by Andrew Mersmann
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 weekends 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 Californias 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 bewareits
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 states first smoke-free
Gay Pride festival. Likewise, you wont 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 youll 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 thats
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
everyone. Weeks will go by and
Ill completely forget Im gay, said
a local merchant. Its such a non-event here.
Believe me, I moved here from Omaha, Nebraska, and there,
you NEVER are allowed, for one minute, to forget youre
gay and different. In Santa Cruz, you only stand
out if youre 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. Thats not to say there isnt
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.
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 hotels former glory and updating
it to four-star standards. Its 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.
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To make your home base among flower
gardens in a hidden residential neighborhood mere steps
from downtown, book into the Adobe on Green Street.
Its 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. Theyve 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 youll 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 its own redwood deck amid standing
redwoods, ferns, and a eucalyptus grove. Chaminades
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
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.