Santa Cruz's affordable luxuries

Three-hundred and forty-five driving miles north of Los Angeles, 72 miles south of San Francisco and many leagues to the left of Middle America, Santa Cruz calls out to newcomers like a lazy mermaid atop Monterey Bay. With tie-dyed scales.

"Dude," this mermaid drawls. "What's your hurry?"

What with the redwoods, the shapely waves, the historic beachfront amusement park, the barking sea lions under the old wharf and the fluttering monarch butterflies that alight here every fall, Santa Cruz has always possessed plenty to lure tourists.

But there's never been a full-fledged stampede, maybe because the nearest commercial airports are in San Jose and Monterey. Or maybe it's because there's no easy freeway access. Most people come and go amid the heavy traffic on California Highway 1 (the coast) or California Highway 17 (inland).

Yet in the last two years, the eating and sleeping options here have taken a giant step forward. And thanks to the recession, many businesses, new and old, have been cutting prices or reinventing themselves.

On visits in October and November for this story, I checked out about a dozen lodgings and restaurants that have recently opened, upgraded, moved or cut prices. You can get ocean views for less than $200 a night. You can eat great meals for less than $20 a head.

Unless you're a true newcomer, you already know that surfers and students dominate the local culture.

The first surfers, three Hawaiian princes, apparently arrived here in 1885, which might make Santa Cruz the birthplace of surfing in California. The shaggy herds of university students arrived 80 years later, when the University of California opened a campus amid the big trees and meadows.

I could try to tell you that the place's reputation for hippie liberalism is overblown, but then I'd have to explain away the university's recent acquisition of the Grateful Dead archive. And I'd have to keep mum about Bookshop Santa Cruz, where every customer buying a copy of Sarah Palin's new autobiography last fall was offered a free bag of "Just Plain" nuts.

I suppose somewhere there's a surfer or student who came here and left, never to return. But that is hard to imagine as you're sidestepping the marimba players on Pacific Avenue or dodging the surfboard-toting bicyclists around Lighthouse Point and the Hook in Pleasure Point.

Despite the crippling Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 (which killed three people here and forced demolition of 27 buildings on Pacific Avenue), the city's population has doubled since the university opened its gates. It's about 56,000 now.

Most of the new and improved spots are downtown, where Pacific Avenue serves as the city's main drag, or along West Cliff Drive near the oceanfront boardwalk. But a couple of prime eateries (the Bonny Doon Vineyard Cellar Door Cafe and Kelly's French Bakery) sit in a former industrial zone on the fast-gentrifying West Side of town. A couple of the lodgings (Pleasure Point and Bella Notte inns) are in the Pleasure Point Area, an especially surfer-friendly zone where surfwear pioneer Jack O'Neill has been selling wetsuits since the 1950s.

Stay to play

When it comes to sleeping, the Santa Cruz Dream Inn is the big dog on the waterfront, a 10-story slab of '60s grooviness that reopened in July 2008 after a major renovation. The redo put an exclamation point on the building's vintage, emphasizing such details as the yellow and orange tiles in the bathrooms and the lime-green window shutters. Rates start about $169.

Each of the 165 rooms has a balcony or patio and a view of Monterey Bay, and you can step straight from the hotel onto the beach sand. The building stands a short walk from the popular but semi-gritty boardwalk and wharf. The hotel's restaurant is Aquarius (breakfast, lunch and dinner, seafood a specialty).

By the way, because of the city's perch at the top of Monterey Bay, this stretch of coastline faces east, so you won't see the sunset over the ocean. But if you rise early enough, you can watch the sunrise.

Right across the street from the Dream Inn stands the West Cliff Inn, a bright white three-story Victorian home now converted into an upscale nine-room bed-and-breakfast. The mostly commercial neighborhood is awkward for a B&B. But once you're inside, the interiors are impeccable, with stained-glasswork above the stairwell and California landscape paintings on the walls.

Before we leave the neighborhood, let's cross West Cliff Drive again and give the Sea & Sand Inn its due. This is a sleeper. From the street it looks like another forgettable roadside lodging, one with cramped parking at that. But Sea & Sand has killer views and spacious, well-tended grounds for a place with only 22 rooms. Moreover, the owners finished a major renovation in May that improved interiors and landscaping and added two rooms.

A few blocks inland, you reach the downtown area. At first glance, you might mistake the Pacific Blue Inn for a condo building, but it's a new bed-and-breakfast. The owners built this nine-room place from the ground up, using many green materials, and opened it Memorial Day weekend. The inn is not long on character, but if you want a location handy to the main drag, it can't be beat.

Closer to the east end of town, you find the Pleasure Point neighborhood, where the Pleasure Point Inn stands across the street from a tiny bluff-top park that looks out over a prime surf break. The inn, 9 years old, has four rooms, with breakfast served in a common area that overlooks the street and ocean. It's not a good fit for kids or a dog, but if you have one or more of those, the same owners rent out six houses in Santa Cruz and nearby Capitola.

The 10-room Bella Notte Inn stands in the same general neighborhood. It's a smallish hotel in a 2007 building, so everything in it is spacious and in top shape. There's no pool (apart from the Dream Inn, the lodgings listed here do not have pools), but the beach is just a three-minute walk.

Feed the hunger

Now on to the eating, beginning with downtown.

Oswald has been in Santa Cruz for years, but chef Damani Thomas and his partners closed their old location in 2007 to move downtown, then reopened in December 2008. The new space is big and minimalist, with a black ceiling, black carpet and off-white walls. In a late October visit, after a strangely long wait (only four tables were occupied), I had the $10 wilted bitter green sandwich (Gruyere cheese, olive tapenade, aioli), and it was very good.

The Gabriella Cafe is an unassuming little place, with an even littler patio, where I had a tremendous lunch. It's been there since 1992; chef Bradford Briske moved up from sous chef last January. (Briske, formerly a vegetarian, started eating and cooking meat after he moved to Santa Cruz.)

Chances are the owner, Paul Cocking, will be your waiter, and chances are your table will be a two-top. It's a mostly Italian menu, with house-made pasta and main dishes including tripe pizza and squid ink cavatelli. I had the pappardelle with lamb ragout (and a fennel mint after) and was glad I did. I also liked staring at the wall, where somebody spent many hours finding, trimming and assembling twigs until they spelled out GABRIELLA.

Just a short stroll away stands Soif Wine Bar, open since 2002. (Soif means "thirst" in French.) The wine shop is small but gets praise from wine-trade insiders. In the dining and drinking area, the ceilings are high and the walls are covered with terra-cotta paint, grape-leaf sconces and four ancient grape trunks -- entire root and trellis systems that loom against the wall like tall, gnarled abstract sculptures. I can vouch for the pan-seared scallops with risotto and shiitake mushrooms.

You'll probably want to drive the mile and a half from downtown to La Posta, and it will be worth the trip. La Posta is an Italian restaurant with such dishes as Dungeness crab ravioli and roasted whole branzino (a European sea bass) with baby fennel and olive relish. It opened in 2006. The space was once a post office, but now it's gone mod, with angled walls. There's a bar up front and a few cool dangling lamps shaded by old Italian postcards. I liked the prosciutto-melon-fig dessert and the easygoing but expert service.

To see a part of Santa Cruz that has changed dramatically in recent years, head to the West Side of town. Here you'll find the Bonny Doon Vineyard's tasting room (which opened in late 2008) and the adjoining Cellar Door Cafe. The restaurant is a joint effort by Bonny Doon wine- maker Randall Grahm and chef David Kinch, with the kitchen run by executive chef Charlie Parker.

The dim, curvaceous dining room is inspired by the form of a chambered nautilus shell. Small plates dominate the menu and family-style dining is strongly encouraged, with a couple of long tables in the middle of the room and only a handful of two-top tables. Do not be alarmed by the UFO -- that's a visual reference to Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant, a Rhône red blend with a similar flying object on its label.

If you arrive in the neighborhood too early for dinner, you can find Kelly's French Bakery just a scone's throw away. Kelly's operated downtown for many years but decamped to take over this former Brussels sprouts packing house in 2003. It's now known as the Swift Street Commons, and the complex also includes Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and neighbors the Bonny Doon tasting room. During Thanksgiving weekend, I grazed steadily and happily on Kelly's pumpkin pie (and some of the olallieberry pie too) for about 48 hours, and it's pretty affordable.

If you're pinching pennies, there's Charlie Hong Kong, near the Rio Theatre. It specializes in organic Asian street food. Along with noodle dishes and rice bowls with chicken, pork, beef and seafood toppings, it has salads and Vietnamese sandwiches. The bright greens, yellow and reds make it easy to find this eatery, which opened in 1998, taking over a former 1950s ice cream stand. Most of the seating is on the covered patio, but there are a few counter seats that look out the window at the world going by on Soquel Avenue.

Here's what you do after you've been in town a few days and gotten acclimated. Order a big, steaming Charlie Hong Kong lunch, take a seat with a view of the avenue. Then, as the drivers and bikers roll past, mouth these words to them:

"Dude. What's your hurry?" /santacruz A wave hello Go online for more photos and a video of Santa Cruz's surfable waves, gaudy-cheery boardwalk and enhanced lodging and dining options.

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