Coastal CA

On the Road: Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Dinner in Pescadero

Wednesday November 17, 2010

Our Indian summer has continued here in beautiful San Francisco, with pristine blue skies and actual sundress weather.  Sundress weather!  In San Francisco!  In November!  None of it makes sense, but this did give me the opportunity to declare myself homesick and take a trip to Santa Cruz.

I’m sure Santa Cruz can be as pristine and gorgeous as the rest of the Northern California coastline, but it also features something you won’t find anywhere else in California… an honest to God boardwalk!

It feels like home, in the sweetest most un-ironic sense.  New Jersey, I never knew I’d miss you so  much…

Day Trip to Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Dinner in Pescadero (10 hours, drive 160 miles)

What you’ll need:

  1. A car
  2. Beach attire, with a change of clothes
  3. Beach blanket
  4. Hat/Sunglasses
  5. Magazine/book
  6. A full tank of gas (limited gas stations along Route 1)


Recommended Itinerary

  1. Drive down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz
  2. Walk along the Boardwalk and hit the beach
  3. Afternoon stroll in downtown Santa Cruz
  4. View the sunset along Pacific Coast Highway
  5. Dinner at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero


1.       Drive down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz

Farms along Pacific Coast Highway

There are two ways to drive down to Santa Cruz from San Francisco – drive down the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, or drive down Rt 101.  Rt 101 is like I-95 when it traverses the Bronx, crowded and hectic, only Rt 101 extends for 35 miles.  (For the record, it’s only about 20 minutes faster too…supposing there isn’t any traffic on Rt 101.)

So, our clear choice is always Pacific Coast Highway, or Route 1.  From eastern San Francisco, travel on Rt 101 South, and take exit 431 onto Rt 280 South.  After 6 miles, veer onto Route 1, signs pointing for Pacifica.

And that is all the maneuvering you’ll need to do for the day.  Route 1 turns into an oddly straight and easy country road, almost entirely free of other cars.  Sit back, relax, and try to find a station on the radio.

The highway ambles along, between pine covered hills to the east and bluffs and ocean to the west.  This time of year, the farms on either side of the road are littered with pumpkins and hay bales.  This is the only clue that it is the middle of November.  The skies are perfectly sapphire, the hills and farmland are lush and green, and the ocean sparkles under the intense autumn sun.

If your group is game, stop at one (or all!) of the several farm stands along the way, and pick up healthy snacks for a picnic on the beach.  If your group is decidedly a bit too gourmet for the Boardwalk’s corn dogs and funnel cake, it might be a good idea to roll into Pescadero for its excellent markets.



Pacific Coast Highway

The road eventually leads to Santa Cruz.  Once you realize you’ve reentered civilization, take a right on Bay Street.  Drive a mile through the pretty Santa Cruz beach bungalows, and take a left when you get to the fork in the road.  Drive down West Cliff Drive and veer right within half a block.

At the next intersection, you will see the pier to your right and the beach volleyball courts ahead of you.  Take a left onto Pacific Avenue.  Drive for roughly 3 short blocks until you see a large parking lot on your left.  Turn into the parking lot.

Parking in this lot is $1 per hour or $5 per day, cash only.  Even in the dead of summer, when the beach was packed with people, this lot had available spots.  I highly recommend it if you would like to avoid the parking lot wars common in tourist destinations.  The walk to the Boardwalk is a third of a mile.

There is a parking lot directly across the street from the rear of the Boardwalk.  To access it, you will have to drive down the traffic and pedestrian mobbed Beach Street, and parking costs $11.  When we visited in the summer, this lot was full around noon and the two blocks of driving to reach it was an exercise in patience.  However, in the middle of November, there were plenty of spaces available and Beach Street was mostly free flow.



2.       Walk along the Boardwalk and hit the beach

Walk along Beach St, past the beach volleyball courts.  The volleyball players here are perfectly Californian – lean, tan, and very willing to spike.  (There is a surprisingly clean, if sand-encrusted, public restroom at the corner of Beach and Pacific Ave.  There are others on the Boardwalk as well.)

Continuing along Beach St, you’ll walk behind the Cocoanut Grove (accurate spelling!)  After the main building, you’ll see an entry point to the boardwalk on your right.

So…?  Doesn’t it feel like home?  Granted, this boardwalk is much much smaller than most New Jersey boardwalks (it probably only extends for 3 blocks or so).  And, Californians decided they did not need storefront after storefront of custom-decorated sweatshirt shops.  Or seashells stacked in the shape of a tortoise.  Or offensive beach towels and bikinis.  But, the bumper cars and fried foods stands are close enough to the real thing.

To thank for all of this, we have Fred Swanton, a man from Brooklyn, with a vision in 1904 to turn the pristine and stunning California coastline into the next Coney Island and Atlantic City.  I mean, I’m here for a taste of home, so I can’t really blame the guy.  Going down the shore is all about funnel cake flavored with sand and the smell of French fries.  (You can take the girl out of Philadelphia…)

Walk around the boardwalk (won’t take long) and buy some disgustingly unhealthy options for lunch and head to the beach.  If this is summer, prepare to search a while to find a patch of unclaimed sand.  This beach fills up like Coney Island, a mass of sunbathing humanity and kids building sandcastles.

If it is fall, go on and pick out your optimal acreage.  Surprisingly, 80 degree weather is not beach weather for Californians.

Do be careful about any food you’ve brought with you.  The seagulls are like vultures here, only they aren’t waiting for anyone to die.  The good news is that they will eventually find someone else to bother.



3.       Afternoon stroll in downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, California, statue

After a few hours at the shore, you and your group may want to change into real clothes, and get away from the sun and heat.  Luckily, Santa Cruz has a cute downtown that is small and easily walkable.

From the parking lot on Pacific Ave, turn left out of the parking lot to continue driving north on Center  Street.  Drive five blocks and turn right on Church Street.  Drive for a block and a half.  There will be a parking lot entrance on your right.  You may need to loop around to find a spot.  Parking is only 50 cents per hour, and you will only need to park for about 2 hours.

Pacific Avenue, a half block east, is the main commercial strip.  There are about 6 or 7 tree-lined blocks of boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops.  It is upscale and not “beach town” chic at all – sadly, any comparison to a New Jersey beach towns ends at the boardwalk.  No, this is more along the lines of Santa Barbara and a less upscale version of Southampton’s Main Street.

As your group is walking around, take note of the time.  If you are planning on getting out of town in time to see the sunset, you will want to leave at least a half hour before your scheduled sunset time for the day.  Before leaving, you might want to stop by a coffee shop and the Pacific Cookie Company to gather some snacks for the sunset watching.  (Sunsets can take a while, and they get chilly if you are on the beach, so you’ll want to have something else to do other than standing around waiting for the magic to happen.)

When you’re ready, head back to your car.



4.       View the sunset along Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway Sunset

From the parking garage, drive south on either Cedar or Center Street and turn right onto Walnut Street.  Drive along Walnut Street for a few blocks and veer right to stay on Walnut Street.  Turn left on Mission Street, which is also Route 1.  Continue on Route 1 until you are out of Santa Cruz.

There are many ways to view the sunset, and so you will have to make some decisions at this point based on your traveling companions.  As you drive along, you will see that there are parking lots with beach access every mile or so.  Some turn offs will require an easy hike/walk to a look out point, while others are situated conveniently on a viewing plateau so that you barely have to leave your car to see the show.

We chose to stop at a lot at the corner of Route 1 and Laguna Rd, roughly 8 miles from downtown Santa Cruz.  I would highly HIGHLY recommend this stop if your group is up for an easy hike.  From the parking lot, cross the road and you will see a small downhill path through the trees.  You’ll come to railroad tracks, which you will also have to cross.  From there, the hiking path widens as it traverses a grassy hillside.  At the top, you will be on a cliff overlooking a cove with the wide expanse of the California coastline all around you.  It’s an amazing spot, and you’ll likely be the only people there.  The kicker is that I’m sure there are hundreds of spots just like this all along the highway.

Of course, if your group would rather sit down at a café and watch the sunset from behind a warm latte, I would recommend driving to Davenport.  Davenport is roughly 11 miles outside of Santa Cruz, and it offers two roadside coffee shops, Davenport Roadhouse and Whale City Bakery.  Both have outdoor seating.  I should warn you that from our pass through Davenport, I was a bit concerned that a phalanx of evergreens closer to the water would obstruct your view of the direct sunset (where the sun meets the ocean).  Perhaps someone can tell us whether that is the case or not?  Davenport Roadhouse has a second story porch, which may help with the view.



5.       Dinner at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero

Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero, California, Restaurant, Neon

Post sunset, or when it gets to the point that everyone’s cold and wants to get back in the car, whichever comes first, continue heading north on Pacific Coast Highway.  The nice thing about the drive is that the passengers will be able to continue watching the sea, hills, and farms turn into dusky pastels.

There will be a turn off for Pescadero about 22 miles from Davenport.  It may be hard to see the intersection in the dark, so pay extra attention after you see the sign for Pescadero.

Drive 2 miles on Pescadero Creek Road until you get to the blinking red light.  This is the only stop light in town.  Turn left and you’ll see Duarte’s Tavern glowing immediately to your right.  There will be plenty of parking on the side of the road.

Duarte’s is one of those institutions that is wholly unaware what decade it’s in.  After 115 years, does it even matter anymore?   Despite the name, Duarte’s is much more a restaurant than a tavern, with deep wood paneling covering every surface.  There are several rooms, each more filled with knick knacks than the last.  It is a very comfortable place with a very friendly staff — a perfect place to have a bowl of soup and some pie.

Duarte’s is famous for their Cream of Artichoke soup, which I highly recommend.  The locals know to ask for it mixed with the restaurant’s Green Chile Soup to add a little extra spice and flavor.

Following the hearty bowl of soup…I’d recommend going straight to dessert with some Ollalieberry Pie.   No, this isn’t an actual fruit, but some cyborg fruit made from cross planted blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries.  Californians are big on messing with nature and making up new fruit.  Live here long enough and friends will casually drop how they picked up some great pluots or nectapalms at the grocer last weekend.  As if they aren’t saying something completely ridiculous.

The pie is amazing, though, and quite large.  I believe the crust may have lard in it, so be nice and give a heads up to any vegetarians in your group.

After you settle the bill and buy some jars of Ollalieberry jam, it’s time to head back home.  You’ll be calm and satiated, with the afterglow of flowing highways, merry go rounds, seagulls, ocean waves, main streets, sunsets, and candlelight flickering through your peaceful mind.

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