Photograph courtesy David Clapp/Getty
A ride on the clattering Giant Dipper roller coaster or the 1911 Looff Carousel is practically mandatory on your first visit to Santa Cruz. Highway 1 is the cool, cliff-lined way to wind into the beach town, whose hippie-dippy past overshadows its long history as a capital of surf culture. The gentle waves at Cowell Beach are perfect for grommets, and Gilda’s, an old-timey diner on the municipal pier, offers a supreme perch for taking in the scene. Put yourself smack-dab in the middle of it all by booking a high-floor Cloud room at the retro-cool Dream Inn, which has balconies that face the ocean and a private entrance to the sand. Running and biking paths lead from the front door. Take a breather at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. Steamer Lane, a famed surf spot, is right here, and inside is the funky Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
While You’re There
If you’re bringing kids with you to Santa Cruz, go whole hog with a ride on the Roaring Camp Railroads Redwood Forest Steam Train. At 24 bucks a pop, the hour-long trip is pricier than the Expo Line, but kids get googly-eyed chugging through the trees on one of the pony-size trains that in the 19th century hauled logs here. It beats the Beach Train, which passes right by your hotel but boards 20 minutes away in the Santa Cruz Mountains.