One of my favorite weekend surf trips to do while I was a teenager was to cruise down the coast to Santa Cruz. Other than Ocean Beach San Francisco, it is arguably the best place to score waves this far up the California coast.
Santa Cruz is the true ‘surf city’ in California. Yeah sure, you can claim Huntington Beach all you want because of the history of the surf contests, pier, or the Surfer’s walk of fame, but until you see and experience the people and surroundings of Santa Cruz and it’s culture, you will change your mind. The wave quality is money no matter what the swell direction, weather or tide gives you. There is somewhere to surf. Santa Cruz is probably most well known for the Beach Boardwalk, a tourist attraction that has roller coasters, funhouses, funnel cake alongside the beach, but there is so much more beyond that scene that makes Santa Cruz truly great and one of a kind.
Most people come into Santa Cruz from Highway 17 from the San Jose area through the mountains that brings you to Midtown S.C. A good friend of mine who I grew up with has family friends who run a place called Bocci’s Cellar right off River St. You’d drive right past it as it’s located by several public storage units, but Bocci’s is a classic dive. There are Bocce Ball courts and pool tables, as well as killer food and a great atmosphere to watch the game. As far as grub went, I always went with the beef and grilled onion sliders. They also provide you with warm bread at the table, with olive oil and balsamic which is awesome to snack on. This combination before a chilly surf session was always necessary.
As far as Surfing goes, Steamer’s Lane is probably the most well known spot in Santa Cruz to outsiders. O’Neill runs its Coldwater Classic here for some of Surfing’s best up-and-comer’s, and the wave is legit. It breaks right off the cliff near the lighthouse on West Cliff Drive and goes right. Since Santa Cruz faces south and relatively picks almost any swell up, and Steamer’s will come to life on all of those occasions and pack a really fun and powerful wave. Steamer’s is sort of unique in where you will find all kinds of surfers on that wave. From WCT surfers like Nat Young and local legends like Peter Mel or Ken Collins, to older guys on shortboards or even younger kids ripping single fins. There will even be some cute looking sea otters playing in the kelp beds, but be careful, they can be aggressive if you get too close. The wave keeps reforming and re-breaking down the point depending on swell size, so if you’re in the right spot, you could find yourself riding until your legs get sore. It’s the good kind of sore, though.
As you drive down West Cliff back towards Midtown, depending on the strength of the swell, you will start to see those re-breaks of the same wave that comes through Steamers Lane and become a different spot that surfers will poach off of. Before you arrive at the Boardwalk, there is a spot that will be lined with more longboarders; this is Cowell’s. The scene here is a little less aggressive than the takeoff up near Steamers and is still a bitchin ride to try and dance towards the nose. In between Cowell’s and Steamers Lane there is another spot called Indicators that gets really good.
There are a LOT of food options in Santa Cruz. I could recommend Pizza, Mexican, Thai, etc, but sometimes you just need a really good Cheeseburger, and that’s where Jack’s comes in. Located off the main drag of downtown (Pacific Ave, Jack’s is right off of Lincoln St) there isn’t much to say about Jack’s other than it is just a damn good burger. Sometimes all we need after a surf is a cheeseburger and fries right?
If you’re not heading in the direction of Midtown but heading east, your other option (and possibly better option depending on who you ask) is Betty Burgers. Another straight classic joint, Betty’s has great outdoor seating and burgers as large as 1 pound for those of you who come hungry. My favorite burger was The Duke, which came with Teriyaki and grilled pineapple, but I highly recommend the Milkshakes and malts, your stomach will leave extremely full, but your soul will leave happy.
Heading towards East side Santa Cruz, you will start to hit the avenues on your way to Pleasure Point. 26th Avenue is probably the most well known access point down to this little gem of a beach. Really nice to relax and take the family, plus the waves on the right swell PUMP through here. You’ll also see a bunch of skimboarders hitting the shore pound, so beware if you’re looking to just wade right on the shore, I’ve seen several people get taken out when they turn their backs to the beach. NEVER turn your back on the ocean. These spots in between Pleasure Point and Westside can get a little more localized, so make sure you’re giving respect out in the water before you’re cutting people off or not looking to see if someone is taking off deeper. They know what they’re doing more than you.
Another good local joint my good friend Jackson and I discovered while visiting his older brother on the east side of Santa Cruz was Aloha Island Grille. If you have had Hawaiian food before, you’ll dig Aloha. Short ribs, Kalua Pork, Chicken Katsu, take your pick. Either of those, along with a good portion of sticky rice and macaroni salad, is so good. They always have surf flicks playing on the big screen in the back, and tons of surfboards hanging from the rafters. So if you’re looking for a casual lunch spot to reenergize, you can fuel up here and eat inside or on the outside counter. You can also find those Hawaiian Sun tropical drinks in a can here, for those who have had the pleasure of tasting these nectars while on the islands.
Pleasure Point is the other most well known area to surf in Santa Cruz other than Steamer’s Lane. You can kind of compare the two between where you are located, east or west side. West Side is going to stay towards Steamer’s Lane, and East Side will swear by Pleasure Point. That doesn’t meant that surfers don’t mix between the two, just that each side of town has its own all-star break to brag about. Both are excellent breaks off the reef that offer a lot of options on where to surf. The wave can handle all types of varieties of shapes just like Steamer’s, so don’t be afraid to longboard, fish, or shortboard it up. Unless it gets on the bigger side, you might want some performance for those heavier sets. You can even see Jack O’Neill’s house (of O’Neill Surf brand, based in Santa Cruz) from Pleasure Point.
If you find yourself in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley for a good amount of time, or if you are traveling up the coast from Central or Southern California, Santa Cruz is definitely a place to end up spending a day/night or weekend. It distances itself away from the ritzy lifestyle that is seen down in nearby Monterey and Carmel, and provides a little bit of attitude and character by the sea. I love Santa Cruz, because it’s no B.S. They like to be unique and not associated with anyone else, because they have their own identity mixed into the surf world.