cream, we learn from co-owner Zachary Davis that the creamery makes all of its ice cream from scratch, from the pasteurization process to the finished product. He also fills us in on the details of a new restaurant called Assembly that he is opening next month.
After leaving the ice cream shop, we walk down Pacific Avenue, window shopping and basking in the California sun before heading to La Posta for a dinner featuring the food we picked up at the farmers’ market that afternoon.
My mixed citrus salad with puntarelle, artichokes, and avocado is both delicate and fresh, and my main of scallops features fennel and little turnips from the market. Even the bread at La Posta is homemade, a detail I can appreciate as soon as I take a bite.
As we drive back to San Francisco that night, I can also appreciate having seen a new side of Santa Cruz. Beyond the surfing and sailing lies a city full of beautiful landscapes, great food, and creative culture. And while my Northern California road trip has come to an end, my time in my state isn’t over yet. I’m off to Southern California next…