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April 24, 2014

Surf Town USA

Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez There is a 20-foot surfer who greets most visitors to Santa Cruz. As the focal point of a vivid Mission Street mural, she pedals a beach cruiser -- surfboard tucked under arm -- against a field of red and giant white letters that proclaim “Welcome to Santa Cruz.” Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Surfing runs through Santa Cruz’s veins. I can’t describe Santa Cruz in five words without using the word “surf.” More than just a sport, it’s a culture too. You’ll see it reflected all over town: in its murals, on the stickers that grace the backs of cars, via the surfboards that sneak their way into restaurants’ decor, and on the homepage of the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council which found the space for a surf report. Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Despite what our good friends in Southern California might tell you, Santa Cruz is the birthplace of surfing on the US mainland. It began in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes visited the area and were inspired to surf redwood planks on the Monterey Bay. Since then, surfing has become an integral part of the local lifestyle. Below, I’ve assembled an easy surf-themed itinerary for a day in Santa Cruz. Follow along and you’ll soon be stoked on the town’s great surf culture: Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Begin your surf-themed outing at the nation’s first institution dedicated to preserving surf heritage. Located in an iconic lighthouse perched above famed surf spot Steamer Lane, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum details over 100 years of surf culture -- think beach parties and surf rock of the 50s and 60s -- via photos, stories and pop culture paraphernalia. After you’re done Instagramming the cool vintage surfboards, step outside and join the crowds gaping at surfers zipping past on the dramatic waves below. Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Inspired? Now it’s time to look the part. Jack O’Neill founded the first “surf shop” in San Francisco back in 1952. A few years later, he moved to Santa Cruz and continued selling surfboards and his still-suspect invention: neoprene thermal barriers -- or wetsuits. The downtown O’Neill Surf Shop continues that tradition with a store brimming with modern surf and beach gear like hip graphic tees, swimwear, and wetsuits that look a tad more sleek than their 50s prototypes. Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Now that you’re all suited up, it’s time to go toes on the nose. At least on a board that hasn’t yet left the beach. Richard Schmidt is a local legend who went from riding inflatable beach mats at Cowell’s Beach as a kid to dropping in on the massive waves of Mavericks. He’s shared his skills with others since 1978, making his Richard Schmidt Surf School the original surf school in the area. He told me that Santa Cruz has the most beautiful waves for learning to surf thanks to its long, sloping user-friendly breaks. “The town’s surf culture is rich,” he continued. “Our surf spots are like amphitheaters where people come to watch. Santa Cruz is Surf City.” Shhh, don’t tell Huntington Beach. Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Next, head south to the quaint historic village of Capitola, one of the first beach resorts on the West Coast. Capitola Beach is situated on a sheltered part of the Bay, making it perfect for beginners. Matt Arthur should know. He grew up a few blocks away and learned to surf here as a kid. Together with his wife Jill, he runs Capitola Beach Company, a one-stop surf boutique that will have you looking your best in and out of the water. They also rent surf, paddle and boogie boards to practice your newfound skills. Need a refresher course? Their surf classes will teach you technique and etiquette so you don’t look like a kook out there. Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez Ready for happy hour? The Dream Inn’s new Jack O’Neill Lounge sits adjacent to the site of O’Neill’s first Santa Cruz surf shop, a designated California Point of Historic Interest. What better way to honor it than with Jack’s favorite libation -- a Ketel One Martini -- surrounded by memorabilia from his legacy? Surfboards, vintage photos and sunny furnishings set the proper tone. The striking view of Cowell’s Beach through floor-to-ceiling windows doesn’t hurt either. Photo by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez End your day with a Hawaii-meets-Santa Cruz themed dinner at Hula’s Island Grill + Tiki Room, a richly atmospheric restaurant overflowing with playful Hawaiian, tiki and surf decor. Celebrate the three Hawaiians that brought surfing to town with a menu of luau-worthy dishes that would please a prince. Ditto the delicious Mai Tais. Meanwhile, just a few steps down the street is Brian Barneclo’s “Surfin Bird,” a mod mural that perfectly encapsulates the beachside bohemia that is Santa Cruz.


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  • Gary Romele 3 years 110 days ago
    I was raised in Santa Cruz in the early 60’s and my family still lives there. I remember as a young boy that I use to go down to the beach and boardwalk from Felton, in the Santa Cruz mountains. I remember a closed service station that became a surf shop rental store adjacent to the Dream Inn. It was on the beachfront by the wharf.

    They used to rent surfboards, bicycles, wetsuits, beach umbrellas, beach towels etc. They sold swim suits, sunscreen, nose coat, sunglasses etc.

    The old service station had a large cage attached to the top of the old metal service station sign (about 30' feet high and I believe it used to be a Texaco station) The cage was attached to the top with metal bars welded from the bottom to the top where the monkey, I think it's name was Sam. would perch himself on top for the day.

    I believe Jack O’Neill was the proprietor and I think this was his first surf shop in Santa Cruz. Can somebody verify this? Thanks

  • Capitola Beach Company 4 years 153 days ago
    Great blog post! Thanks for including us!
    Bring your family to Capitola! We would love to get you and your family out in the water!

    Matt & Jill
    Capitola Beach Company