Though the influence of the Silicon Valley set has grown, the California beach town of Santa Cruz is still a laid-back surf spot with a hippy undercurrent. Famous for its boardwalk amusement park – the state’s oldest, with a roller-coaster that first opened in 1924 – Santa Cruz retains a magnetic balance of energy and repose, from lively eateries and its hem of peaceful, redwood-blanketed mountains. Surfers, hikers and nature enthusiasts assemble: this is the low-key seaside hamlet you’ll want to pull into on your slide down California’s Highway 1. Here’s our guide to the best things to see and do in Santa Cruz.

Best things to do

Wander along Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, USA

Home to the city’s heritage fun park, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk flickers with energy all year round. It’s a sensory overload: from the vibrant classic theme-park games to the screams emanating from the roller-coasters and the intermingling scents of fairy floss (cotton candy to the locals), dagwood dogs (corn dogs) and toffee apples (caramel apples) – it’s a carnival of colours, smell and sights.

Experience natural beauty at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz, USA

In tranquil contrast to the hype of the city’s boardwalk is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, a grove of ancient, stoic redwoods that seem to reach into infinity. There’s over 1880 hectares of forest to explore, perfect for hikers, horseriders and daytrippers looking to time travel by way of the forest. Don’t miss visiting the oldest of the group, a redwood that’s a staggering 1500 years old, with a trunk that measures almost five metres in width.

Dip a toe at Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz, USA

Pull up to the elevated car park overlooking Natural Bridges State Beach and you could spot anything from whales to seals and even otters twisting in the waters below, depending on the season. One thing you’re guaranteed to have a permanent view of is the namesake natural rock arch, which stands proudly over the sands and throws an unusual shape through the beach’s famous sunsets.

Experience the wild weirdness of Mystery Spot

A kitschy, kooky and wildly popular attraction, Mystery Spot feels a little like stepping back into the heydays of retro tourism. Simply put, it’s a wooden house 10 minutes’ drive north of town that’s been built on land deemed as a “gravitational anomaly”, where physics aren’t what they seem. Things roll upwards instead of down and objects that should be upright stand instead at wild angles; it’s mostly optics more than anything paranormal but it’s fun to play along and the kids are sure to love the theatrics.

Poke around the area’s tide pools

Kids (and kidults) will love picking through the picturesque tide pools that line the Santa Cruz coast. It’s practically an open-air aquarium in this pockmarked part of the shore where starfish and sea anemones frequently frolic, showing off their flamboyant frills around the coves. Pleasure Point is one of the favourites of the area, particularly picturesque with its blanket of emerald-hued moss.

Best places to eat

Zoccoli’s Deli

Zoccoli’s Deli, Santa Cruz, USA

This sandwich shop is a Santa Cruz institution. Behind the sweet little red gingham curtains is a deli that’s been taking its food seriously since 1948, marinating veggies onsite and simmering their own pasta sauces to ensure an authenticity that has earned it a solid place in the town’s heart. Staff recommend the signature devilled eggs, though we’d personally order the Meatball Italian, a cheesy mess of provolone and meat sauce, dripping pleasingly out of a French sourdough roll.

Home Soquel

A homestead restaurant with heart, Home is nestled in the hills of Soquel, just 10 minutes by car north-east of the city. It’s the kind of low-key place that does big-flavour food, harnessing local and seasonal produce and a nose-to-tail philosophy (the chef Brad Biske butchers many of the animals himself). The result is an infinitely warm and excessively delicious restaurant, where the staff are as welcoming as the beautiful patio, which overlooks the farm garden.

Best places to stay

Hotel Paradox

Bringing the beauty of the redwoods inside, Hotel Paradox – astride the Santa Cruz Riverside Park – integrates a unique “urban forest” aesthetic to its grounds that infuses everything from decor to materials. It begins with the enormous eucalyptus piece that doubles as a check-in counter and continues through to the tranquil rooms, where bedheads are clad in planks from former Colorado snow fences. It also boasts a swimming pool ringed with towering redwoods and an exceptional onsite restaurant, Solaire, which serves up hearty country classics from steak to short rib and pork chops.

Chaminade Resort & Spa

Chaminade Resort & Spa, Santa Cruz, USA

Nature is never far when you’re staying at Chaminade Resort & Spa, a glorious sprawling retreat nestled amongst 120 hectares of woodlands set just behind the city. Although it’s 10 minutes by car from the heart of the town, you’ll find yourself heading down the mountain less than you’d think, especially as the onsite amenities are abundant. There are two swimming pools, a set of outdoor tennis courts and easy access to five kilometres of the area’s best hiking trails, the most glorious of which snake through those majestic, ancient redwoods.

How to get to Santa Cruz

Qantas flies direct to San Francisco from Sydney, with connecting flights from other capital cities. Flight time from Sydney to San Francisco is around 13 hours and 40 minutes. The easiest way to reach Santa Cruz from San Francisco is by car, which takes a little over an hour.

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SEE ALSO: Read Before You Leave – San Francisco

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