More than a decade ago, way back when the internet(s) were young, I came across a little gem of a webpage titled "San Francisco: an idiosyncratic guide for the goth-geek-freak-hipster-nerd" which changed forever the way I amuse myself in San Francisco when I'm there. I've branched out and discovered new favorite spaces beyond those highlighted in the guide, but it was a great jumping-off point and it virtually reinvented the city for me.
Having returned to my hometown after living in Santa Cruz County for the better part of a decade, I find myself cringing when I hear people talk about a day or weekend trip to the Central Coast and realize that they've spent their time (and money) in what locals consider "all the wrong places". For that reason (and because it is rude to admonish them in person) I thought it would be fun and perhaps helpful to put together a guide that might reinvent Santa Cruz for someone else the way the Goth-Geek-Hipster-Freak-Nerd guide changed San Francisco for me. I thought it best to begin with a couple of basic rules:
1. Skip The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
2. Since you are going to ignore Rule #1, let's have some straight talk about The Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has its own specific charm. Located on a one-mile strip of beach along the northern point of Monterey Bay, The Boardwalk is the only remaining major seaside amusement park on the West coast and has been a favorite destination for vacationers and tourists for more than a century.
Growing up in California's Central Valley, (in a town whose best and worst points are that it is a two-hour drive from all manner of great places) I was blessed with yearly vacations along the coast throughout my childhood. Many of my best sticky, sandy summer memories include The Boardwalk and beaches of Santa Cruz. Our yearly trip to Santa Cruz was a highlight of the summers of my childhood, and I thank my parents for that gift. Only now, do I consider what it cost them mentally, physically and financially to provide it.
Having spent nearly a decade living in and around Santa Cruz, I often think of The Boardwalk as an overcrowded, over-priced tourist trap. Still, I retain those memories of childhood delight and firmly believe that every child should have that opportunity while they are still young enough to enjoy it, but not every parent should suffer as most do, to provide it. For that reason, I've compiled a short list of Things to Know Before You Go, to make the most out of your visit.
The When: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is open seven days a week from April through August and has limited weekend operation throughout the rest of the year. If you are planning on visiting in the Spring or Summer, I highly recommend weekdays and evenings. There is nothing quite like the glittering charm of The Boardwalk at sunset. That, coupled with the best discounts the park has to offer, makes weekday evenings especially appealing. Check out the Events page of The Boardwalk's website for details on their Weeknights after 5:00 pm specials as well as their Wednesday night “Movies on the Beach” and the longstanding Friday Night Free Concerts.
Beach vs. Boardwalk: Santa Cruz has some fantastic beaches, but unless you've planned to watch or participate in some serious volleyball, the main beach, sprawling in front of the Boardwalk is not one of them. For the best of both worlds, you may want to consider spending the early part of the day at one of these great beaches (Our personal favorites are Natural Bridges and Sunny Cove) and then visiting The Boardwalk afterward, taking advantage of their $1 ride special (Mondays and Tuesdays) or their Pepsi Nights discount (Wednesdays and Thursdays) with its $10 unlimited-ride passes.
Paying the Price: Admission to The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is free. Each of the rides and attractions has a per-ticket price ranging from $3 – $5 apiece. If you or someone in your group only plans to ride one or two rides (Perhaps the century old Carousel or the famous Giant Dipper) then a single ride ticket is a great option. The regularly-priced Unlimited-Ride wristbands are $30 apiece, but if you're planning on spending more than a day or two in town, or making more than two trips in a year, the Season Pass, priced at $70 may be the way to go for you joyriders. When raising children on or near the Central Coast, a Season Pass to The Boardwalk is honestly worth its weight in gold. I have whiled away many an afternoon, relaxing with a good novel and a bag of taffy on the promenade while my pair of pre-teens rushed up and down the length of The Boardwalk, riding their fool hearts out in the summer sun. You can find further information on pricing and full ticketing info here.
What to eat: Since The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is an un-gated, free admission amusement park, you have a number of options regarding food and drinks beyond the usual over-priced vendor fare. Packing an ice chest full of your favorite foods will dramatically decrease your spending. Of course that doesn't mean you should skip Marini's Candy Shop. In fact, I insist that you treat yourself to some of their amazing salt-water taffy or caramel apples. There is some fantastic food to be found within walking distance. (For the best fresh bread bowls of clam chowder, check out Stagnaro Bros. near the end of the Municipal Wharf.) The point is, if you plan ahead, you needn't be stuck with deep-fried Twinkies and corn dogs. Unless of course, that is precisely what you want.
I don't often find myself down at The Boardwalk anymore, but once a year, I like to go and plunk down my $5.00 for a ride on The Giant Dipper, and you know what? Every single time, I still get a thrill.
[Edited portions of this entry have been cross-posted at Shoestring With Style]