Collared by redwood-coated hillsides and set above a sculptured bay, Santa Cruz is populated by a curious mix of retired folk, surfers and students, and each weekend accommodates hordes of inland suburbanites arriving to cruise the town’s beach-side Boardwalk and revel in its tacky diversions.
The commercial heart of Santa Cruz is along Pacific Garden Mall, where many of the shops were rebuilt following the earthquake of 1989.
Half a mile west, at the coast, the Boardwalk was built in 1904, and marks Santa Cruz’s determination to market itself as a tourist destination as its logging industry declined. It is a slice of local history which should not be missed regardless of your feelings for its vintage carousel, big dipper, shooting arcades, haunted house, dodgems and cotton candy, and hot dog stands.
Other worthwhile calls are the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum in the lighthouse on W. Cliff Drive (http://www.cityofsantacruz.com/departments/parks-recreation/community-facilities/surfing-museum), with modest but interesting displays tracing the evolution of the sport which began in Hawaii but took off in California following the invention of the lightweight surfboard in the 1950s, and the local history and ecology exhibits of the City Museum of Natural History (http://www.santacruzmuseum.org), 1305 E. Cliff Drive.
Worry not if you miss the Santa Cruz Mission. Founded in 1791, the original mission was totally ruined by earthquakes, and only an uninteresting half-size replica of it can be seen at 126 High Street, alongside a gift shop storing a few of the original mission items.
On the approach to town, perhaps the only real mystery at the Mystery Spot is why thousands flock there year after year: within a redwood grove, carefully manipulated distortions of perspective fool the senses into believing gravity has gone haywire.