Credit: Ian Mackey/Unsplash

In my pre-experience imagination, a stubborn habit for assignment-preparing journalists, this story’s lead would relate to time travel and an embrace of heights. There would be two contrasting, dramatic views of Santa Cruz: one from the palatial-ish Chaminade spa/resort, where I would stay with my wife, Peggy, and dog, Harper; the other, from the apex of the famed (and often filmed) wooden rollercoaster, the pride of the Boardwalk.

Alas, because we visited during the still-wary days of Omicron, the rollercoaster notion was scuttled by closure. Even so, we enjoyed wandering the virtually abandoned Boardwalk fun-zone-by-the-sea, newly painted and refurbished during lockdown, which triggered an odd realization. In some way, our three-day getaway to this unique California beachfront outpost — within driving distance from Santa Barbara — became a farewell-to-pandemic trek. Correction: a cautious farewell.

What better place to bid COVID adieu than in a retreat with presumed healing properties? A former Catholic boys’ school built in 1906, the Chaminade was transformed in 1985 into a temple of leisure and a recharging zone with a view. And “view” is the resident mantra. Situated close to town but on its hillside perch, above a cemetery, the Chaminade is — to cop its in-house phrase — “an elevated resort experience.”

Upon arriving, we received a goody/swag bag for the dog (cookies, collapsible water bowl, and an absorbent pad for pooches with indoor bathroom issues). We were given a “forest view” room, with the expanse of Santa Cruz hillside trees beyond.

Chaminade | Credit: Josef Woodard

Seeking vittles, we landed at Zoccoli’s Deli, a downtown lunchtime prize. I savored the Castroville Italian sub, with meats and artichoke from the nearby “artichoke capital of the world.” 

Exotically, the nearby busker played melodica and marimba, not your usual street sounds. Then again, this is not your usual California beach town. A fading bastion of hippiedom, the city has been gradually, reluctantly sucked into the vortex of gentrification and surreal real estate price tags. Detached from the hubs of Los Angeles and San Francisco and without the tourist-luring cachet of the closely adjacent Monterey/Carmel, Santa Cruz still offers something refreshingly funky and semi-sleepy around the edges, in a city with more tattoo parlors than Starbucks.

When downtown, save quality time for the wonderful, sprawling book emporium and hangout Bookshop Santa Cruz, a landmark independent bookstore. Outside, an Indian vendor’s stall was duly aromatic and enticing, within earshot of another street musician playing meditative shakuhachi music. Multiculturalism is alive and well here. Nearby, Gary Dwyer’s sculpture “Cube” stands vigil outside the impressively stocked sock shop, an anomaly in a state consumed by soulless mini-mall-ing.

Credit: Josef Woodard

Eatery-wise, we also stopped by the historic bakery the Buttery and happily lunched at Picnic Basket, near the Boardwalk. We gorged on a “healthier” Reuben and a bodacious salad stocked with local, fresh ingredients.

Seafood seekers flock to the wharf, where options include Firefish, rightly recommended for its sand dabs. The cioppino? Also delectable. The next day’s itinerary started at Loft Coffee at Cabrillo College in nearby Aptos, meeting daughter and her fiancée for coffee and grub a cut above what’s expected from college fare.

Then it was off to the Glaum Egg Ranch (founded 1921), a special treat for its loveable kitsch diversions and egg bargains (warranting inclusion in the offbeat destination index Atlas Obscura). Put four crisp dollar bills in the “egg vending machine” and get 18 fresh eggs and an animatronics poultry revue show to the tune of “In the Mood.”

Limited dog-friendly beach options had us sniffing out possibilities for Harper’s beach obsession. We found her happy place down south at the scenic New Brighton State Beach. For a fine walk-and-gawk experience closer to Santa Cruz proper, head over to the coastal walk along West Cliff Drive.

Mystery Spot | Credit: Josef Woodard

While around Aptos, we paid pilgrimage to another kitsch landmark, The Mystery Spot, a hotspot of hokum and disorientation. A potent marketing campaign goes back decades, with billboards on the 101, bumper stickers, and general all-American folklore and hucksterism attached. It’s a spot, we’re told and temporarily feel, where rules of gravity and equilibrium go topsy-turvy. To boot, the actual property is surprisingly bucolic, nestled in redwoods.

Meanwhile, back at the Chaminade, scenic trails wend around the 30-acre property. A natural follow-up is a soak in the outdoor Jacuzzi in the spa, where one gazes dreamily out at the redwoods-y ravine and seemingly unpopulated terrain.

In other COVID-closure news, Kuumbwa Jazz, a cherished West Coast venue for jazz and other non-mainstream music, was in lockdown closure during our visit. Next time.

And there will be more “next times,” now that we’ve survived the pandemic (he says, nervously). And next time, the roller coaster apex is a must.

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