Magazine article Sunset

The Beach Towns of Monterey Bay

Magazine article Sunset

The Beach Towns of Monterey Bay

Article excerpt

Trust me: Appreciation of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk's Giant Dipper roller coaster is a matter of perspective. From the crowded, hot pavement at its base, it looks like just a bad place to be right after lunch. It's only after you hop aboard one of the cars and start the long, clattering climb skyward that the ride becomes a revelation.

Time seems to slow as the car lurches and rattles up what suddenly feels like a flimsy wood structure. As you inch upward, the sounds of other rides and the smell of french fries recede, the gentle slope of Main Beach in Santa Cruz, California, falls away, and the world expands.

To the north are the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and the high promontory of Point Santa Cruz, where surfers in black wet suits ride cold breaks that curl up onto wicked rocks at its base; the lighthouse on the point is a small museum dedicated to surfing. To the south is more beach - so smooth and wide that even on the sunniest days there's plenty of room to spread a towel. Look east and the forested wall of the Santa Cruz Mountains rises above me town, which, this time of year, is a study of pastels shimmering in white sunlight. To the west the green waters of Monterey Bay merge into the deep blues of the Pacific.

From the top of the Giant Dipper, it's clear that Santa Cruz is the rarest of all Northern California communities - an honest-to-goodness beach town.

If the Dipper's car could lift off its tracks and climb higher, you'd see that Santa Cruz isn't the only beach town along this stretch of coast. A few miles to the south, Capitola basks in the afternoon sun along beaches as wide and as fine-grained as the one fronting Santa Cruz. And south of Capitola lies the quiet, tiny neighborhood of Rio del Mar, which is short on beachside commerce, but long on laid-back charm.

This stretch of coast, roughly 50 miles south of San Francisco and 30 miles southwest of San Jose (which has the nearest major airport), features close-to-shore lodging and some surprisingly fine dining. It's the perfect destination for a three-day weekend.

And there's no better way to start your trip than by taking a ride on the Giant Dipper. Just remember to hold on once you reach the top of that first long climb. The ride back down is a scream.

For a Santa Cruz County Traveler's Guide, call (800) 833-3494 or visit www.santacruzca.org. Area code is 831 unless noted.

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Wharf rat. Arrive early to rent a kayak or arrange a boat tour from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf (off Beach St.; 4206025). Best day parking ($6) is in the lots across the street from the Boardwalk.

Hang 10. The Santa Cruz String Museum (12-4 Wed-Mon; Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse on West Cliff Dr.; 420-6289) traces more than 100 years of local surfing history.

On the Boardwalk. Tacky as it is, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach; 426-7433) is irresistible. Get a corn dog, fries, and drink for $5.67, and a day pass for all 30 rides for $19.95. Don't miss two historic thrills: the Looff Carousel and the Giant Dipper.

Under the Boardwalk. Spread your blanket on the sand in front of the Boardwalk bandstand well before the free 6:30 and 8:30 Summertime Summer Nights concerts by oldies like the Drifters and the Shirelles. Held on Friday evenings through September 3.

Ocean view. Since you're here, reserve a postconcert table at Casablanca (101 Main St. …

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