Any Santa Cruz guide book can lead you to the redwoods or the beaches or the Boardwalk—and certainly, you should go to all three. But “cultural tourism” is all the rage, and Santa Cruz has an incredible culture to tour. Here are a few ways to add some depth to your Santa Cruz culture experience:
Discover Pleasure Point
If you’ve come to Santa Cruz for the quintessential surf town experience, the neighborhood of Pleasure Point has evolved into a great place to find it. Quaint, colorful houses are home to many of the area’s surfers, and locals can be seen strolling along the sandy streets barefoot, with a dog or a surfboard in tow. A good place to explore the business district is on Portola Drive near the corner of 41st Avenue. Head inland on 41st, where cafes, shops, dining spots and breezy ocean air create a truly Santa Cruz vibe. New Bohemia Brewing Co. (NuBo) provides chill entertainment with craft beer and live music.
Find Your Jam
Santa Cruz has a thriving free-form dance scene happening nearly every night of the week that is welcoming to anyone who wants to let the rhythm move them. Events and classes are led by DJs or instructors who create the vibe of the moment. If you’re looking for an alternative to a traditional Sunday morning religious service, check out Dance Church, every Sunday at the 418 Project, where, as they say, “the DJ is the minister, the music is the sermon, [and] the dancers are the congregation.” Check out the418project.com and ecstaticdance.org/santacruz for more information.
Sip Wine with Shakespeare
Shakespearean theaters are not unusual, and picnics are hardly groundbreaking. But when you put the two together in Santa Cruz, magic happens. The Santa Cruz Shakespeare theater company is first-rate by any standards, and its outdoor theater in a tall eucalyptus forest is lovely by any standards, and paired with food—as you like it—and your favorite bottle of wine, it makes for a unique theater experience. SCS performances have been known to cause side effects such as euphoria and profound human understanding. Provisions can also be purchased on site. Visit santacruzshakespeare.org for performance dates.
Take an Offbeat Hike in Corralitos
The Byrne-Milliron redwood forest in South County’s Corralitos is a delightful treasure hunt thanks to the efforts of one man, Jeff Helmer. He lovingly cared for the 400 acres of trails for many years, and decorated its nooks and crannies with trinkets, figurines, and creatures of all sorts. He also left a few blank notebooks for visitors to share their thoughts. This is not a mountain of kitsch. Nature still reigns supreme, and hikers must pay attention to discover the bits of color tucked away in a few dozen places. Since Helmer died in 2014, an altar in his honor has sprung up on a fallen tree trunk that looks like it was created by the spirit of Helmer himself.
The trails are mostly shaded, and the hills of the lower portions are easy enough for children. The going can be moderately challenging if you make it up to the 1,000-year-old Great White redwood (which is, incidentally, not white).
Santa Cruz has been an epicenter for spiritual awakening since the 1960s. Pacific Cultural Center invites practitioners of every level to attend their wide offering of yoga classes and Eastern mysticism-leaning workshops and gatherings. Sacred Sound Circles, Kirtan, Shamanic drumming and chanting, and other vibrational gatherings allow attendees to enter a sacred space. Santa Cruz is home to several Buddhist centers, as well. While some are in remote redwood locations, Insight Santa Cruz is conveniently located on River Street and welcomes people of all faiths to drop in for meditation or attend their full calendar of speakers and day retreats. Check out pacificcultural.org and insightsantacruz.org.
Few American towns offer the abundance of herbs that is sold in Santa Cruz. With shops like the Herb Room and Go Ask Alice providing almost every herb under the sun (see one of our well-stocked dispensaries for that other herb), your food flavoring or herbal remedy is within reach. The staff at both shops are knowledgeable and eager to help as they share their passion for edible and healing leaves, seeds or flowers. To get closer to the source, Los Gatos Farms (just off Highway 17) invites people to pick their own bouquet of lavender during harvest season, July through August. Go to facebook.com/foodbinherbroom and facebook.com/GoAskAlice.SantaCruz.
Uncover the Art Scene
The Santa Cruz area is often voted a top arts destination, but the scene can leave visitors perplexed. Where are all the galleries? There are some good ones (Radius, r. Blitzer, Felix Kulpa, Artisans, etc.), but most artists exhibit at events. First Friday is your best bet, held at pop-up galleries countywide as well as throughout downtown Santa Cruz, at the Tannery Arts Center, Michaelangelo Gallery, the Wrigley Building, 17th Avenue Studios, and more. See the pullout program in the center of Good Times in the issue prior to First Friday for a complete list of venues. During the first three weekends in October, artists open their studios to the public for Open Studios. The Tannery Arts Center is an artist live-work space and home to the Colligan Theater, Jewel Theatre Company, Radius Gallery, Tannery World Dance Center, and 28 studio spaces where artists create and showcase their art (most are open on First Friday). Visit the thriving Museum of Art & History (MAH) and its adjacent Abbott Square for art, food, drink and fun.
Bathe in the Forest
We know that when Japanese researchers coined the term Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” they didn’t mean it literally, but while you are soaking in the health benefits of the exhaling redwood forest—an essential part of the Santa Cruz experience—why not take a plunge into one of the area’s swimming holes? The San Lorenzo River winds through the mountains, creating several places to take a dip. Garden of Eden, Big Rock Hole, and Huck Finn’s Hollow are just a few. Pack a picnic (and a trash bag), and relax in the shade of coast redwoods while your worries wash away.
Get Dunked on By the Warriors
True, the Golden State Warriors play in Oakland, but Santa Cruz is home to their Development League team, the Santa Cruz Warriors. Just as blue-and-gold fever has struck the Bay Area, so has the local team created a mini-sensation of its own in Santa Cruz over the last four years. Games are affordable, the Kaiser-Permanente Arena where they play is walkable from downtown, and the action is up close and lightning fast. Some members of the current Golden State team got their start here, like James Michael McAdoo and Kevon Looney.