The Santa Cruz Mountains earned their AVA designation in 1981. There are now over fifty small—and a few large —wineries in the area, flourishing on the unique microclimates, mountain terrain and distinctive soils. The city of Santa Cruz is a logical base for exploring these sometimes overlooked wineries.
Even without the wineries, Santa Cruz is an alluring place. Like a postcard from the 1940s, the town evokes nostalgia and is the essence of a California beach community, with its miles of beaches, a boardwalk, sea lions, a wooden roller coaster, redwoods, whales and some of the best surfing waves on the coast. It’s about ninety minutes from San Francisco, traffic gods willing.
Drives up into the mountains to some of the state’s better wineries, with their million dollar views, can occupy several days. Ridge Vineyards’ great Cabernets and Chardonnays are legendary. Thomas Fogarty Winery’s many varieties are best tasted while gazing out over the fog. David Bruce, Testarossa Vineyards, Fernwood Cellars, Soquel Vineyards, Byington and Ahlgren Vineyards are all in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and each merits a trip. Close by, Bonny Doon Vineyards has a tasting room just outside Santa Cruz (10 Pine Flat Road; www.bonnydoonvineyard.com).
When not navigating your rental car around the mountain switchbacks and through the rugged terrain to the wineries, you should explore this town that promises summer vacation all year. Called the “Coney Island of the West,” Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk (Beach and Cliff Streets) grew from a cluster of bathhouses that drew tourists in the mid-1800s. Today, the amusement park offers nostalgic rides. The wooden Giant Dipper rollercoaster has been raising hairs for over 80 years; the 1911 carousel is classic and calming. Walk out on the Santa Cruz Wharf and see the sea lions or a migrating whale.
Santa Cruz’s surf is always up, and it draws surfers from around the world. Don’t miss the Surfing Museum (701 West Cliff Drive; www.santacruz surfingmuseum.com) in the Mark Abbott Lighthouse. Photos from the early days of surfing and the display of antique boards, some just simple redwood planks, make you realize just how uncomfortable it must have been.
Fun places to eat include Soif, a wine bar, restaurant and retail store (105 Walnut Avenue; www.Soifwine.com) that carries many local bottles and serves as much local, organic food as it can find, including roasted eggplant and peppers with feta and arugula. In the heart of downtown, Gabriella Café (910 Cedar Street; www.gabriella cafe.com) features farmer-fresh local ingredients as well. Home-made desserts are a big hit and the wine list is excellent. For breakfast, the fresh baked breads at Zachary’s (819 Pacific Avenue; 831.427.0646) and sourdough pancakes make a good base for a day of wine tasting.
A great place to rest your weary wine-tasting bones is Chaminade (1 Chaminade Lane; www. chaminade.com), a plush resort and spa perched at the top of a ridge overlooking Santa Cruz and the bay. With those great views, it also offers heated pools, patios and outdoor dining. The Pleasure Point Inn (2-3665 East Cliff Drive; www.pleasure pointinn.com) also sits on a bluff overlooking the Monterey Bay. From its roof deck, with hot tub, you can just drift to the sound of the waves. There’s also a surf school. At Babbling Brook Inn (1025 Laurel Street; www.babblingbrookinn.com) the 13 rooms face on waterfalls, a garden gazebo, pines and redwood trees and, of course, a brook. Yet it’s a short walk to the beach and downtown Santa Cruz. Or, for a more historical respite, the Inn at Depot Hill (250 Monterey Avenue;www. innatdepothill.com in nearby Capitola is a converted railroad station. Fireplaces, luxe linens, private Jacuzzis and patios evoke an era of train travel that Amtrak is unlikely ever to recapture. All-in-all, Santa Cruz offers a glimpse back to another time, with modern amenities and wonderful wines.