Pandemic Life

Staycation Santa Cruz: Your guide to living the tourist life with none of the hassle and limited expense

A SUP cruise through the kelp beds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If it still feels too soon to take a vacation-vacation, or you just didn’t get around to planning one, rejoice in all the vacation-y — staycation-ish — goodness Santa Cruz has to offer. Why should the tourists get all the fun anyway?

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Bummed you didn’t get around to planning that summer vacation it now feels like you can finally take? We understand.

But as Dorothy famously said, “There is no place like home.” And for those of us lucky enough to live in a major travel destination, it has the extra bonus of being true.

During COVID there were times it was easy to forget Santa Cruz is a tourist town — the number of visitors was somewhat limited. While those silver-lining moments came with an expiration date and you can feel the crowds returning, a local still has the option to channel their inner tourist — if we allow ourselves to fully unplug and plan it out.

And that’s a big if. But think about it: A staycation brings all the perks of a holiday with none of the hassle.

Sea lions on the Santa Cruz Wharf.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Whether you’ll be strolling the pier and watching sea lions, discovering different trails by foot or bike, or partaking in yoga or Pilates on the beach, there are suddenly so many more choices than we had this time last year.

So if it still feels too soon to take a vacation-vacation, or you just didn’t get around to planning one, rejoice in all the vacation-y — staycation-ish — goodness Santa Cruz has to offer.

Here are a few sample itineraries for you to see how you can actually plan out an entire day with a vacation mindset. But then pick and choose from the guide below and plug in your favorites to customize your own adventure.

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SAMPLE ITINERARIES

Active/outdoorsy

Grab the foamie from Costco and join the masses at Cowell's.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

  • 6 a.m.: Get out in the bay and surf, SUP or kayak. Check out the beginner places to go in the guide below.
  • 8 a.m.: Grab a burrito at one of the Point markets — hands-down a breakfast burrito for every palate and dietary requirement.
  • 11 a.m.: Ride the Rail Trail to Wilder Ranch. BYO bike or pick up a rental — and bring a picnic from New Leaf, Staff of Life or The Picnic Basket to enjoy on the grass near the chickens.
  • 3 p.m.: Hit the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, where the Giant Dipper is finally back.
  • 5 p.m.: Island time: What better way to end a day than with a sunset cocktail at a Tiki room? Makai on the wharf and Hula’s downtown are both solid options.
Island time at Hula's.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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Romantic non-getaway

Cruise on the Chardonnay.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

  • 11 a.m.: Have a champagne brunch on a boat such as The Chardonnay — which goes out from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — or stay on dry land at Harbor Cafe or the Crow’s Nest.
  • 2 p.m.: Hike Land of the Medicine Buddha (you could also stay overnight in a yurt) or walk the Henry Cowell Redwood Loop and take a dip in the swimming hole.
  • 5 p.m.: Get cleaned up and stroll down to Capitola Village to grab a happy-hour glass of Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay or Pinot Noir at Capitola Wine Bar.
  • 7 p.m.: Cash in that reservation you made at the classic Capitola staple Shadowbrook and get cozy in the lounge or on the outdoor terrace overlooking Soquel Creek.
Views of Henry Cowell redwoods.
(Courtesy Sean Sequoia)

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ACTIVITY GUIDE

Mellow, view-oriented stuff


  • The classic Santa Cruz “thing” ... walking West Cliff: Start near the Dream Inn or Natural Bridges. Go all the way to the end and back for a walking challenge with beautiful views.
  • Sea lions on the wharf: It’s a sight known to bring tears to landlocked, city-dwelling tourists’ eyes: clusters of playful (or aggressive) sea lions huddled beneath the pier, barking their heads off.
Tidepooling at low tide.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

  • Tidepooling, a Santa Cruz classic: On a super low tide, anywhere along the Pleasure Point corridor — from 41st Avenue to Rockview — is your best bet in town. Natural Bridges on the Westside is great, while Davenport Landing is a solid option north of town. Which brings us to. ..
  • The wild beaches to the north: Wander along Three Mile, Four Mile, Davenport Landing, Panther Beach, Shark Fin Cove and the less populated beaches lining Highway 1, which feel like getaways in themselves. While you’re up there, swing by Whale City Bakery in Davenport or Swanton Berry Farm for chocolate-strawberry truffles, pie and jams.
  • Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville: One of the best places to pick — and sample — all kinds of berries in the county. But also a place to indulge in a ridiculous array of sumptuous fresh-baked pie a la mode and other tasty treats.

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Slightly more adventurous stuff

Getting on a surfboard.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

  • Surf Cowell’s or 38th Ave (aka “Jack’s”) or Capitola: These beginner-friendly breaks are known for crowds and foamies, but they are actually ideal not only for novices and first-time surfers but for more experienced ones to grab a longboard and take a relaxing break from town’s more competitive lineups. If you’re a first-time surfer, it’s imperative to get lessons and learn about safety, etiquette and the complex ecosystem you are entering. Richard Schmidt Surf School or Club Ed are the staples.
  • SUP or kayak: The harbor is a great place to sightsee and spot seals and otters from a stand-up paddleboard or kayak. BYO or rent from SUP Shack or Kayak Connection nearby, and launch from the public dock into the harbor’s still waters. Farther afield, there’s Moss Landing’s Elkhorn Slough, a natural treasure trove for kayakers.
    Kayaking Elkhorn Slough.
    (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
  • Go for a swim or cold plunge: The cold waters off Main Beach, Seabright and Capitola might not be Wim Hof cold most of the year — but they are beautiful spots for splashing around in the shallows and changing your state of mind. The psychological and physical benefits of the cold plunge are many, including mood and immune system boosts. We won’t call you a wimp if you wear a wetsuit.

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  • Cheat your way through Nisene Marks: Rent an e-mountain bike from Epicenter Cycling for a sweet boost up steep hills. Sure, it feels like cheating, but you’re on vacation!
  • Do a hike through the Pogonip: Enter from the top of Spring Street or from inside Harvey West Park and experience a redwood trail getaway right from the heart of town. Be sure to stumble upon the hidden beauty of the Lime Kiln trail, a magical-feeling, tucked away glen full of cairns, and seek out the tiny, hidden koi pond (follow the direction of the trickling stream).
Epicenter is right at the entrance to Nisene Marks.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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Tourist-y temptations

  • Rediscover the Boardwalk: Make an online reservation, grab your mask and get back to the iconic Giant Dipper. Ride reservations sell out fast, but the arcades have reopened, too. It’s still not quite time for karaoke, but remember bowling? The Boardwalk Bowl is back!
  • Remember the Mystery Spot? The so-called “gravitational anomaly” is a fun outdoor tour in the redwoods, whether it’s physics or supernatural doings behind the strange and deceptive appearances and sensations visitors experience in the Spot.
Roaring Camp in Felton will take you into the woods.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

  • Choo-choo time: When was the last time you rode the Roaring Camp railroad? Reopened with COVID protocols, you can take the steam train through the forest or the beach train through town.
  • Set sail at sunset: The Chardonnay public and private charters are back for reservations. Boat around the bay while noshing on pizza and sipping some wine.
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Urban delights

  • Abbott Square chiling: It’s our Santa Cruz food hall, sized for this town but also well worthy of a large city. You’ll find authentic Roman pizza, vegan food with a West African twist, burgers, coffee and fancy cocktails in a swanky outdoor setting (some indoor seating, too).
  • Artisan cups of joe: Get a coffee and toast at 11th Hour, enjoy the greenery and plants for sale, and chill on the patio.
  • Capitola Village is hard to beat: There is arguably no better place to feel like a tourist than strolling through quaint Capitola Village. When you sit outside at Zelda’s, Margaritaville and Paradise Beach Grille, it just feels like being on vacation. Not to mention the iconic Shadowbrook up the hill and down by the creek.
    Capitola Village.
    (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
  • A Westside tour: It’s hopping with brewery options like Humble Sea and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, wine tasting at Stockwell Cellars and fancy food and cocktails at Bantam, Venus and Vim. All in the heart of the revived Westside.
  • Aptos Village: Mentone, Cat & Cloud, Soul Salad and Cafe Sparrow are all a short ride from the entrance to Nisene Marks, if you’re looking for some sustenance pre-or-post hike or bike.

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  • The Capitola Mall! Yes, really. Especially if you happen to be a parent of little kids. The mall is still relatively empty so you can set little feet free to scamper about without the fear of losing them in a crowd. With no traffic, a nice temperature and many empty storefronts, it’s good for a mellow indoor masked stroll and some ‘90s nostalgia, plus inexpensive gifts for kids and kids at heart at Hot Topic and Claire’s. The Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery has reopened for play dates by reservation for small groups. And good ol’ Chilis, with its margarita menu and credit-card-operated digital games on the tables is a county classic.
    The cool vibe of Woodhouse Brewing's new space.
    (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
  • Where to sip: For once we are not talking about the other sip (shelter-in-place) — but your favorite libations. Beer at Woodhouse, cocktails at 515, wine tasting at Birichino, and non-alcoholic creative elixirs at Roxa Hammock Cafe and MeloMelo, or something cold-pressed and cleansing at Central Coast Juicery, sip and sit in the center of our little city while catching up over in-person (rejoice!) conversation.
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Sleepover time

The Dream Inn.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What are your favorites? Tell us about your favorite staycation places, plans, tricks, hacks, etc. Drop a note to news@lookoutlocal.com.