When I was in elementary school my family owned a video store (this was before Blockbuster shuttered all the mom and pop shops). So I grew up on late-70s/early 80s California culture, thanks to the film industry. Santa Cruz still speaks to the 10-year-old in me who wants my impoverished mom to move us cross-country in search of sun, fun, black-belt bullies, and Okinawan life coaches.
When we visited Santa Cruz this spring, I realized it is still washed with that Kodachrome sheen, begging to be left alone in the sunshine of the Carter administration while it worries about what stickers to put on its skateboard, what surf documentary it should be making. Basically, Santa Cruz has been left behind in all the best ways.
The order of the day here is “rent something” — a board, a wetsuit, a bike. Kite board. Windsurf gear. Sure, you could sit it out. In the summer, there are plenty of families who come down to escape the San Jose heat and sit on Main Beach all day. But there’s also a lot more fun to be had by playing hard like the locals do.
1. BE MY TEENAGE DREAM
Hit the roller rink to warm up to wheels-on-feet action. The Santa Cruz Palladium caters to your every blast-from-the-past fantasy.
2. FIND THE PERFECT CURL
Rent a boogie board, a surfboard, or a foam surf board (to bridge that ever-important middle ground for light kiddos who aren’t ready for surf boards but could probably stand up on the foam).
We returned our rented boogie board dry, because, although Alice professed a desire to surf, she thought that wading past her knees was a terribly dangerous idea. The man at Cowell’s Surf Shop, right at the elbow of Main and Cowell’s beaches, took one look at us and offered a coupon for a free rental next time. Thanks, classy surfers. This was an above and beyond move.
Cowell’s beach in general is a great option for smaller kids. It’s a learn-to-surf paradise with teeny waves, no undertow, and a learner-friendly atmosphere.
Sadly, we’ve also seen it closed due to unsafe water. Ew.
Fifty feet away on the other side of the peer the waves are scantly any bigger, and the water can’t be that much cleaner, but there aren’t “Swim at your own risk” signs, so go ahead and pretend the pier pylons in between the two beaches make it all better.
Buy some Dippin’ Dots to ease your worry.
Oh, and afterwards, clean up the kids in spacious, decent restrooms on the boardwalk. You can also feed your meter with a phone app (take a picture of the meter when trying to remember the details from your beach towel two hours later). All of this makes it much easier when you have kiddo ducklings following you wherever you go.
3. GET CLOSER TO THE STARS ON THE BIG DIPPER
It’s no competition for the spanking new steel coasters that drop you 300 feet at angles that actually dip inward. But that’s the point. This wooden coaster has been delighting beach-goers since 1924. It’s a fairly tame, short ride that offers great views and the charm of the seaside town we often forget (ahem, Venice, I’m looking at you).
Join the Golden Era of Roller Coasters and the Golden Era of California right here.
4. COMMUNE WITH THE REDWOOD FOREST
Big trees make a big splash in these parts. Their red bark is often visible in small groves from the sides of the roads which occasionally give way to dark, gnome-filled (surely) woods for quiet contemplation and rowdy kid hikes. Take the chance to get in a little backhanded education about these gentle giants.
They grow 6 times as tall as the Giant Dipper, for one.
They often predate Columbus. They survived the San Francisco earthquake. Forget that — the older trees in the coastal range were seedlings when Christ was born. Some may have lived during the time of ancient Greece, and a few remember Old Kingdom Egypt, going back as far as 5,000 years. As a species, they’ve survived 240 million years.
During all that time, they sucked 40% of their nutrients through the fog that keeps them constantly damp. Dress accordingly.
There’s a zipline tour, of course, but it caters only to ages ten and up and over 75 pounds, which leaves out plenty of ten-year-olds we know.
Alice is even impressed by the giant tree trunk in the lobby of her favorite hotel, Paradox, which sports a mod-tree-y theme. Come for the comfy pillows, stay for the lobby desk. I have no affiliation with Paradox. But the tree made us super-fans. Do the tree thing in a luxe way here and skip the chilly, damp forest if you must.
5. ENCOURAGE CRITICAL REASONING AND DEER FEEDING IN ONE EASY STOP!
Head over to the UC Santa Cruz campus for the best idea of why people want to live here. I once pored over a Sassy magazine college profile that convinced me I wanted to go to school overlooking the ocean, worshipping to local banana slug, and being too smart for my own good.
Well, I was 18 at the time and my dorm at a giant state school in the sunbelt had a pool. It’s own pool. With a rock waterfall. And a sand volleyball court.
Which is why 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions.
Encourage higher standards for your own kids by parking and enjoying the UCSC grounds. There are orchards and fields with friendly deer that eat out of your hands as the fog burns off for the morning. Gorge yourself on berries, depending on the time of year. Teach your kids that social justice pit-bull, general badass, and communist instigator Angela Davis professes here (or did, anyway). It’s the kind of celebrity gawking you might want so that they go on to make better decisions than I did.
The campus also sports the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, a small spot with kid-friendly displays and lots of interactivity.
5. WE’LL SAY IT AGAIN: GET OUT IN NATURE. GET DOWN BY THE WATER
Consider walking out the wharf. It’s a long hike for small kids. Cups of amazing, inexpensive, and can’t-get-fresher crab make it an affordable lunch pitstop, as well as a reward for a walk well done. You can take in views of the shore, the distant cliffs of Pebble Beach, and the lifeguards in training as they run the beach, swim the ocean, and start all over again. Sea lions are ever-present in the fall, winter, and spring.
Santa Cruz is also the winter residence of thousands of monarch butterflies just waiting for spring. Get down to Natural Bridges State Park if you’re in town October-February to see them dangle from the eucalyptus trees. They munch the blossoms and hide from the wind, looking like wacky, moving pinecones.
Tide pools at Natural Bridges State Park also provide some great things to poke for kids of all ages. Anemones, star fish, and crabs in their shells curl up in some of the most spectacular rock formations around.
Santa Cruz is about its water. There are some tourist attractions like The Mystery Spot that might give you some more structured experiences, but for me, this place has always been about nostalgia and nature. Enjoy the beach. Enjoy the trees. Enjoy the chill in the air that nurtures these deep, quiet forests and quiet hippie surfer kids.
Then put on some knee pads, grab some doughnuts, and get to the skatepark.