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Back in 2003, I applied to work at an academic summer camp. I’m a math teacher after all. The application brochure came my way and one thing about the camp peeked my interest…
There was a site location in Honolulu, Hawaii.
So I applied for that.
And I was hired!
But when my paper work arrived, no Hawaii. I was slated to work somewhere in California called Santa Cruz.
Figuring I must have put California as my second choice site location, I then needed to figure out where the heck Santa Cruz was! Little did I know I would be spending the best three summers of my life in this funny, California beach town.
Last August I finally returned to this town I loved. I could not wait to revisit, reminisce and bring my kids to Santa Cruz. And I am beyond excited to share all the great food, hotels and things to do in Santa Cruz with the Momma To Go readers!
24 Hours in… Santa Cruz, California
Life is funny like that and for some reason I find myself to be a collector of random places. I spent the summers of 2003, 2004 and 2005 working at an academic summer camp housed at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Teaching at this camp was intense and a lot of work. Each summer I taught a three-week, fast paced, Algebra 1 course to kids from all over the world. As an instructor, I would work from 9am – 3pm. Come three o’clock, I would literally race out of campus to head to the beach. Weekends were spent, well honestly, on the beach, going out to eat, walking around downtown, and exploring the Boardwalk. I even tried surf camp one summer!
The friends I made, lifelong. The memories, unforgettable. So with that I was both excited and a little nervous to return.
Santa Cruz is situated on the Central Coast of California. It is about an hour and 20 minute drive south of San Francisco. After spending three days in San Fran, and renting a car to get out of the city, we drove down to Santa Cruz. I definitely recommend car travel if you are with a family and hopping between the city and the towns around Half Moon Bay. There is an extensive bus network in Santa Cruz itself, and there is Uber. But even though Santa Cruz is considered a San Fran/Silicon Valley suburb, the only public transportation between towns is bus service.
Where To Stay: Santa Cruz, California
Having spent so much time in Santa Cruz, I had many restaurants and activities I wanted to revisit from my summers there. But having lived always in University housing, I actually had no idea where to stay!
Being loyal Marriott members, and good googlers, we decided on the Hotel Paradox. This hotel is part of the Autograph collection of Marriott owned properties.
What sold me on this hotel, honestly, was the incredible website featuring the hotel’s mid-century modern, very California-eque decor. Seriously, check out their website and I bet the first word that comes to mind is “California.”
This hotel is located on the east side of town. An easy walk to Front Street, where there are many shops and restaurants. The beach and famous boardwalk are a bit further, and would require that you drive or Uber. Since this was a one-night stop as we made our way from San Francisco to Anaheim, we did not necessitate staying right on the beach (which is where most of the other Santa Cruz hotels are located).
The rooms at the Hotel Paradox were basic, a bit small, but super funky. I loved the bathroom and the illy espresso maker. Our room was on the fifth floor, and opened up to the outdoor hallway. Our room overlooked the pool/hot tub/restaurant area.
Since we only had one night in Santa Cruz, we spent the whole first day touring around. Like our time in San Francisco, it was unseasonably warm and sunny. After a full day of sight-seeing, we came back to the hotel in the early evening to swim and regroup.
By the time we got to the pool, the sun had gone down and took the warm temps with it. Summers in this part of California are like that. Warm days, followed by cool nights. The temperature was dipping into the 60’s, too cold for the pool, but a perfect temperature for a soak in the massive hot tub! We loved the Paradox’s outdoor area and fire pit, such a great place to relax after a day of activity.
Keep reading if you are Visiting California in December
The Paradox also has a really nice gym, and a restaurant where we ate dinner one night. There is a large parking lot, which is free for hotel guests. This is definitely a property worth checking out if you are staying in Santa Cruz.
Where to Eat… Santa Cruz, California
My favorite Santa Cruz restaurants, from my summers in town were hands down Maharaja (Indian), El Palomar (Mexican), and the Saturn Cafe (vegetarian). I was delighted to see all of those restaurants still there!
Unfortunately, my kids are not big ethnic food eaters, and hubby isn’t fond of vegetarian restaurants, so sadly those were not great choices for our family meals. Instead, here is where we ate:
Breakfast: The Hotel Paradox does not have a complimentary breakfast, so my kids snacked on some cereal we had in the room when they first woke up. I enjoyed an illy espresso. After a workout, we checked out, and headed down the street for some Micky D’s. Close to the hotel there is a Starbucks and a diner.
In the morning, or anytime really, I highly recommend a visit to Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, located in town. There you can get individual cups of coffee, where they slow pour the water over the grinds. I have only seen this done in Santa Cruz, still not sure why this hasn’t caught on in other parts of the country (like where I live!).
Pizza My Heart: This pizza restaurant is a staple of the California mid-coast. It’s a surfing themed pizza place, where you can get slices with all crazy types of toppings. Pizza My Heart also sell logo t-shirts, and I was excited to get a little souvenir (since my old one had since ripped). My kids liked the pizza, which is saying something as they are snobby NY pizza eaters! They also LOVED watching the incredible surfing videos playing on the TV’s at the restaurant.
Boardwalk Eats: I know junk food is synonymous with amusement park rides, but no one, I mean no one, does theme park fare quite like the Santa Cruz boardwalk.
First of all you can get anything your heart desires – in fried form. From fried twinkies, oreos, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, pickles, you name it. But what you really want to try are the Gilroy Garlic Fries. Editor’s Note: You can also get Gilroy Garlic Fries at local Santa Cruz, California McDonald’s.
They are Amazing.
Solaire: So on our one night in Santa Cruz, we came back to the hotel to swim, with the intention of going back out to get dinner. We hadn’t decided on a place, we were uncharacteristically winging it.
But we stayed in the hot tub for so long, and it was starting to get late… you know how that goes. So we decided to just eat dinner at the hotel restaurant, Solaire.
And it was really delicious.
They had chicken fingers and fries for the kids, and a cool sofa area with games they could play. The wine was really good and I had a delicious salad (hey, I tried to counterbalance the fast food breakfast and garlic boardwalk fries!).
Hotel restaurants, especially when spending only one night in town, sometimes feel like a cop-out but this was the perfect way to end a long day of activities.
Things to do in Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Boardwalk: Our first stop in town was the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was our first activity both because our kids were so excited to go on rides, and because the last week in August actually begins their off-season! The rides were only open from noon til 5pm. So we wanted to make the most of our afternoon, and the unlimited ride bracelets we bought for the kids.
Check out the opening hours here.
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is the main attraction in town. Boardwalk is a bit of a misnomer, as there isn’t a long stretch of board to walk on. Its really a beachside amusement park with some awesome rides.
On our visit, only a limited number of rides were operating, but little man and hubby were able to ride the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, a real wooden thrill ride dating back to 1924!
Since kids in California had already started back in school (us New Yorkers always start after Labor Day) the amusement park was pretty quiet and the lines were not long. From my Santa Cruz summers, I do remember many nights spent down at the Boardwalk, with bustling crowds. The beach is right there, and the water although COLD, is very calm, making it a great family beach destination. Parking in this part of town is tight. We found parking at a meter, otherwise the lots charge around $10 per car.
Natural Bridges State Park: The Boardwalk beach, and its adjacent neighbor, Cowell Beach, are really nice for a day out on the sand. Again the water in this part of California never really warms up, but the beaches are still great. I have to recommend, if you want to see a really magnificent beach, head north to Natural Bridges State Park.
I spent MANY afternoons relaxing at this beach. A People magazine, a 7-11 coffee and good friends accompanying me.
There is a small parking lot for this park, or you can street park along West Cliff Drive. As you approach the water, there is a scenic overlook where you can take beautiful photos. You then walk down a path to the small beach.
Natural Bridges is named so because of the rock formation right off the shore. It looks like a bridge. As you walk down to the water, you will see such interesting plants and seaweed. This beach is so calm and peaceful, I love it.
We visited in late afternoon, as the sun was going down, but this would be an incredible spot to see the sunset.
We packed so much into our short visit to Santa Cruz. We were able to go up to the University and drive around to see my old classroom and dorms! Sadly we didn’t have time for a surf lesson, time at the beaches down in Seabright or a trip to the Mystery Spot, which is very popular with the tourists. But I am confident we will return to California, and Santa Cruz again!
Have you ever been to this special part of California? What are your favorite things to do in Santa Cruz?
PS. I’m asking Santa for this:
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