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You will not find a department store, nor a hardware store, and the nearest pharmacy/drug store is a block away. During the rebuilding of downtown after the 1989 earthquake it was decided to change the face of the street and stop trying to compete with the nearby Capitola Mall. This has been quite successful.
On lower Pacific Avenue there is a club popular with 20-somethings....the Catalyst. On weekends they often line up around the corner to get in.
Down by the water, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a big attraction. It is not a theme park, but an old fashioned amusement park, 101 years old, and has an historic wooden roller coaster, The Giant Dipper, and an historic merry go round with the original calliope and the original Looff carved wooden horses, beautifully restored. There are brass rings to catch and toss in the clown's mouth.
Admission to the Boardwalk is free, you just buy tickets for rides and food and games of skill. There is an old fashioned taffy pulling machine. In a large building called "The Casino" are more video games than you want to see.
There is a long a wide beach in front, and a beach on the side where volleyball nets are set up.
During the summer there are free concerts and aerial acts. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day the Boardwalk runs on a limited schedule, which can be checked on their website.
Next door is the long Municipal Wharf with boat docks and seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. A colony of sea lions lives here and can be found either at the end, on the beams underneath the wharf, or piled on top of each other on one of the boat landings on the left side of the wharf.
Just across Beach Street from the entrance to the Wharf is the new Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center, which has static and interactive displays about the Bay, a film and literature. It is open Wed.-Sun, 10-5.
You can also take a fishing boat trip out of the harbor, go whale watching, or book a ride on the sailboat Chardonnay.
The Chardonnay does not leave from the Wharf, but from the Yacht Harbor about a mile south of the Wharf between Twin Lakes State Beach and 5th Avenue.
A short way down West Cliff Drive away from the Boardwalk you can watch surfers at Steamer Lane. This is marked by a miniature lighthouse, which is also a surfing museum.
Further down at the end of West Cliff Drive Natural Bridges State Park has been named one of the best beaches in the country by a beach association.
During the winter its eucalyptus grove is host to migrating Monarch Butterflies who hang from the branches in large bunches. The visitor center has a very informative display on the subject. The park has picnic tables under trees, and tide pools to the right of the beach.
Seven miles up Highway 9 from Highway 1, in Felton, is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Also in Felton you will find the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad, which takes old fashioned steam trains up the hill into the redwood forest. They also hav a train which follows the San Lorenzo River and ends up at the Boardwalk in town. This also has limited winter hours, which you can find on their website.
There is also a zip line at Mt. Hermon near Felton - Mt. Hermon Redwood Canopy Tours.
The Mystery Spot, which is about 4 miles from town on Branciforte Drive, is a schuck, but kind of fun. It is one of the places around the country where somebody has learned how to play with human perception and make balls look like they roll uphill and changes the relative heights of two people when they change places on the end of a plank. The usual story is that gravity and the rules of nature, have been mysteriously suspended.
The site has a video..
Warning...travel agents in Japan have found this place and send all their clients there. On weekends during the summer and on holidays you may find the place full....hard as that is to imagine, as it is on a road back from the main one. When the parking lot is full, people park on the side of Branciforte Drive and walk in, much to the chagrin on the Branciforte Drive residents. They have taken to putting out "No Parking" signs in front of their driveways.
Not to forget the campus of the University of California. It is on 2000 acres of redwood forest and meadows, with 10 separate colleges clustered around the property and a main library, health center, administration building and classroom buildings, a performing arts center and engineering and computer schools which are shared.
To get there, drive towards San Francisco on Mission Street to Bay Street and then drive up to the south entrance of the campus. On the way up the hill, park by the side of the road and look back and marvel at the view of Monterey Bay.
The University has two facilities which are worth visiting. One is the Arboretum, which specializes in antipodal plants from Australia, Africa, and the southern hemisphere. This is located on the edge of campus on Empire Grade Road.
The other is the Discovery Center of the Long Marine Lab..
Of course, there are many beaches in the area..
And there are wineries to visit. The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation has many, from Los Gatos to the Santa Cruz area.
The weather is mild with a rainy season extending from about the end of November to the first of April, generally, but it does not rain every day. Most days in the winter are sunny. In the summer thare can be a "marine layer" obscuring the sun, but it usually burns off by noon. It is never hot. The ocean water is COLD. Little kids and college students and surfers don't seem to mind that (of course surfers wear wet suits.)
Go here for some great pictures and up-to-date information on what is going on.
This is about the immediate Santa Cruz area. Not far away are the communities of Soquel, Capitola, and Aptos, mostly residential communities, with some vacation rentals by the water. Capitola, however, has a small and cute downtown by the water with shops and restaurants. It gets VERY crowded in the summer and parking is difficult.
Enjoy your stay.