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COOL GAY GETAWAY
SANTA CRUZ
by Andrew Mersmann
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“Only in Santa Cruz,” is a phrase I heard all the time while visiting there recently. I heard it from the Catholic priest who stopped into the gay-owned Café Limelight for a break, as he does nearly every day, from planning his Sunday sermon and the blessing he will deliver at that weekend’s Legalize Marijuana rally. Only in Santa Cruz. I heard it from the student volunteer, breathless with excitement to tell me that The Grateful Dead had just that day announced they would donate all their personal archives to the University library. Only in Santa Cruz. From the gay couple who runs the wine store, Vino Cruz, who said regional vintners thought production of great wine the only sane response to the perils of living between the San Andreas fault and the great white sharks every surfer knows are in the Monterey Bay. Only in Santa Cruz.

This town has been known variously as California’s Fun City, Granola-ville, Surf City (a prolonged legal struggle with Huntington Beach, CA keeps the official use of this moniker embattled, and has spawned a whole new demand for Surf City USA logo-wear), and “Santa Carla” as it was named when it was the setting for the 1987 hit film, Lost Boys, that still brings a niche of travelers searching for spooky film locations. This beach city is the iconic shore getaway, just 70 miles south of San Francisco, and 30 miles from San Jose (the two nearest airports), on the northern edge of the Monterey Bay. It is a forerunner as far as eco-tourism goes, and the town is so green it may as well be the Emerald City. Restaurants vie for green certification, while many hotels conformed to eco standards ages ago, and smokers beware—it’s pretty hard to cop a butt in Santa Cruz. While most cities, certainly in California, outlawed smoking in public indoor venues, Santa Cruz goes much further and has banned smoking on the beach, at the outdoor Beach Boardwalk, and instituted the state’s first smoke-free Gay Pride festival. Likewise, you won’t find styrofoam cups or food containers at take-out joints, and plastic shopping bags are absolutely taboo.

When you have a particular place to be, getting around town is fairly easy. Buses provide perfectly fine, if limited service, but taxis are practically non-existent, so you’ll want to rent a car (a hybrid if you have any desire of fitting in) or a bike, or to be a real local, a skateboard. This is definitely a beach city, with a laid-back beach attitude, and that’s precisely why it is such a haven for gays and lesbians, who flock to this stretch of shore.

Diversity in Santa Cruz is the rule, not the exception, and I could find nobody to dissent from the view that there is probably no place more accepting of…well…everyone. “Weeks will go by and I’ll completely forget I’m gay,” said a local merchant. “It’s such a non-event here. Believe me, I moved here from Omaha, Nebraska, and there, you NEVER are allowed, for one minute, to forget you’re gay and different.” In Santa Cruz, you only stand out if you’re not somehow unique. The flamboyance and performance art style of the way locals dress, act, spontaneously dance on the street, join a drum circle, or feverishly discuss politics (leaning dramatically to the left, you might have guessed) means that no extreme of personality or presentation sets off any alarms. The town and its people are painted in broad, psychedelic, tie-dyed strokes. That’s not to say there isn’t a buttoned-up corporate culture (it is a daily commute to Silicon Valley for many), but for most, the buttons are rarely up.

When it comes to accommodations, there is no shortage of funky old beach hotels and motels around the boardwalk area. Most people, however, will want a step up from these bare minimum accommodations. To be near the beach, with a gorgeous view of the pier and ocean, the beautiful, old, white, Italianate-style West Cliff Inn is a great choice. The 1877 mansion has been completely revamped into a state-of-the-art boutique hotel with nine sumptuous rooms all with king beds, porch or balcony, flat-screen TV, wireless internet, and automatic fireplaces in most of the high-ceilinged, crown-molding-clad bowers. The clean lines and saturated beach house colors continue into huge white marble bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs. Add to this the more-ample-than-most free breakfast and afternoon wine spread and you may find it hard to leave the hotel.

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Across the street, actually overhanging the beach, is the Dream Inn. A skyscraper by Santa Cruz standards, this old-school beach resort has been lovingly refurnished and just re-opened by Joi de Vivre Hospitality, capturing some of the hotel’s former glory and updating it to four-star standards. It’s a Santa Cruz beach hotel, so of course there is surfboard and bicycle storage for guests along with sleek boutique-style décor, refurbished swimming pool with fire pits, and a new restaurant with local California organic and sustainable foods.

To make your home base among flower gardens in a hidden residential neighborhood mere steps from downtown, book into the Adobe on Green Street. It’s in a brilliant location, and the converted residence features four private and peaceful rooms. The hosts live off-site and believe they should stay out of guests’ way, but are always available if you need them. They’ve also written for guests an entire in-house book of great, off-the-beaten-path things to do and see in the area.

If a forested glen is more your style than a beach or town location, Chaminade Resort and Spa is the escape you’ll want. It long had the reputation of being a conference and weddings venue in one of the most beautiful settings the redwoods have to offer. It has really arrived with luxury digs for vacation travelers and spacious rooms set in several Spanish-style buildings throughout the landscaped grounds. Service is impeccable throughout the estate, especially in the elegant Sunset restaurant with a jaw-dropping view over the treetops to the bay. My room was a woodsy retreat with it’s own redwood deck amid standing redwoods, ferns, and a eucalyptus grove. Chaminade’s spa is a relaxing oasis with a private flower garden and outdoor whirlpool (separate from the resort pool), spa cuisine, and a menu of services as long as my arm. The signature Serenity Massage finds harmony in eclectic techniques, lulling me into an aromatherapy-induced trance.

The town may be called granola, but if you want more than crunchy breakfast cereal, you can find a pretty sophisticated style of eating at several restaurants. Vegetarian and vegan fare are easy to come by, and seafood is a specialty. Most menus feature organic and locally-grown items and ingredients, and restaurateurs take great pride in the short distance from farm-to-table.

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