Some people come to Santa Cruz to surf; others come to stroll the boardwalk and ogle the sea lions. There are thrill rides for children, redwood forests for nature lovers and sunsets for everyone.
San Franciscans, and those of us visiting family in the Bay Area, come for a weekend getaway to this resort city of about 60,000, an easy drive south through the Santa Cruz Mountains.
At the drive’s most scenic point, those rounded peaks give way to an expanse of Pacific Ocean just off Monterey Bay. Here in the heart of New Age California, stressed-out tech workers check into an array of holistic spas and yoga retreats.
And on any given weekend, Bay Area Jews come to Santa Cruz for Kolaynu, a progressive, community-led group whose style — incorporating gender-neutral language and welcoming all orientations — epitomizes West Coast worship.
Despite all this apparent activity, everyone really comes to Santa Cruz to relax. No town embodies the laid-back California spirit quite like Santa Cruz, where the pace is as languorous as the sea lions sunning themselves along the pier.
Santa Cruz has been a favored resort town for well over a hundred years. Most of the original 19th-century buildings were destroyed by earthquakes (notably the 1989 Loma Prieta quake), but a vintage feel persists; the city was formally established in the wake of the Gold Rush. In fact, Santa Cruz is home to what may be the oldest continuously operated Jewish gravesite west of the Mississippi River: Home of Peace, whose earliest tombs date to 1877.
But today’s scene along Pacific Avenue, the main drag, is decidedly modern. Much of that energy comes from the University of California at Santa Cruz, which opened in the 1960s and was a catalyst for an influx of Jewish professionals. Many Jews live in Aptos, a pretty suburb that is home to both the 500-member Temple Beth El — a nexus for the area’s Jewish community — and one of California’s largest farmers’ markets.
The university also ensures a steady influx of youthful activity — and a captive audience for the profusion of artisanal coffee roasters that has sprouted up downtown.
Buskers strum guitars, wail and break out dance moves along the shady boulevards, where sidewalk cafés stay open late for the college set. Yes, there are chain stores like Gap and American Apparel. But local color remains intact with dusty shops selling vinyl records and used books, quirky vintage boutiques, and foodie cookware emporia.
The coast is the real draw in Santa Cruz, though. Numerous parks offer sanctuary for birds and hikers, and the ocean beach boasts some of California’s best waves. But since the city lies at the lip of half-moon-shaped Monterey Bay, its main beach has gentle surf that laps at a wide expanse of sand. If you are Russian, Norwegian or wearing a wetsuit, you may be tempted to jump in for a swim. That Pacific water is too cold for the rest of us — but the volleyball nets hum with activity from dawn to dusk.
Families flock to the old-timey amusements at the Coney Island-style boardwalk park. There’s a vintage carousel, a loud casino arcade, mini golf, a roller coaster and various gentle rides, all wedged into a strip of brightly colored buildings steps up from the sand. The predictable smattering of soft-serve outlets, fried-fish restaurants and tchotchke shops rounds out the waterfront.
Like so many California attractions, it all manages to be both kitschy and entirely authentic — and with scenic views across Monterey Bay to the mountains beyond, it’s also romantic.
That is, until the mood is broken by the very silly barking of Santa Cruz sea lions. These floppy, ungainly Pacific denizens don’t look particularly agile until they hoist themselves onto the scaffolding and flip under the pier, lounging in the sun and posing for tourists snapping sea-lion selfies.
Sunset is a nightly entertainment on the boardwalk. As the moon rises over hazy mountains, crowds gather along the pier, picnicking amid the cries of seagulls and waiting for that moment when the hot-orange sun dips into the silvery horizon.
As the evening throngs ebb, some head downtown for a jolt at Verve Coffee Roasters, a hipster’s mecca for meticulously sourced brews served in a spacious, industrial-chic lounge. Others while away the evening in a hot tub, sinking into the bubbling jets to the sound of waves crashing just beyond.
Either way, here on the shores of Monterey Bay, relaxation is always on the agenda.