The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
The popular beach resort and college town of Santa Cruz (pop. 55,600) sits at the north end of Monterey Bay, a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, at the foot of a 3,000-foot-high ridge of mountains. It’s best known for its Boardwalk amusement park, which holds the oldest surviving wooden roller coaster on the West Coast, and for the large University of California campus in the redwoods above. The city was named by Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá and shares the name Santa Cruz (“holy cross” in Spanish) with the ill-fated mission settlement begun here in 1777. Modern Santa Cruz was all but leveled by an earthquake in 1989 but has since recovered its stature as one of the more diverting stops on the California coast.
The downtown area lies a mile inland, so from Hwy-1 follow the many signs pointing visitors toward the wharf and the beach, where plentiful parking is available. Walk, rent a bike, or drive along the coastal Cliff Drive to the world’s first Surfing Museum (701 W Cliff Dr., in summer Wed.-Mon. 10am-5pm, the rest of the year Thurs.-Mon. noon-4pm, donations), which is packed with giant old redwood boards and newer high-tech cutters, as well as odds and ends tracing the development of West Coast surfing. Housed in an old lighthouse, it overlooks one of the state’s prime surfing spots, Steamer Lane, named for the steamships that once brought day-tripping San Franciscans to the wharf.
A large part of the Santa Cruz economy still depends upon visitors, and there are plenty of cafés, restaurants, and accommodation options to choose from. Eating and drinking places congregate east of Hwy-1 along Front Street and Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, which has a number of engaging, somewhat countercultural book and record shops along with cafés like Zoccoli’s (1534 Pacific Ave., 831/423-1711), which has great soups and sandwiches. The best burgers, veggie burgers, and fries are a block west of Pacific at Jack’s Hamburgers (202 Lincoln St., 831/423-4421). More good veggie food can be had at the Saturn Café (145 Laurel St., 831/429-8505), while the stylish Soif (105 Walnut Ave., 831/423-2020) has fine wines and tasty tapas-like treats.
Motels line Hwy-1, and some nice-looking Victorian-era B&Bs stand atop Beach Hill, between the Boardwalk and downtown, where the Seaway Inn (176 W. Cliff Dr., 831/471-9004, $90 and up) is nice, clean, and reasonably priced. You can also avail yourself of the HI-Santa Cruz Hostel (321 Main St., 831/423-8304, dorm beds less than $30) in an immaculate 1870s cottage. Among the many nice B&Bs is the rustic Babbling Brook Inn (1025 Laurel St., 831/427-2437 or 800/866-1131, $190 and up).