The “T” word. You’ve muttered it under your breath after witnessing an ill-advised left turn, while shaking your head at an unwieldy load of beach paraphernalia, or maybe when overhearing someone declare “I can see Hawaii!” while pointing straight at Moss Landing. The “T” word is an easy catchall for behaviors we don’t deem local. It’s not flattering. However, anyone who understands, even in the most general terms, the concept of our tourism-based local economy and tax dependency will keep these mutterings to a minimum. Taken a step further, those lucky enough to travel and explore the world outside of our awe-inspiring climes recognize the joy of being the tourist (the definition of which, contrary to popular opinion, is not “one who takes my street parking” but is actually “one who travels for leisure, recreation or relaxation”).
With the exception of a few rogue revelers with leftover fireworks, out-of-towners will fly a little lower and more subtly under the radar for a few months. The end of tourist season affects us all in some way,
for good or for bad, and it’s important to realize that along with the return to some semblance of normal small-town life, it also causes a drop in business for a large number of our local businesses.
“Sure,” you are saying over your kale smoothie, wearing your ironic Mystery Spot shirt, “but I’ve seen the Boardwalk and the Cement Ship. I live here. Surely, I know it all.” (Note the superior attitude employed for journalistic convenience and is not representative of all … many … some … states of mind.)
That’s true! You’ve seen it all from a very special point of view—the inside. I’d like to suggest taking the road less traveled (by some) and sign up for a guided Santa Cruz tour. Ride that bike trail, ogle those redwoods, taste these wines, and see our humble digs as a fresh-faced visitor would. Honestly, it’s a bit like hearing yourself introduced to someone new and marveling at what your apparent strong suits are: “This is Kim, she hosts the best barbecues in town!” Really? I was expecting, “This is Kim, she’s big in Europe.”
So, if I haven’t yet convinced you to adopt the wide-eyed exuberance of the globetrotter, let me break it down into a simple list:
Reasons to take a tour in your hometown:
• Explore new hobbies or interests without the discomfort of muddling through it alone
• Take visitors on an adventure, with the onus of fun placed squarely on someone else’s shoulders
• Research activities for future visitors
• Remind yourself why you moved here in the first place, or why you refuse to leave
• Learn something new
• Confirm that there is nothing new for you to learn (let us know how this last one works out for you)
Still digging your heels in? Consider this: Support a local industry during its natural calendar-based slow season. Gotcha!—right in the “keep it local” pressure point.
Here are just a few of the myriad opportunities in town to explore new and familiar spots. Get out there and find more—they’re waiting to guide you!
SANTA CRUZ BIKE TOURS
Of course you own a bike, this is Santa Cruz after all. I’m sure you ride it 1) every day as your essential form of transportation, 2) for pleasure on the weekends, 3) on special occasions like when your car needs a new transmission, or 4) every time you are asked by your roommates to move it out of the way. Whether you’re Bike Guy or not, Santa Cruz Bike Tours is a great way to see areas you may have missed.
There are plenty of new experiences for locals to capture while pedaling. “If they think they’ve seen every nook and cranny up and down the coast—they haven’t,” says Marty Abaurrea, owner of Santa Cruz Bike Tours and a 37-year local resident.
Like most tour groups, his business caters primarily to visitors, new Santa Cruzans, and people who are planning to relocate here, but residents who join in always find a new nugget they hadn’t seen. The biggest “Aha!” moment he’s hearing lately is the discovery of the Swift Street Courtyard on the Westside, and how much is there. “Even locals are getting excited about that area, the wine tasting rooms located there, the shops, and Kelly’s Bakery.”
Abaurrea offers a variety of tours including the coastline to Wilder Ranch State Park (to see wildlife and harbor seals), the redwoods in Nisene Marks (to travel off-the-beaten-path trails), a culinary tour with local foodie Chef Denise Ward (to become a better foodie yourself), and even a couple of combo platters featuring biking and whale watching or biking and sailing.
Santa Cruz Bike Tours provides all the necessities for a three- to four-hour ride, including every size of front suspension mountain bike. They also have Trail-a-Bikes available for the kids who are more comfortable piggy-backing.
The only requirements? “Dress properly and have a great attitude.”
SANTA CRUZ FOOD TOUR
Have you ever overheard someone speak in a dismissive manner about the culinary offerings in Santa Cruz? Whether it’s an unadventurous local or a misinformed transplant, we’ll bet they have never met Brion Sprinsock, owner and operator of Santa Cruz Food Tours. From March through November, Santa Cruz Food Tours offers walking and dining tours of downtown Santa Cruz and of Capitola, with tastings at approximately six locations. Groups range from one to 13 of your closest friends (or complete strangers, which is often much more entertaining).
“Our tours are typically 50 percent locals from somewhere in the county. They actually have the best time. They tell me that they have lived here for years and never acted like tourists in their own town,” says Sprinsock.
Even if you have your favorite dining spots already mapped out, you will learn about more than food on these tours. “Almost everything we talk about on our tour is new … even for locals.” Intrigued? You should be. Sprinsock will make you a more interesting person after just one trip, answering such questions as, “Why is Bulkhead street so named, what are the three dominant styles of Victorian buildings in Santa Cruz, how can you tell a Queen Anne Victorian from an Italianate,” and more, including the history of the railroad in town.
For people who have a wealth of interest in local dining but a dearth of time to experiment, perhaps the biggest selling point of these tours is to have the opportunity to try six places to eat in three hours. “Our orders are pre-arranged which means we sit at a pre-reserved table, are served, and walk out in 20 minutes,” Sprinsock says. “It’s a real luxury to browse restaurants like this.” He’s right. It’s almost like being a teenager living at home with mom.
Bring your appetite, an interesting story or two, and comfortable walking shoes.
SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAIN HIKING TOURS
Santa Cruz Mountain Hiking Tours just completed their first summer in business, and owner Logan Alexander is nothing but excited about the future. He offers a variety of different adventures into the most scenic points in the area. Hikes range from easy (Henry Cowell Redwoods) to challenging (Big Basin waterfalls backside route), and from two hours to eight. Tour guides not only lead the way, but also inform their charges on the history, flora and fauna before them. In fact, his mother, Karen Alexander, is an area horticulturist and accompanies the groups, sharing her vast knowledge of the plants along the way.
Why take a guide? “There are a lot of places to hike, and they’re all really pretty, but I grew up here and I have my secret spots. Plus,” says Logan Alexander. “I know the wildlife and geology and can share that information. I’m familiar with the natural history of these areas that not everyone knows.”
One of his favorite moments is watching the sunset from a ridge on his Big Basin hike. “Our hikes are half exercise, half relaxation. We don’t arrive and turn around. We hang out, relax and enjoy what is there.”
Also available are multi-day camping and backpacking trips, from a six-mile jaunt to a 30-mile excursion. (Their website is kind enough to note how many nights you can expect running water and/or toilet facilities. Thank you!)
And, because they really know what people like, they partner with Santa Cruz Bike Tours to offer downhill mountain bike rides, and downhill biking/hiking adventures. Leave the uphill pedaling for another day.
Tours for one person or to large groups are available, prices are very reasonable, and all you need is what you probably already have—sturdy shoes, appropriate clothing and sun protection.
SANTA CRUZ WINE TOURS
The Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is one of the oldest in the country, and is home to nearly 80 wineries and tasting rooms, making a wine tour an easy “yes” for just about any section of our region.
The Santa Cruz Experience visits some of the area’s better-known wineries, including Bargetto, Hunter Hill, Poetic Cellars, Pelican Ranch and Soquel Vineyards. They provide not only a guide, but also a driver, something very important while sipping.
Surf City Vintners on the Westside offers a more urban approach, a self-guided walking tour of tasting rooms showcasing wines from local micro-boutique wineries including Copious, Vino Tabi, Equinox, Sones Cellars, Odonata and more.
And lucky for you budding or finely-aged wine aficionado, the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association offers Passport Days four times a year, which can be your own self-guided wine tour. More than 40 wineries participate in the Passport program, so pace yourself.
SANTA CRUZ CITY TOURS
The newest tour in town focuses on some of the oldest facets. Santa Cruz City Tours launched last month and has been offering its Santa Cruz History tour to a variety of locals and visitors alike. In addition to the History Tour, which is a walking tour through downtown Santa Cruz (which, let’s be honest, has a pretty interesting history), they will be adding a Beer and Bordello Tour by Labor Day, and a Ghost Tour before Halloween.
Owners Seth Heitzenrater and Scott Kaufman are constantly finding new stories about the Santa Cruz area that they want to include, while balancing the broad information their tour members find so fascinating.
“People are walking away with a better understanding of the town, the lay of the land. The Boardwalk and its history is always very popular, and also introducing the Ohlone to people from other areas is great,” says Heitzenrater. The most fun “aha!” moment? “A lot of people from outside California or this region have never seen a redwood tree. On the downtown tour we visit the redwood outside of the Civic Auditorium, talk about the logging industry and its history here, and then encourage people to be tree-huggers. It’s always the people you least expect who really want to hug that tree!”
Asked why locals will enjoy the tour, he states with certainty that Santa Cruzans love the history of their city. “There are so many different ways to tell the story of Santa Cruz. People want to hear how we tell the tale.”
What to bring? Walking shoes and an interest in the history of Santa Cruz. Easy!
SANTA CRUZ WHALE WATCHING
You’ve seen dolphins playing in the surf while you’re out on your afternoon beach walk. You’ve probably seen sea otters around the wharf and the yacht harbor, and you’ve almost certainly heard the sea lions barking from their roosts on the wharf pilings or their favorite rock off of West Cliff Drive. Wouldn’t you like to aim a little bigger and see some whales? Up close? From the safety of an expertly crewed seagoing vessel? From December through April, more than 20,000 whales migrate through our protected marine sanctuary waters, and the experienced skippers at Santa Cruz Whale Watching can navigate you right into the stream of things.
Monica Reynolds, office manager at Stagnaro Charter Boats (home of Santa Cruz Whale Watching) sees a healthy mix of visitors and locals, and she echoes what other tour companies relay. “Locals get so excited,” she says. “They say ‘I’ve lived here 30 years and I’ve never done this. Why did I wait so long?’ and then they come back again and again.”
This past July and August were “just crazy with whales,” according to Reynolds. This, added to last fall’s unprecedented number of sightings, should make the next few months pretty exciting for those about to whale watch. “There was so much media coverage, and when people see that they just go ahead and book a tour.” The sightings this summer of blue whales, orcas, jellyfish, numerous types of dolphins and rare leatherback turtles is promising. They are looking forward to humpbacks in our neighborhood until November.
For whale watching trips, which last three and a half hours, bring a hat, sunscreen, binoculars, a camera, and a stash of motion sickness meds if you fall prey to the sway. Also, wear layers. Weather conditions can change dramatically once you get away from the shore.
Venture Quest Santa Cruz
Venture Quest Santa Cruz offers kayak tours in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, where up close and personal encounters with marine and bird wildlife are almost guaranteed. “We see a lot of sea otters, and of course sea lions and dolphins—and gray whales between March and May,” according to owner Dave Johnston. He is quick to point out that the role of his tour guides is twofold—ensuring the safety of the tour-taker and also the safety of the wildlife.
His clientele is about 70 percent visitor-based, but he enthusiastically points out that locals regularly discover new reasons to love their hometown. “It helps us appreciate living here. So many of us take it for granted. People tell me all the time that they’ve lived here for years and have never done this. They become even more grateful to live here!” He sounds like a longtime Santa Cruzan when he describes how rewarding it is to “turn people on” to the joys of kayaking.
Johnston enjoys the tourist mindset, and loves acting like a tourist himself. “Having an open mind, and not thinking I know everything. I love it.” He also gets something out of giving tours to foreign visitors, “I get insights, too, about what’s cool to do where they are from. Maybe I want to go there.”
The best time for tours is in the mornings, when the waters are calm. What to bring? Hat, sunglasses, camera, sun protection, clothing that will wick water (e.g. not jeans). And, of course, a willingness to enjoy the experience.
SUPER SECRET STAIRCASE TOUR
Perhaps the most creative tour I came across (and appropriately the hardest to track down) is the Super Secret Staircase Tour. Blaize Wilkinson, often described as a “staircase enthusiast,” says that she is actually more interested in Santa Cruz history. “I’ve learned so much about Santa Cruz. Going up and down the stairs was just a great frame for the tour.”
However, she waxes poetic on her blog about the nostalgia and romance of stairs (”… the exercise of hauling oneself up the risers makes the heartbeat and the breath come short, like in new love”) as well as the practicality. (“To take the stair instead of the street is to experience both the use and uselessness of the footpath in an urban space where most people drive or ride bikes.”)
Like a hidden set of stairs, her tours are not apparent to the naked eye, nor, more specifically, to the average experience seeker. Look for the staircase tour and more in the spring, through the Free Skool Santa Cruz calendar. “Free Skool is a perfect match for me because they have classes by people who are just really interested in what they are offering,” Wilkinson says.
What to bring? An open mind (and an inhaler, if you lean that way when it comes to stairs).
Advice shared among people who move to new cities goes something like, “Be a tourist for a month, and a local the rest of your life.” I have found, through my own experience, that the underlying wisdom is true. You will never go to the Arch, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the Corn Palace or the Eiffel Tower once you’ve lived in St. Louis, San Francisco, Mitchell, S.D., or Paris once you have adopted that certain je ne sais quoi that informs your day-to-day life. Don’t let that happen to you. “T” it up!
MORE INFO. ON TOURS:
City of Santa Cruz Historic Walking Tour Brochures
First Friday Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Bike Tours
Santa Cruz City Tours
Santa Cruz Food Tour
Santa Cruz Mountain Hiking Tours
Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association
Santa Cruz Whale Watching
The Santa Cruz Experience (wine tours)
Segway Santa Cruz
Super Secret Staircase Tour
Surf City Vintners
Venture Quest Kayaking