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July 08, 2024

Santa Cruzin'

By Sand Pilarski

One of a three part series.

Santa Cruz is a small town on the northern curve of Monterey Bay on the coast of California. With its small beaches, its small beach boardwalk amusement park, and its small downtown, what it is best known for is for being lovely little Santa Cruz, a microclimate of weather, tolerance, and fun unlike any other place.

I was looking to beat the Central Valley heat (100-plus) and find some peaceful places to think about life, the universe, and good food, so I started checking the daily weather reports for Santa Cruz on the internet (use zip code 95060) and packing for chilly weather, nice weather, and beach. Days in the summer on the central coast frequently stay in the 60’s or less as the coastal fog (politely referred to as “the marine layer”) ebbs and flows from the ocean. If it backs off, you roast. If it’s in, you shiver and wipe fog droplets from your face. In the tiny shops that crowd downtown Santa Cruz, it can be 15 degrees warmer than on the beach. Now where were they calculating their temperature? Looking at the rising barometer, I banked on touristy beach clothes, with one jacket each and one comfy evening outfit for sitting out listening to the ocean and the other tourists. Good thing I didn’t play the lottery, too.

As we headed south from the valley past San Jose, we ran the car’s air conditioning on high. We climbed the Santa Cruz mountains and turned the AC down a little to spare the engine. We got to within sight of the city, and opened the windows to let in a flood of crisp, cool fresh air. In about an hour and 15 minutes, the temperature had dropped 30 degrees. We’d gone from the golden dry grasslands and irrigated farms to convoluted mountains of sequoia and pine and oak. The sun was shining, and the sky was cloudless -- a good indication so far of perfect sunny beach weather.

We stopped for a late lunch at the Peachwood Restaurant, at The Inn at Pasatiempos, off Route 17 before you enter Santa Cruz. Beautiful gardens surround the restaurant, which offers outdoor deck dining (no insects, either) as well as luxurious indoors seating. The restaurant’s name comes from its signature use of peach wood for grilling meats, which imparts an indefinable but savory taste. As my husband and I watched hummingbirds flitting and diving among the gladiolus and dahlias, foxglove and hydrangeas, we ordered fume blanc wine for me, a rich and fragrant zinfandel for him. Our peach-flamed entrees were lamb chops and baby back ribs, respectively.

Santa Cruz Flowers

The presentation of the food was nice, but the flavor was exceptional! Perhaps those were the best lamb chops I have ever had. The ribs were also tender and tasty, though a little spicy to me. Waffle-cut fries adorn the plates, along with perfectly done mixed asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, and carrots. Dessert? A creation called Flour-less Chocolate Cake. In some societies, desserts like that are banned. People stop giving a hang about the regime when they get concentrations of chocolate like that in such an agreeable form. If you get to Santa Cruz, make the Peachwood a place to dive in and enjoy!

Our lodgings were at the Seaway Inn. We long ago used to stay at what was called the Dream Inn, a distinctive place right on the beach. Alas, it changed hands several years ago and was devoured by a conglomerate. Now it has no personal identity, the bar is lackluster, and the chef that used to be there -- we believe he escaped to pursue his culinary expertise elsewhere. And they doubled their rates, preferring to cater to the specialty wedding crowd, which is both ludicrous to see and oh, so tasteless.

The Seaway is right across the street, half the price, and twice as clean, if not quite as spacious. It’s quieter, too. There are cheaper places to stay in Santa Cruz, but you’d regret it, for it’s less than a full block from the beach. The photo of the beach was taken from right outside our room.

Ah, the beach. Due to Santa Cruz having its own little harbor within a bay, the weather is moderated and the waves are gentle, with a little kelp seaweed floating around, and the beach is loaded with people both in and out of the water, something you don’t see much farther north than San Diego! We walked along the beach in the little white froth from the waves, watching hardy souls splash and frolic in the waves. The water was cold, but pleasant -- a few degrees warmer than it usually is due to the El Nino currents. Indeed, the El Nino Effect is what has prompted us to try a summer visit.

The beach at Santa Cruz

The beach is wonderful, and the evening exploits wind down with fried calamari at the Mainsail Bar in the West Coast Santa Cruz Hotel (that which used to be the Dream Inn). The calamari appetizer is quite pleasant, a buttermilk-dipped creation then dredged in seasoned flour. I accent this with a pinot grigio wine from the local Bonny Doon Winery. Remember that name: Bonny Doon. The wine had a dark, sharp taste, and a yeasty smell that reminds one of diseased corks. Should be called Bonny DOOM. Blechh, as the connoisseurs say. I switched to a fume blanc. Nevertheless, lack of identity or no, the Mainsail Bar has a magnificent view of the beach and the harbor.

Then it’s back to the lodgings to listen to the live bands on the street and sip glasses of wine with the feet up on a stool, watch the skater-dudes ratcheting along, and all the energetic tourists and local young folks dancing and interacting. The fog of the marine layer drifts in across the boardwalk and beach, fuzzing the lights of the rollercoasters and ferris wheel, and mellowing noise to a hum. Let the rest of the world go on by, here in Santa Cruz we're in cool, safe harbor, with only the sounds of joy and merriment in the air.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-07-27
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