When Labor Day weekend arrived, Dave and I knew we wanted to drive south down California’s coastal Highway 1.
On Saturday morning, we ventured out and watched the Pacific Ocean to our right as we passed through little towns and counties. Although we’ve been to Half Moon Bay, we hadn’t gone any further than that on the coastal route. I hadn’t expected to see as many crops and farmlands as we did, which were situated both near the water and up the hillsides.
It took about two hours to reach our planned destination, Santa Cruz. I booked an overnight stay at a little motel on the water in a great location, called the Sea and Sand Inn. Since it was a holiday weekend and we planned our trip last minute, there were hardly any rooms available in this popular beach-town, but we ended up in the perfect spot.
The Sea and Sand Inn is no Ritz. It’s old. But it’s somewhat charming. The lobby smelled delicious (homemade cookies are made there every afternoon for guests), and was decorated like a home from the sixties. Our first-floor room may have been tiny and didn’t have air conditioning, but it had gorgeous ocean views and access to a large, communal patio overlooking the beach.
It was lunch-time when we arrived in Santa Cruz, so after checking into the motel (can I just use hotel from here on out?) , we walked about five minutes down the road to the Santa Cruz Wharf. Like most wharves, this area consisted of a long pier leading out to the water, lined with touristy shops and seafood restaurants.
It was a lovely day with a cool breeze, and the smells included fried seafood and dead fish depending on which way you faced. We made a poor lunch decision, and went with the “fast-casual” Woodies Cafe. Dave got a ho-hum burger, and I got a shrimp louie salad (which seems to be my go-to wharf meal), with far-too-creamy 1,000 island dressing. Not the best lunch, but it filled us up.
After lunch, we walked down to the beach area in front of our motel and laid down our towels for some relaxing. Now that we don’t spend much time in bathing suits, I tend to put on too much sunscreen when in the sun. I spent almost 15 minutes slathering up, only to realize later that day I would end up with zero color. A bit of a fail.
The beach was pretty busy that afternoon, filled with families sitting under umbrellas and tent structures. You could tell that some people had been there all day by the looks of their beach-side campsites, some of which included empty pizza boxes and bags of chips. That being said, with the kiddies running around, it wasn’t exactly a place for a quiet tanning session.
We put our toes in the water, but it was a chilly 54 degrees, so there was no swimming that day.
Overall, the sand and beach area is not as pristine as some Florida beaches we have been. But the views out toward the mountains in the distance are still great, including those of the action on the water. From our spot on the beach, we saw dolphins, stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers enjoying the ocean.
However, beach time was cut short.
The strangest thing started to happen. Flies began swarming us. It appeared to be happening to nearly everyone on the beach sitting up to a certain point, and it wasn’t fun. That ended our beach session, and we packed up and walked back up the hill to our motel.
Back at the motel, we took advantage of the complimentary cookies and refreshments and sat outside on the patio for a while watching people below. You could also see the rides moving up and down at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the distance.
Still in our bathing suits and after snack time, we walked over to check out that craziness at the boardwalk.
It was less than a 10-minute walk away from our motel, and took us into the very busy tourist area. Kids were screaming, parents were fighting and people were crowding the sidewalks.
The beach boardwalk is just as you would expect: Colorful and loud and features fair rides, a huge indoor arcade, restaurants and haunted houses. It’s free to walk around the boardwalk, and you can buy tickets for rides or all-day wristbands.
Knowing that we wouldn’t last long in tourist central, Dave and I opted to buy tickets just for the main attraction, the old Giant Dipper roller coaster. It cost $6 each for ride tickets, which for a 1:52 second ride, seemed reasonable at the time. The line was short and only took about 10 minutes to move along. Since we were only riding one ride that day, we waited a little longer to sit in the front seat.
This was one of those old, rickety, wooden coasters, where your neck bobs around and you move around in the seat under the lap bar. I had to hold my hoop earrings during the drop portions. It was a fun little adventure, and definitely not as scary as some of the big coasters I’ve ridden in Busch Gardens in Florida.
Half an hour at the boardwalk was plenty, and after one ride, we walked back home to shower up for dinner.
For the evening events, we chose to walk to downtown Santa Cruz to seek something away from the beach scene. It was just under a mile to walk there from our hotel and took us through some slightly shady areas, with some questionable hippy types. Downtown Santa Cruz has some good shopping and a few restaurants, but isn’t much to write home about.
We dined at Hula’s Island Grill. It was dark and tropical inside, and the food and drinks were quite good. We had some tasty island-style tuna poke, a BBQ pork plate and a delicious brownie sundae. Definitely not a San Francisco-typical restaurant experience, (which was the plan), and we walked out full and satisfied.
A brisk walk back to the motel, and we called it a night in Santa Cruz.
In the morning, we grabbed some fruit, scones, coffee and tea from the motel’s complimentary breakfast and sat on the patio enjoying the ocean view. It’s so relaxing to look at the open beach before anyone has set up for the day. The water was calm and glistening and all we could hear were birds chirping. There’s something you don’t get in the city — nothing but natural sounds.
After breakfast, we packed up, checked out, and drove down the road to check out Capitola, a tiny seaside, beach-town with a surprisingly European feel. Since we weren’t ready to dine, and weren’t planning on another beach day, we only drove through the packed, winding streets to get the Capitola vibe, then went on our way to our next destination.
So what are my overall thoughts on Santa Cruz? It was perfect for us for this particular trip. Having talked to several people who had been beforehand, we were ready for a Panama City-type experience, and that it was (but much smaller, with less drunk college people and more families).
We were looking for something different than our usual nights in the city. We were looking for some beach time. And we weren’t concerned about finding anything fancy.
I think we saw all there was to see in Santa Cruz in less than 24 hours. The beach, the wharf, the boardwalk and the downtown and that’s that.
If we ever go back to the area, I’d opt for an overnight in nearby Capitola instead. Looked like there were some great vacation rental homes up the hillside.
There are plenty of weekends when we get to enjoy the finer things, but sometimes you just want a cheap and sandy getaway.
Hotel, motel … it’s all good.