Beautiful Beaches and a Bustling Boardwalkby DON AND ANN JACKSON
When deciding where to take our granddaughters, ages 8 and 14, for spring break this year, we opted for Santa Cruz hands-down. The kids love visiting the Boardwalk, with all its rides, games, and activities, as well as running around on the wide, well-maintained, and often uncrowded beaches. Although Half Moon Bay may be a tad closer beach city, Santa Cruz, just a few miles further south, quite often offers warmer weather and provides more diverse child-oriented entertainment, perfect for a host of new family memories.
What to see and do:
A trip to the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk (www.beachboardwalk.com) with young kids may challenge your comfort zone (the boardwalk can get fairly busy), but we found an infinite number of ways to enjoy the outing. This historic attraction remains the main draw in Santa Cruz, and admission is free, with a few different choices as to how to purchase tickets for the myriad of activities, games, and rides. Playing laser tag in the darkness, trying miniature golf indoors with glow-in-the-dark holes, pushing each other around in twirling bumper cars, or boarding some of the rides, especially the water-soaking Logger’s Revenge, were just part of our fun-filled experience. During the summer, the Boardwalk also hosts outdoor events like their free summer concerts featuring famous rock groups of the past.
Daily beach walks and strolls on the Santa Cruz Wharf to see the resident sea lions are a more peaceful way to pass the time. A visit to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center (seymourcenter.ucsc.edu), where the world’s largest skeleton of an 87-foot Blue Whale is displayed, provides intimate aquarium exhibits, a touch tank, and free tours with admission. Based on recommendations of other grandparents, we took the granddaughters to the popular Mystery Spot (www.mysteryspot.com), where everything seems cockeyed and nobody’s quite sure whether it’s scientific phenomena or optical illusion. It really doesn’t matter because both kids and adults seem enthralled by this out-of-kilter, low admission wonder.
While on the trail, pause to see surfers riding the waves next to the rugged cliffs right below you. Brief stops at the small but enlightening Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point (www.santacruzsurfingmuseum.org) and also at the picturesque Natural Bridges State Beach (www.parks.ca.gov) are recommended. A little history: Back in 1886, three princes from Hawaii's monarchy actually introduced surfing to America in Santa Cruz, so the town legitimately feels they are the continent's Surfing Capital, in spite of Huntington Beach's claim.
Looking for a unique, fun way to tour the area? Try Cruz Carz (www.cruzcarz.com), a funky little yellow two-seater, three-wheel, open-aired scooter with pre-recorded GPS guided tours. Are your kids into trains? If so, visit nearby Felton's Roaring Camp (www.roaringcamp.com) for an hour-long time-warp ride on an 1890's narrow gauge, authentically preserved steam train. Traveling through towering redwoods to Black Mountain's summit is an experience not to be missed. If you're only coming for a day visit to Santa Cruz, you might want to park your car at Roaring Camp and take their other roundtrip train route, operating since 1875, through San Lorenzo River Gorge right to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
Where to stay and dine: Our favorite hotel in Santa Cruz for years has been the landmark Dream Inn (www.dreaminnsantacruz.com), directly on the beach and located next to the Boardwalk and Santa Cruz Wharf. No other local lodging can match its location. Under the guidance of the highly regarded Joie d' Vivre hotel group, it has recently undergone a stylish multi-million dollar renovation that knocked our socks off. And guess what? Our granddaughters actually enjoyed the hotel's pool area and spa (pictured) as much-if not more-than almost any other activity on the trip.
Dream Inn's Aquarius restaurant provides family-friendly menus that are still upscale enough for discerning foodies. Our breakfasts and the staff were especially memorable. Another good choice for accommodations is the historic Casablanca Inn (www.casablanca-santacruz.com) across the street from the popular volleyball beach area. Although not as kid-friendly as the Dream Inn, it remains a great choice for couple's getaways. Our dinner at Casablanca restaurant was an excellent upscale culinary experience at moderate prices, and the kids menu was met with 'two thumbs up'.
Another recommended dining choice is the Ideal Bar and Grill (www.idealbarandgrill.com), a waterfront hangout for sports TV, outdoor seating overlooking the beach, and value dining and drink specials. This eatery can get fairly busy during peak beach season, but is plenty big enough both indoors and out to still be enjoyable any time. An abundance of good dining choices can also be found in the vibrant downtown and at the picturesque harbor or wharf. One of our favorite places away from the busy Boardwalk and beachfront is The Crepe Place (www.thecrepeplace.com), which offers weekend brunch, fresh salads and soups, savory and sweet crepes all day long, a huge outdoor patio, and hosts live music much of the year.Whether you want to spend a day or even a week in Santa Cruz, with or without children, this beach town has a lot more to offer than we ever realized. For all things Santa Cruz, visit www.santacruzcounty.travel.