Stunning Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has a tranquil atmosphere, a progressive spirit and a surfer vibe.

The quintessential California beach town, Santa Cruz is approximately 70 miles south of San Francisco and 40 miles north of Monterey. Its gorgeous setting boasts some of the state’s most diverse landscapes, from the sparkling ocean to coastal redwood forests. Known for its miles of beautiful shoreline, beaches, boardwalk and classic amusement park, Santa Cruz has a stress-free atmosphere and a laidback surfer vibe. It’s also an open-minded place, where gays and straights mix happily in the community. And did we mention the fabulous weather? In winter, temps average in the mid-50s; there are 300-plus days of sunshine throughout the year.

A lot of lesbians are into surfing—at least those of us who are lucky enough to be near the ocean. Since Santa Cruz is the birthplace of mainland surfing, and home to wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill, surfer dykes will be in paradise here. Even if you’re not a surfer yourself, don’t be shocked by the number of people toting surfboards around town. Whether or not you partake in this ubiquitous sport, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (701 West Cliff Drive, 831-420-6289, santacruzsurfingmuseum.org) is a must-see. It houses more than 120 years of Santa Cruz surfing history. Overlooking Steamer Lane, one of the best surfing areas in the U.S., the museum is located inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.

One of the city's most popular highlights is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach St, 831-423-5590, beachboardwalk.com), a seaside amusement park built in 1907 as the West Coast’s answer to Coney Island. Ride the historic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and Looff Carousel, and then nosh on a corn dog or an ice cream cone while you enjoy the picturesque ocean views. That’s an afternoon well-spent!

The longest Pacific Ocean pier, Santa Cruz Wharf (21 Municipal Wharf, 831-420-6025, cityofsantacruz.com/visiting/santa-cruz-wharf) is also one of California’s oldest piers. Now it’s a thriving business district, with shops and restaurants attracting over a million visitors annually. It’s also an ideal place to observe migratory birds and other wildlife. In the 1990s the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was founded, and the wharf became the known as “gateway to the Sanctuary”.

The wharf divides Main Beach and Cowell Beach, where you can rent surfboards, wetsuits, beach chairs and umbrellas year-round. Bring your binocs to Natural Bridges State Park and Beach (2531 W Cliff Dr, 831-423-4609, parks.ca.gov), California’s only state park butterfly preserve and a great place to explore tide pools. Wilder Ranch State Park (1401 Coast Rd, 831-423-9703, parks.ca.gov) boasts 34 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. For stunning views of Monterey Bay (and some equally attractive queer women), explore the University of California, Santa Cruz (1156 High St, 831-459-0111, ucsc.edu), one of the most lesbian-friendly and beautiful college campuses in the nation.

Not surprisingly, Santa Cruz offers a profusion of farm-fresh cuisine and mouthwatering wines. Start your day off with a scrumptious breakfast at Linda’s Seabreeze Café (542 Seabright Ave, 831-427-9713, seabreezecafe.com) where specialties include chicken apple sausage, scrambles, omelets and fresh homemade cinnamon rolls. Another superb breakfast or brunch option is Harbor Café (535 7th Ave, 831-475-4948, harborcafesantacruz.com) where you shouldn’t miss the eggs Benedict variations or the polenta fries. For lunch, try La Posta (538 Seabright Ave, 831-457-2782, lapostarestaurant.com) for brick-oven pizza, tasty salads and other light Italian fare using locally sourced ingredients. Café Limelight (1016 Cedar St, 831-425-7873, cafelimelight.com) is a gay-owned café serving delicious coffee, tea, desserts, lunch and dinner. Got a sweet tooth? The Penny Ice Creamery (913 Cedar St, 831-204-2523, thepennyicecreamery.com) creates artisanal frozen treats whose inspired flavors change daily.

Boutique wineries abound near Santa Cruz, including Nicholson Vineyards (2800 Pleasant Valley Rd, Aptos, 831-724-7071, nicholsonvineyards.com), located on the Corralitos Wine Trail, where vintners produce top-notch Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Suds-lovers should stop by the Seabright Brewery (519 Seabright Ave, 831-426-2739, seabrightbrewery.com), to slurp a Pelican Pale or Seabright Amber on tap. For cheap drinks and a gay-friendly vibe, head to Blue Lagoon Cocktail Lounge (923 Pacific Ave, 831-423-7117, thebluelagoon.com) where prompt and pleasant bartenders will keep your libations flowing.

Need a little retail therapy? Let Synergy Organic Clothing (1229 Pacific Ave, 831-331-4014, synergyclothing.com) hook you up with some well-designed, eco-friendly threads. For cool antiques, curios and vintage décor, head to True Love Antiques & Vintage (805 Pacific Ave, 714-847-3961, no website). For killer streetwear and hoodies, check out The Krate (1101 Pacific Ave, 831-466-3865, thekrate.com). Looking for amazing vintage clothing and cute quirky finds? Get thee to Tomboy (1207 Soquel Ave, 831-425-1405, tomboysc.com) where you may find your next luxurious scarf, Roxy Music t-shirt or kickass cowboy boots.

Where will you sleep? The aptly-named Santa Cruz Dream Inn (175 W Cliff Dr, 831-426-4330, dreaminnsantacruz.com) is a gay-friendly, four-star, ‘60s-themed boutique hotel with incredible views of Monterey Bay. Or you could just have drinks here at the new Jack O’Neill Lounge—part surfing museum, part chillaxing cocktail bar. Another upscale hotel, Chaminade Resort & Spa (1 Chaminade Ln, 831-475-5600, chaminade.com) offers a lush, verdant setting—with 156 spacious and well-appointed guest rooms housed on a 300-acre retreat. If you prefer B&Bs, Adobe on Green Street (103 Green St, 831-469-9866, adobeongreen.com) gets five stars on Yelp for its quiet cushy rooms, pretty gardens and charming hospitality. For pet-friendly lodgings in Santa Cruz, look no further than Pelican Point Inn (21345 E Cliff Dr, 831-475-3381, pelicanpointinn-santacruz.com) where you, your partner and your your pooch will be more than welcome. The Sea & Sand Inn (201 W Cliff Dr, 831-427-3400, santacruzmotels.com/sea_and_sand.html) offers an ocean view from every room, complimentary Wi-Fi, free continental breakfast and the property is within easy walking distance of the Santa Cruz Wharf and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Santa Cruz is an exceedingly relaxed community, full of LGBTs and laid-back, open minded people. They also know how to party! This past year, Santa Cruz Pride (santacruzpride.org) held its 40th annual Pride celebration and for the past two decades, the town has had its own Dyke March (santacruzdykemarch.com). For live music, head to The Catalyst (1011 Pacific Ave, 831-423-1338, catalystclub.com) where you might see lezzie bands like Uh Huh Her or Sin Sisters Burlesque. The afore-mentioned Blue Lagoon Cocktail Lounge, Santa Cruz's premier nightclub, is extremely diverse and gay-friendly. The Diversity Center of Santa Cruz (1117 Soquel Ave, 831-425-5422, diversitycenter.org) is the community hub for LGBTs in Santa Cruz County, with tons of ongoing programs and events. For Santa Cruz queer events at a glance, check out Queer Cruz (queercruz.com).

Getting here is easy. Just a 90-minute drive south of San Francisco and a day’s drive from Los Angeles, Santa Cruz is accessible by car via scenic Highway 1 along the California coastline or Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Visitors can fly into San Francisco International Airport or San Jose International Airport; the closest major airport is the latter, about 45 minutes away from Santa Cruz.