SANTA CRUZ, Calif. —
"Surf City USA."
That’s how Santa Cruz was known in its heyday. According to some, that was back in the 1960s, when surf rockers Jan and Dean had a No. 1 record with the song “Surf City."
Others will assure you the name was bestowed decades earlier, in memory of a trio of young Polynesian princes who in the late 19th century introduced Hawaii’s “sport of kings" to Santa Cruz with custom-made redwood boards.
By 1938, when legendary Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku offered a surfing demonstration on the beach beside the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Municipal Wharf, the sport already had a solid following.
Surfing became a fad in the ’60s. Movies like “The Endless Summer" and “Ride the Wild Surf" took California by storm, along with bands like the Beach Boys, the Surfaris and the Ventures. Young people pictured themselves as Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in “Beach Blanket Bingo," riding waves by day and dancing in the sand beside bonfires at night.
But Santa Cruz wasn’t Southern California, nor did it want to be. Not tied to the Los Angeles-San Diego megalopolis, and a full 90 minutes’ drive south from San Francisco, Santa Cruz maintained a small-town temperament even as its famous boardwalk, built to lure tourism in 1907, continued to draw big-city visitors.
Breaks like Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point drew serious surfers from many miles around. Surfing pioneer Jack O’Neill, credited with inventing the neoprene wetsuit, settled in Santa Cruz in the ’50s and established the string of surf shops that still bear his name: O’Neill’s.
Many surfers of the ’60s and ’70s, now seniors, continue to live in Santa Cruz and ride the waves. But it’s a new generation of surfers who now challenge point breaks at The Lane and The Hook, and train for much larger waves farther north at the surf area called Mavericks.
The first night of my recent visit to Santa Cruz, the city premiered a new Hollywood feature, “Chasing Mavericks," starring Gerard Butler and Elisabeth Shue in a biopic about aspiring big-wave rider Jay Moriarty. Although the movie has only just been released by 20th Century Fox, the local visitors’ council already circulates a flier that describes a self-guided tour to sites in Santa Cruz where filming took place.
For visitors traveling by car, turnouts along East Cliff and West Cliff drives provide viewpoints for watching surfers at several of these breaks. And an 18-foot bronze sculpture of a ripped surfer has been standing seaside for 20 years at Lighthouse Point on West Cliff Drive. (A local favorite, it wore a jack-o’-lantern head on Halloween and, say locals, will sport a Santa Claus hat in December.)
But the mecca for surf historians is the Santa Cruz Surf Museum in the tiny Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse overlooking Steamer Lane. When it was built in 1986, it was the first surfing museum in the world. Although it remains small (and free!), the volunteer-staffed collection is a great place to learn about the local timeline of the sport.
On the walls are historic photos of the evolution of surfing on these beaches, from Kahanamoku’s visit in the 1930s through the surf-rocking ’60s to contemporary times. Examples of surfboards from the different eras accompany the exhibits — early redwood planks to later fiberglass boards, speedy short boards to the rediscovery of classic long boards in the ’90s.
College and quake
There have been two major turning points in the recent history of Santa Cruz, according to Christina Glynn, communications director for the Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council — and neither had anything to do with surfing.
First, she said, was the decision by the University of California system to build a university in the beach town. Opened in 1965, when the “hippie" movement was at its peak, UC-Santa Cruz quickly attracted students with alternative interests, many of them keen to live in communes and live off the land.
The university’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems has become a national model for 21st-century farm-to-table practitioners. Not surprisingly, the city has many fine restaurants and a farmers market that operates year-round on Wednesday afternoons, taking up a full downtown block.
“Before the university was built, no one lived here year-round," Glynn said. “Then the university students stayed after graduation, and turned a very conservative town into a rather liberal one."
The second turning point was the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Rated 6.9 on the Richter Scale, the quake’s epicenter was in the Santa Cruz Mountains about 10 miles northeast of the city. Thirty-one buildings, some of them dating from the 19th century, were destroyed and scores of others badly damaged.
“The quake forced people to rebuild, and to embrace growth and business," Glynn said.
Today Santa Cruz has a population of about 60,000, not including suburban Capitola and Soquel, nor Watsonville, a large agricultural hub 20 miles away. In all, a quarter-million people live in Santa Cruz County, which wraps itself around much of Monterey Bay.
“We are a little more ‘organic’ than other beach towns," Glynn said. “Santa Cruz is not overly commercial. There are a lot of cool, local mom-and-pop businesses."
Olives and wine
Among those businesses is the True Olive Connection. Owner Susan Pappas, who opened the downtown Santa Cruz store two years ago, helped me to understand that developing the perfect olive oil can be every bit as complicated as making the perfect wine or cheese.
“Our emphasis here is on offering only the freshest oils and balsamic vinegars available," she said. For that reason, only four of the 37 different oils sold in the shop are California olive oils; others are from Spain, Italy, Chile, Australia, Portugal and other nations. “Because California is pressing its oils now, we won’t get them until later," Pappas said.
Pappas explained to me that she won’t carry any oil that does not meet the extra-virgin standards of low oleic-acid and peroxide content. The shop measures its pure oils from robust early pressings — “These have more polyphenols, and thus the greatest health benefits," she said — to lighter late pressings. It also has a wide range of infusions and blends, including a Tuscan herb combination and a blend with wild mushroom and sage.
Santa Cruz isn’t synonymous with California wines, not like Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. But that doesn’t mean its noble rot is any less delightful.
On the west side of the city, Surf City Vintners is a collective of a dozen micro-boutique wineries gathered around the Swift Street Courtyard, gathered together with a brewery, a bakery, yoga studios and several shops next to a New Leaf organic supermarket at Fair Avenue and Ingalls Street.
I shared a tasting with owner-winemakers Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Michael Sones of Sones Cellars, along with Sue Lamothe of Silver Mountain Vineyards.
“It’s true, Santa Cruz County is overlooked," said Sones, who poured a tasty blend of pinot gris, torrontes, viognier and sauvignon blanc grapes that he called Canción del Mar. “We don’t have any really big players. Instead, we’re a collection of 80-plus very small wineries, most with annual production of no more than 5,000 cases."
“What makes Santa Cruz unique," said Emery, who offered two pinot noirs, “is its unique combination of the maritime breezes and warmer, east-facing mountains. Warm days and cold nights make for natural acidity. We offer European-style, food-friendly wines — and I think wine’s first duty is to dance with food."
If there is an art to making perfect wine and olive oil, they belong in the same category as painting, sculpture, photography, writing, music, film, dance, jewelry, ceramics, glassmaking, leatherwork, fashion design, printing and graphic design, even storytelling — all of which are executed by artists with studios and galleries in Santa Cruz’s Tannery Arts Center.
In its early history, Santa Cruz was a working town with three main industries: leather, lime and lumber. Established in 1855, the Salz Leather Tannery originally outfitted Union soldiers during the Civil War; thanks to an abundance of local oak trees that provided tannic acid for curing the leather, it grew to become the largest tannery in the western United States.
When it closed in 2000, its abandoned 8.3-acre campus attracted scores of homeless people. Acknowledging that drugs and street crime were straining its police force, the city was faced with the likelihood of razing the historic industrial site.
“But the city redevelopment agency decided to convert it," said Rachel Anne Goodman, executive director of what was to become the Tannery Arts Center. Recruiting the assistance of Artspace Projects, Inc., a nonprofit national developer of affordable space for artists and arts organizations, the city invested $55 million and opened the first stage of the complex in 2009.
Today, said Goodman, 260 artists and their families live in lofts that range in size from studios to two-bedroom units. An additional 52 artists of diverse disciplines pay as little as $1 per square foot for private studio-gallery space. (The waiting list for these units, Goodman said, is two years.) All of the studio-galleries are open on the first Friday of each month, when the Tannery is alive with musical performances, but many of them welcome visitors any time.
In the works is a 200-seat theater and playhouse in an old hide warehouse scheduled for conversion. “Our projected cost is another $5 million," Goodman said. “We’re about two-thirds of the way there. If things continue to go well, the theater will open in 2014."
The work of some of the Tannery artists may be seen in public installations along Pacific Avenue, the main thoroughfare of downtown Santa Cruz, and at the Museum of Art & History (MAH) in the McPherson Center, one block off Pacific on Front Street. On my recent visit, the art collection here was cutting-edge, including a display of quirky collections. I was more impressed by exhibits describing local history, including the impact of the Loma Prieta quake.
Arts and wine, however, may not be what families with young children seek when they visit the California coast. Santa Cruz has attractions to satisfy them as well.
Foremost is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, labeled the “Coney Island of the West Coast" when it opened in 1907. Its first building was the Neptune Casino, which for more than half a century held a giant saltwater swimming pool and the grand Cocoanut Grove ballroom. Today an amusement arcade, highlighted by a miniature golf course, has replaced the pool where Duke Kahanamoku once swam laps. But now as then, there is no gambling.
The Boardwalk grew with the addition of amusement rides. Two are now National Historic Landmarks: the Looff Carousel (1911), featuring a 342-pipe organ that was assembled in 1894, and the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster (1924). In succeeding decades, many new rides were added, so that present-day Boardwalk rides run the gamut from historic to contemporary.
From April through Thanksgiving, rides are open daily. The Boardwalk then closes for four weeks until the Christmas holidays, then reopens its rides weekends through the winter.
The Boardwalk stretches nearly a mile from the mouth of the San Lorenzo River to the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, itself built in 1914. Over 2,700 feet long, the wharf has a dozen seafood restaurants and a half-dozen souvenir shops, in addition to downward-facing “windows" to the pier’s bracing, where dozens of California sea lions lounge between fishing excursions.
Another great family outing is the Roaring Camp Railroad. From its depot in Felton, eight miles north of Santa Cruz, bordering Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad welcomes school groups along with independent travelers. Steam locomotives of late 19th- and early 20th-century vintage pull passenger cars on a 75-minute, four-mile route around Bear Mountain.
These steam trains run year-round. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the company also runs the Santa Cruz Beach Train, a three-hour round-trip between Felton and the Boardwalk.