Annual Household Income: $51,500
Median Home Price: $325,000
Climate: Every day's a beach--only the thickness of your wetsuit changes.
Livability and surfability--the twin mantras of Santa Cruz. Because if the latter were all that mattered, this town would have lost its populace to Maui long ago. To young and weathered Cruzians alike, the lure is unmistakable: a funkified, overly educated beach culture ringed by redwood forests and situated 75 miles south of San Francisco and 30 miles west of Silicon Valley. In hyperkinetic mode, you can feasibly spend the morning playing along Monterey Bay, make a lunch meeting at Oracle in an hour, and then drive up to that other bay to catch Rent or a night game at Candle...uh, 3Com Park. The University of California¡Santa Cruz, just ten minutes to the north (students swear their ocean vistas blow away Pepperdine's in Malibu), provides a comfortable hippie-brainiac atmosphere, and thanks to some 10,000 acres of parkland added to the county register since 1997, the town won't have to rely forever on its big-wave reputation for image points.
THE HOME FRONT: Don't mistake laid-back for reasonably priced. Beach-area (not beachfront) bungalows with three small bedrooms and one and a half baths can easily run into the mid-$200,000s. "It's insanity," one broker allows. Blame it on Silicon Valley folk and surfers with multiple roommates. Beachfront moderns or rehabbed Victorians along desirable West Cliff Drive list for $600,000 and up. (You pay for the sunsets.) Go a few blocks inland for better values in the $250,000 range, or consider neighboring Scotts Valley, which is more affordable and cuts the commuting time to Computerville.
THE BACKYARD: With the prime sailing and kayaking grounds of Monterey Bay at your feet, you almost don't need any other options. There are dozens nonetheless. The surfing elite clusters at Steamers Lane, novices at Cowells Beach. The less-celebrated bodysurfing troupe plies the (slightly) calmer waters of Twin Lakes. On terra firma, cyclists spin along coastal frontage roads between Santa Cruz and the university, while mountain bikers head for the wild and redwoody Nisene Marks route in nearby Aptos. Hikers puff in the shadow of even bigger northern California foliage in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 15 miles north of town. Farther afield, Pinnacles National Monument, about two hours down the coast, and Courtwright Reservoir, in the high Sierra, provide the most accessible and technical topography for climbers.
NINE TO FIVE: University, tourism, and city/county government jobs furnish most of the local paychecks, with UCSC leading the pack (10,000 students require 1,600 full- and part-time faculty and staff). Seagate Technology, in Scotts Valley, offers some computer-industry employment, though most high-tech jobs remain in Silicon Valley.
ON THE TOWN: Get your bearings along Pacific Avenue, the artsy main artery of downtown, much of it rebuilt after the '89 earthquake. Beckmann's Bakery pulls in an ambient mix of local surfers and French-speaking students. For an evening graze, stop by the tasting bar at Whole Lotta Peppers. Afterward, it's upscale eatery time at Pearl Alley Bistro. There are three noteworthy outposts for live music: The Catalyst (Michelle Shocked, Bonnie Raitt, and Indigo Swing have performed here), Palookaville (newer place, newer bands), and Kuumbwa for jazz. Looking for a poetry slam? Not yet--try San Francisco.
PRICE OF PARADISE: Summers can be foggier--and colder--than you'd expect. The university's plans to add 5,000 students (a 50 percent increase) by 2009, coupled with an already huge graduate-and-stay rate of 37 percent, could put a squeeze on housing and the job market.
DON'T BE SEEN WITHOUT: A two-year-old lab/husky/chow mix, unneutered.
BEST OF THE REST SANTA BARBARA, CA: L.A. is close enough--but not too close. CHARLESTON, SC: Saltwater-marsh paddling before lunch, Spoleto jazz toe-tapping after dinner.