In June my husband and I attended a wedding in Gilroy California. We decided to make a little vacation out of it and spend some time in the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz area as well. Santa Cruz is located about 40 minutes SW of San Jose. The San Jose Airport (SJC) is the easiest place to fly into. This is a destination I’d recommend renting a car for.
Where to Stay
We originally wanted to stay in Santa Cruz and in all honesty, there’s not a great selection of accommodation in Santa Cruz. When I was looking for a place to stay, a lot of the hotels seemed seedy, over priced, or they were fully booked for the days we’d be there. If you really have your heart set on staying in the heart of Santa Cruz, the West Cliff Inn gets great reviews and it’s in a central location. In our case, we wanted all the fun of being near Santa Cruz but also accommodation that felt more like a relaxing beach vacation (Santa Cruz can get rowdy). Since most of the things we wanted to do were closer to Santa Cruz it didn’t make sense for us to stay in Monterey. For those reasons we decided to stay at the Seascape Beach Resort.
What to Do
I’ve been to the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay area several times and one of the things I love most is that it has tons of stuff to do for all ages, activity levels, and interests.
The West Cliff Drive is a scenic 3 mile path along the cost. I suggest either walking or biking the path. There are benches along the way so it would be a great place to grab some pastries and coffee (or tea in my case) to take with you on a morning walk. I suggest setting aside a half day for this which is generous but it will allow you enough time to stroll and take in the sights without feeling rushed.
The Santa Cruz boardwalk takes you back in time with it’s old school charm. The boardwalk has indoor arcades and outdoor rides. I suggest setting half a day aside for the Boardwalk and doing something more relaxing the other half of the day.
California is known for it’s breathtaking redwood trees but you don’t have to go to the National Park to experience their beauty. Henry Cowell State Park is only a 15 to 20 minute drive from Santa Cruz. You could easily spend a full day in the park but we brought a picnic and did the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. You can research more of the trails and hikes in the park here.
This was both mine and my husband’s favorite thing we did on our trip. The Aquarium is about an hour drive from Santa Cruz and definitely worth it. The aquarium is known for having an emphasis on local ocean habitats. I highly recommend seeing the otter feeding while you’re there. It was super informative and I could watch otters play all day. I suggest setting aside and entire day for this and checking out the Monterey wharf afterwards since it’s only 2 miles away.
Where to Eat
Since we stayed at the Seascape Beach Resort we ate at the Sanderlings restaurant a couple of times. I recommend the Cioppino and they make a great Aperol Spritz. We also tried Palapas which is also an onsite restaurant. I loved the Ceviche Tostada from Palapas.
Palapas is a great Mexican restaurant but if you want the best Mexican food you’ll ever have in the US then I highly recommend Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant in Aptos. Since I grew up in California I’ve had a lot of Mexican food there and Manuel’s is the best. The margaritas are lethal and the carne asada tacos are to die for.
One of my other favorite meals we got on our trip was from Zoccoli’s Deli in Santa Cruz. We picked up sandwiches, deviled eggs, and drinks from Zoccoli’s on our way to Henry Cowell State park for a picnic. My husband and I split the Antipasto Sandwich and Italian Club Sandwich. Both were great but the Italian Club was extra delicious.
I wish I had a great restaurant to recommend in Monterey. The place we ate at had a great view but not so great food. The area surrounding the Aquarium is VERY touristy so I suggest finding a place more off the beaten path. The aquarium also has a restaurant inside that might be worth trying out of convenience.