Off the Beach

Having It Both Ways in Santa Cruz

May 28, 2009
Outside Magazine

California's Class IV Kern's warm water and easy, pool-drop character (think water staircase) make it a good float for you and your adventurous 12-year-old. With 30 other guests, paddle 20 miles from Slippery Rock to Democrat Beach and overnight at Kern River Outfitter's private campsite. $420 per person for two days; May–August;


GEOGRAPHICALLY, small towns don't get prettier than Santa Cruz: Redwood-covered mountains stand in the background, and world-class waves break out front. Demographically, they don't get weirder, with crunchy college kids, territorial pro surfers, and Silicon Valley execs all vying for their own overpriced plot of paradise. Santa Cruz isn't so much a melting pot as it is a pouch of heavily spiced trail mix, and with a few well-spent shekels it's easy to taste the best parts.

On a Friday afternoon this spring I set off with my friend Brian to drive south from San Francisco to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, ground zero for the patchouli crowd. Following an eight-mile creekside hike, we arrived at our campground just after dark. Our Ambien was rehydrated chili mac and Bushmills. Our only neighbors: a stand of towering old-growth redwoods.

The next day I met my girlfriend, Jane, in Santa Cruz's sister town, Capitola. My fiscal restraint in the trees allowed us to check in to the Inn at Depot Hill, a dapper 12-room joint a few blocks from the beach. We could smell the Pacific from our outdoor hot tub.

Here's the other thing about Santa Cruz: The food is Alice Waters good, but it comes with the sort of complimentary entertainment you won't find in Berkeley. Our dinner spot, Caffe Lucio, was named after its owner, a dead ringer for Albert Einstein—if Einstein wore a HALF MAN HALF HORSE T-shirt and glad-handed patrons like Bill Clinton at a cheerleader convention. A 50 Cent/Bee Gees mash-up boomed, and a strobe light illuminated the restaurant. In the open kitchen, one of the cooks prepared excellent crab cannelloni wearing a lucha libre mask.

Afterwards, I was tempted by a big night out with the bro-brahs at the Catalyst bar, but the prospect of the next day's surf reined me in. The morning rewarded me with fun, empty two-foot waves at La Selva Beach, 15 minutes south of Capitola. As I bobbed in the ocean, calculating how little each of these waves actually cost me, I realized that I should do this more often.

EXPENSE REPORT Campground (bigba­ $10. Dehydrated chili mac: $15. Bushmills: $23. Night at Inn at Depot Hill (inn­at­ $285. Dinner at Caffe Lucio ( $108. Breakfast at Harbor Cafe ( $33. Ride on the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the boardwalk ( $9 for two. Burritos with the best salsa in town at De la Hacienda (831-427-2200): $15.

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