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Visiting Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay | Column

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the background. - Bill Morton/Mercer Island Reporter
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the background.
— image credit: Bill Morton/Mercer Island Reporter

Santa Cruz has always been an enigma. Just 60 miles south of San Francisco, it has been dubbed the “northern-most outpost of Southern California.” Home to the University of California, it has proudly garnered one of America’s Top Ten Team Mascots — the Banana Slugs. Santa Cruz commands gorgeous Pacific Coast ocean views and is, surprisingly, not populated by pricey California mega-mansions or folks driving Lexus and Bentleys, but by the spiritual grandchildren of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row slackers — “Mac ’n the boys.”

Santa Cruz is different, and worth a fun three- or four-day weekend getaway, perfect for tacking onto the tail-end of a Bay-area business trip.

Perhaps the best part of a Santa Cruz-area mini-vacation is a couplet of near perfect top-tier B&Bs, one in downtown Santa Cruz and the other 35 miles up the coast in the relaxed and uncrowded Half Moon Bay. Both Santa Cruz’s West Cliff Inn and Half Moon Bay’s Seal Cove Inn are pearls in the necklace of the Four Sisters Inns, which include two inns here in Western Washington. Saratoga Inn, in Langley on Whidbey Island, and the Inn at Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle are both Four Sisters properties.

Staying at a professionally run B&B makes for fantastic weekends. A night or two at a Four Sisters Inn includes warm cookies in the jar upon arrival, wine tasting hours before dinner and endless free sodas in the fridge. It means room furniture that is classic but never old or nonfunctional. It means innkeepers who know their towns as well as or better than the folks in the tourist centers.

Let me give you an example: The West Cliff Inn is a marshmallow white Italian Victorian mansion that sits across the street from Santa Cruz’s Pacific Ocean, only two blocks from its famous pier. As we were checking out of the inn, the amiable innkeeper inquired about our plans for lunch and dinner that afternoon and evening. We were planning to drive north up to Half Moon Bay.

He stopped us cold with his suggestion that we should not leave the greater Santa Cruz area without stopping first to check out the “most unique restaurant in the Western Hemisphere — Shadowbrook.” That got our attention. What travel writer could resist, hyperbole aside?

Shadowbrook is located on Soquel Creek, 500 yards from Capitola-by-the-Sea’s wharf and the Pacific surf. (Capitola is the next tiny town south from Santa Cruz, a five-minute drive.) To get from the ample tree-bordered parking lot at Shadowbrook, restaurant guests take a tram 100 feet down a steep cliff to a restaurant that deftly combines a tropical jungle with a German hunting lodge. Shadowbrook is a multi-level Swiss Family Robinson kind of place, with levels for private parties, al fresco deck dining, Bali-like bars and lounges, and lots of window dining. The kitchen is underground, and an organic spice garden grows on its “roof.”

Mercer Island food writer and gourmet chef Sharon Kramis loves Shadowbrook and makes a point of stopping by for a meal there every time she visits the area. Its cuisine has been good enough to support the restaurant’s growth for over 60 years since its opening in 1947. Don’t be fooled by the tram and the feel of the place. It’s not kitschy in any sense, but lets its design and its food do the talking. For a dinner suggestion, prime rib or Pacific Salmon are both served in a unique Shadowbrook style.

Incidentally, if you can’t stand the thought of being within a half mile of the Pacific Ocean and not having a view of blue Monterey Bay, I recommend Shadowbrook’s sister restaurant — The Crow’s Nest.

Longtime Mercer Island residents Jane Meyer and Bob Brahm go there often when they are at their Aptos condo. The Crow’s Nest is very similar to Shilshole’s Ray’s Boathouse, except that it is slightly bigger than Ray’s and has an outdoor upper deck. The seafood is very good. I especially liked the crusted calamari, the best that I’ve ever had.

Visitors to Santa Cruz with a little time on their hands can walk or bike the West Cliff path, 100 feet above the surfers who boogie the waves. If you are traveling with tots or teens, then get ready to be lobbied to hang out at the admission-free Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its huge wooden old-fashioned roller coaster, Ferris wheel, laser tag, boardwalk bowling and tons of other rides. It is pure carnival fun — a pleasant step down from Disney and a step up from Puyallup.

Well-read travelers who love B&Bs may be familiar with the name Karen Brown. Her “World of Travel” series of books include the best B&Bs of France, Germany, England-Wales-Scotland, Switzerland, Italy and more. She trumps even Rick Steves when it comes to high-end, dreamy B&Bs.

Karen Brown built and operated the Seal Cove Inn, located 25 miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge in Half Moon Bay. After running this magnificent French-inspired inn for 15 years, she sold it to the Four Sisters Inns. Today, Seal Cove Inn is a “perfect 10” B&B experience with cottontailed rabbits, cooing doves and scampering quail that call the French garden “home,” in addition to quiet walks down empty paths and lanes to the Pacific Ocean. French is the theme at Sea Cove Inn, and Karen Brown used her years of experience in Europe to get it right.

Dining in Half Moon Bay is quite good. That is what happens when you are 30 minutes from San Francisco, Stanford and Silicon Valley. Everybody told us to get a reservation at Café Gibraltar, an understated taste experience of the best Mediterranean cuisine. Alas, we didn’t get the reservation. But the good news was that we visited Half Moon Bay on one of those fogless, blue-sky days, so we took our seafood dinner on the deck at the Moss Beach Distillery and enjoyed an unbeatable vista of the sun slowly setting into the Pacific.

Half Moon Bay is farm country featuring artichokes, brussels sprouts and flowers. Lots of farms are open to public visits, including pumpkin and animal farms. The beaches are so numerous that it is not at all impossible to have an entire beach to yourself. Also, state parks and forest preserves encourage hiking and biking. Shoppers can enjoy several blocks of fashionable boutiques and art galleries in downtown Half Moon Bay.

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