I Am A Visitor Here

I don’t go back to Santa Cruz very often. College wasn’t the happiest time for me, and being back in Santa Cruz sometimes brought unwelcome reminders of that old life.  I used to go back to visit friends, but in the years since I lived there, everyone I knew has moved on. When I was back in Santa Cruz this weekend, I didn’t even see any familiar faces at my old workplace, Bookshop Santa Cruz.

There was something very refreshing about not seeing people I knew around town, though. It made me feel more like a tourist than a former resident. It felt like I was somewhere both familiar and brand new and this made for an ideal vacation  — I got to enjoy exploring a place, without ever getting lost.

We stayed on the Westside of town, just a block off West Cliff Drive. I’d often lived near this neighborhood, but it has changed a lot since I was there. It now has its own farmers market every Saturday on Western Drive, although if you miss it, New Leaf market, a local chain store, is just a few blocks away and carries locally grown produce, pasture-raised meat, and good quality milk (although the egg selection really should be better).

Next door to New Leaf, Bonny Doon winery now has a cafe and tasting room where $5 buys a taste of five wines (2 whites and 3 reds), or a reserve tasting of 3 higher-end reds. If you want to keep drinking, there are a few other wineries in the same complex (an old Brussels sprout warehouse) and a brewery. Or you can get something to eat at Kelly’s French Bakery.

The Westside is also a great place to bike. It’s mostly flat and there are spacious bike lanes on many of the main streets through the neighborhood, like Delaware, Swift, Bay and California. Since May isn’t high tourist season, there was hardly any traffic to contend with.

A few years ago, I’d run into another UCSC grad and somehow it came up that I’d never had a bike while I was in Santa Cruz. She was appalled and I didn’t fully understand why until this weekend. It was so easy and fun to be on bikes, particularly with my whole family. Mr. WholeHog and my dad are regular cyclists and they seemed to enjoy the riding as much as my mom, sister and I who only bike a few times a year.

We all biked up Bay Street to Vasili’s, a local Greek restaurant, for tzatiki and pita bread, and the next day, we biked over to New Leaf to get groceries. If it hadn’t rained Sunday morning, we could have biked downtown to Bookshop Santa Cruz to pick up the Sunday New York Times.

My favorite ride, though, was along West Cliff. There are more people to contend with, but that still doesn’t diminish the view. The view this weekend seemed almost too perfect to be real: the sunshine glinting off the water, the flowers blooming along the bike and pedestrian path, the sight of pristine little sandy coves below. We stopped to watch otters playing in the surf and seals popping their dog-like heads up out of the water, not far from where a spray of surfers waited for a wave off Cowell’s Beach. West Cliff is by no means a secret, locals-only sort of place, but it’s still one of my very favorite parts of Santa Cruz.

There is only one real reason to leave the Westside (and to get in the car rather than on a bike) and that’s for coffee. Santa Cruz still lacks serious coffee — the sort of place that dates the bags of coffee beans so you’ll know how recently the beans were roasted — so it’s worth the drive to Verve in Capitola, where they roast their beans right next door to the cafe and you can taste the difference.

After two days biking, wine tasting, eating Greek food, browsing for books downtown, and soaking in the hot tub at our vacation rental, it still felt too soon to leave Santa Cruz. I still had a list of things I’d wanted to do: hike in Wilder Ranch, go to the Forest of Nisene Marks, visit the UCSC farm.

This time around, to my surprise, I couldn’t wait to come back and spend more time getting reacquainted with my old college town.

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