Surfin’ Santa Cruz

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Kaye Holland makes waves in sunny Santa Cruz

Sure I’d done San Diego, looked around LA and lost my heart in San Francisco but it would have been criminal to have left California without first learning to surf. As the Beach Boys sang in 1963, “If everybody had an ocean, Across the USA, Then everybody’d be surfing’, Like Californi-IA.”

And the best place to get wet? Step forward Santa Cruz – a small yet lively, Californian beach town approximately 75 miles south of San Francisco which, earlier this year, was officially recognised as the world’s fourth surfing reserve alongside Malibu (California), Ericeira (Portugal) and Manly Beach (Australia).

Surf's up!

But Santa Cruz has always been legendary in surfing circles: a century ago the Hawaiian Princes, Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Piikoi and David Kahalepouli Kawanaanko a Piiko, were spotted surfing on 15 foot redwood planks weighing 100 pounds in this sunny seaside resort. In the 1950s, Jack O’Neill – the man who invented the wetsuit and changed the surf industry forever – opened up his first surf shop in SC.

Today, pros ride world class breaks off Steamers Lane but if, like me, you’ve never set foot on a board before, Cowell’s Beach (where the waves and thus wipeouts are gentler) is arguably the best place to get schooled in the ‘sport of kings’.

I signed up for a surf lesson with Richard Schmidt’s surf school. Richard, who was born and raised in Santa Cruz, has been teaching the basics of surfing to all ages and sexes for more than 25 years and is acknowledged as one of the world’s most accomplished big wave surfers.

After suiting up – Hollywood’s tendency to depict hot blondes surfing up a storm in skimpy bikinis and boardies, is at odds with reality where the less than warm water ensures that anyone without a wet suit will quickly turn blue – Richard talked me through how to catch and ride a wave, before testing my skills out at sea.

Natural Bridges

My first attempt to stand, as instructed, inevitably saw me spitting salt water but Richard didn’t seem phased. “The only prerequisite for learning to surf is knowing how to swim! I guarantee it,” encouraged Richard, whose ‘Schmidt guarantee’ is to have you standing and surfing on your first day out.

Sure enough after a few failed attempts, I  quickly made progress owing to Schmidt’s shouts of encouragement about when to get up to that all important standing position. In fact for me, by far the hardest part of my surf lesson was paddling: my attempts to propel the board forward by flapping my arms like a turtle, proved woefully ineffective.

Gerard Butler stars in the soon to be released 'Of Men and Mavericks'

As I rode blue green wave after blue green wave while watching the bone white and flour fine sand glint in the Californian sunshine with the sparkle of a newly wed’s solitaire, deadlines and to-do lists sank into the depths. I was on a roll, experiencing the adrenaline rush I craved and had never felt more alive.

Back on shore and stoked from my first ever surf lesson, I headed to the Surfing Museum in the old Abbott Memorial Lighthouse up by Lighthouse Point where there’s a bench remembering “all who caught their last wave”.  The small but perfectly formed Surfing Museum is the place to see vintage redwood planks used by the Hawaiian royalty, as well as the mangled board of Californian surfer Eric Larsen who –  miraculously – survived an attack by a 17 foot Great White in 1991.

A wet suit is a must

But Santa Cruz isn’t all about surfing: there’s more to this Californian paradise than just playing in the Pacific. Away from the water, the big attraction is the famous 1907 Santa Cruz Boardwalk. The old school American amusement park appeared in The Lost Boys and is also the back drop for the forthcoming film, Of Men and Mavericks, starring Scottish hunk Gerard Butler.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

When you’ve screamed your head off on the Giant Dipper and wild wooden 1924 roller coaster, one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz is simply to stroll and people watch along Pacific Avenue  – alive, as it is, with laughter and music. It’s here that Santa Cruz’s strong 1960s spirit pervades: expect to see laid back hippies, stoners and one of a kind shops (SC has resisted the pressure to become the same as everywhere else) selling crystal pendants, O’Neill hoodies and ‘Keep Santa Cruz Weird’ bumper stickers.

After all that surfing and shopping, chances are you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. Fortunately the region’s gastronomy is exceptional – and truly changed my culinary life.  And happily, times being what they are, you don’t have to spend a lot to eat well at places like The Picnic Basket (125 Beach Street, 00 1 831-427-9946) where local farmers, foragers and artisans including SC cult favourite, Penny Ice Creamery,  are the cornerstone of the seasonal menu. Their asparagus crepe and granola pot, yours for baffling low prices, kept me going all day.

Penny Ice Creamery

If you do splash however, you’re richly rewarded at restaurants like the Casablanca Bistro whose chef, Job Carder, has created a sophisticated, seasonally driven menu made from scratch using local and organic ingredients. I enjoyed both a splendid dinner – go for the tastebud tickling organic ratatouille and glaum ranch egg and earthy spring root vegetable salad, washed down with a wine from a list as long as the bible, but save room for the sweet corn creme brûlée – and the camaraderie and coterie of locals. The sweetness and charm of the people, is one of Santa Cruz’s undoubted highlights.

Satisfied if exhausted from the morning’s surfing exertions, I returned to my room at Beach Street Inn & Suites – a stylishly modern motel, just steps away from Main Beach.  Arnold Schwarzenegger,  California’s former governor, famously said in The Terminator: “I’ll be back.” As I climbed into crisp, white sheets and drifted off while listening to the waves crash onto the shore, I could only agree. Whether you’re a nature lover, foodie, sun worshipper, shopper or yes, surfer, Santa Cruz will steal your heart…

Two hour group lessons at the Richard Schmidt Surf School cost US$80 per person, while private instruction costs between US$80-100 per hour (all equipment included). Richard also offers week long surf clinics and camps for those who want to dive straight in. For more information visit or email

The Beach Street Inn & Suites

Where to stay: The Beach Street Inn & Suites
Rooms at this recently renovated venue have all the mod cons (flat screen TVs, iPod docking stations and free wifi) and boast sublime sea views that will make a suitably smug Facebook update, a sun deck – the perfect place to turn lobster coloured on a lounger – and spacious bathrooms equipped with rain showers. Rooms from US$179. For more information or to make a booking, visit

Getting there
Santa Cruz, California, is located approximately 75 miles south of San Francisco and 349 miles from Los Angeles. Many visitors choose to take scenic Highway 1 along the California coastline to Santa Cruz or Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains. Visitors can also choose to fly into San Francisco International Airport or Mineta/San Jose International Airport.

For more inspiration, information and to download the free Visit Santa Cruz Travel app – available for Android and iPhone devices, visit

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