California Surf Cities - Santa Cruz

As you drive by the Santa Cruz Wharf, expect to see surfers. Santa Cruz is a surfing town and its beach is the surfer's playground. It defines Santa Cruz, which calls itself Surf City.

Arriving in town from another Surf City (Huntington Beach,) a friend and I went to check out Nolan's Surf Shop that brought controversy and fame to this surfing city when it printed a t-shirt emblazoned with "Santa Cruz, Surf City" (0r something to that effect.) The surf shop was gone from its former spot it occupied for decades, but was relocated to the Santa Cruz Wharf, and was closed at 8 p.m. when we tried to peer into the darkened store through the window.

Thankfully, you can drive onto Santa Cruz Wharf, a 2,745- foot long structure (the longest public wharf in California) and still get dinner after 8 p.m., so my friend and I selected the very last restaurant at the end of the pier called Dolphin Restaurant. We made the right choice ordering a hamburger, one of the best either of us had ever tasted, and locals outside told us we picked the right place.

I salted a few of my conversations with college-aged student waiters and locals to ask about surfing, and was surprised to discover the incredible passion for surfing in Santa Cruz. From what I gathered, the city really loves its surfing culture and embraces the sport and lifestyle as part of its identity. I hadn't expected that.

At strategic spots we saw the Santa Cruz Visitors Guide with a beautiful image on the cover of a male and female surfer holding hands while sitting on their surfboards in the ocean. In the background was the Santa Cruz BoardWalk with colorful rides. The picture looked to good to be true, but inside the cover, the magazine showcased the photographer who captured the unbelievable picture.

For those seeking to visit a great surfing destination, Santa Cruz would fill the bill. It has both beginner and advanced to extreme surfing options, plenty of surf lessons, rentals, and other things to see and do for the entire family. A fun zone, Boardwalk with old-fashioned rides overlooking the ocean, and an historic train, Roaring Camp, that goes from the nearby redwood forests to the beach, all offer great entertainment.

Some places will not suit every surfer, and before you try your hand at surfing in Santa Cruz, get some instruction or ask about surfing conditions.

Here's why: When world class Hawaiian surfer Sion Milosky (one of the best big-wave riders in the world,) died in March 2011 while surfing Mavericks north of Santa Cruz in San Mateo County, it brought attention to the dangers of extreme surfing that world class surfers seek near Santa Cruz. An annual Mavericks Big Wave surf championship received publicity in February 2010 when a rogue wave rolled ashore during the competition, injuring 13 spectators and requiring rescues of several stranded watchers.

For surfers on vacation, the decision to choose one surfing spot is preposterous. Why would you have to pick one place when there's this huge ocean and 1,000 miles of beaches to launch from? Surfing is a lifestyle, a road trip, and a search for the waves, wherever they may be. There are many great surfing cultures and surf locations along the California coast, but for those who want to check out a few, Santa Cruz is among the best.

Our hotel accommodations were pretty good. We stayed at an all suites Best Western a short drive from the ocean. We had visited several and this one was the best. Our room rate was under $100, but it was before the summer crunch.

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