For years, I’d half-joke with myself about being meant to live in Santa Cruz, even though I’d never seen it. So when we finally got there, part of me felt like I was coming home.
Santa Cruz (aka Surf City) is a small beach and surf town with an exceptionally progressive and liberal community (weed, dreads, skaters, surfers, hippies everywhere). Sadly, it also has a high crime rate and a large homeless population, a high percentage of which deal with mental illness and substance abuse. One of my very favorite movies, The Lost Boys, was filmed here in 1987 (with the fictional name of Santa Carla) and you may remember that Santa Carla was dubbed the ‘murder capital of the world’. In the movie, that ties into the vampires that have infiltrated the town but in real life, it was not far from the truth due to a series of serial murders in the 70’s (interesting articles on that here and here). Luckily, our experience was peaceful, perhaps a little gritty and not murderous at all.
After a 6+ hour trip up the coast we were ready to relax with a cocktail and eat. On our search for a dinner spot, we drove down Beach Street and checked out the Wharf and Boardwalk. The seaside amusement park on the boardwalk is one of the last of its kind in the country. Our interest in amusement parks has waned over the years and we did not spend time here, but I believe entry to the boardwalk is free and you pay just for the individual rides. I look forward to walking around at night or in the foggy morning during our next visit. We weaved around the street of Santa Cruz, past Santa Cruz skateboard company’s headquarters and over to Johnny’s Harborside in (you guessed it) the harbor.
The restaurant sits perched above a small marina and we watched fishing boats unloading their catch and sailing classes heading out to open waters. In the distance, we could see the ocean and a huge wall of fog beyond it. I have never seen fog parked so stubbornly and late in the day before. We got to the restaurant during a quiet moment and were seated at a huge window. I follow a rule of not eating at empty restaurants but Johnny’s filled up quickly and was soon buzzing with chatter. The Mann stayed on his fish taco run (third of the trip, if you’re keeping score) and I got a lovely fish sandwich. We had the coolest server, and chatted with her throughout our meal. Seriously, I kind of want to stalk her so we can be friends forever.
The length of our drive finally caught up to us and we decided to head to the hotel for a sunset nightcap. Hotels in Santa Cruz are expensive, especially on the beach (but how cute is the Beach Street Inn?!), so we used our Marriott points at the Paradox (part of the Autograph Collection), which is about a 10 minute drive inland. We were immediately impressed when we walked into the lobby and were greeted by a huge, horizontal eucalyptus tree that had been repurposed into the front desk. We were quickly checked in and sent up to our room on the top floor. The Paradox is very hip without being pretentious. The room had a minimal, forest themed decor and was contemporary, clean and very comfortable. We dropped of our stuff and then headed out to explore the property. At each floor’s landing, there are great quotes and sayings, and we took the stairs each time we headed out to read them and check out the art and decor on each level. The lobby has several cushy lounge areas tucked around every corner and the restaurant opens out to the beautiful pool. We saddled up at the outdoor bar near a heat lamp… temps drop quickly in Santa Cruz, and ordered a wine tasting of California reds. We talked about our magical drive up the coast and watched the pool steam up the outdoor lounge area as the sun went down.
The next morning, we got up and headed back to the pier for one last look before hitting the road to the Mann’s next shoot in Napa. It was early, foggy, deserted and perfect. We walked along the quiet pier, hung out with a bunch of sea lions lounging at the kayak rental platform below, watched early-bird surfers, checked out the surf shops and drank it all in. The pier was quite lively the day before, but I loved its quiet hour. It was not the first time on this trip that I was moved to tears, overwhelmed by being in a place I’ve wanted to visit for years, its quirky beauty, and the fact that I was having a really great hair day.
On our final walk and drive through Santa Cruz, we saw a few familiar train trestles that reminded us of The Lost Boys (one is the Riverwalk next to the Boardwalk and the other near the rotary by the Wharf)…
As we headed inland towards Napa, we decided to take the scenic route through the smaller of two nearby redwood forests, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The proximity of nature to central and north coast California cities was shocking to us. Boston has a lot of green space but you have to travel to hit a proper forest. It took less than 15 minutes to be in the middle of the trees after we left Santa Cruz.
We found a small parking area and, after a 3 minute hike, we were in the middle of the tallest trees we’ve ever seen. Full disclosure: I’m at a loss for words on how to describe this experience. First, the smell… gorgeous, fresh, green, woodsy, that beautiful forest smell that makes you want to never return to civilization and that personally reminds me of the best parts of childhood adventures. And it’s quiet, calm but alive. Even though the road is a few hundred yards away, it feels like you’re deep in nature. Finally, the sights… the redwoods are humbling. They seem wise and, literally, above it all. They are exceptionally tall, deeply textured, wide and breathtaking. My blood pressure dropped, my brain cleared, and for the second time that day, tears rolled down my face from the overwhelming beauty of it all. I still can’t figure out why this hit me so profoundly. Perhaps I forget how essential it is to be in pure nature and when I get there it punches me in the heart.
Once again, we wished we could stay and explore for hours but had to move on. We weren’t ready for the open road, however, so from Henry Cowell we took the the scenic route along Route 9 and drove through picturesque towns and several state parks, unintentionally stumbling upon the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton on the way. Luckily for me and sadly for the Mann, it was closed (but definitely fun to see).
As suddenly as we arrived in nature, we were spat out back on a big highway with shopping malls and sub-divisions all around. We started the next leg of our adventure somewhat sadly, and with dreams of coming back the the central coast in a camper, without time limits, and revisiting the entire area with the time and attention it deserves.
And stay tuned for a look at our east coast road trip from Stuart, FL to Boston.