West Coast Road Trip Part II: Big Sur to Santa Cruz


After a quick stay in Big Sur, it was time to cruise on over to Santa Cruz! (Sorry, I had to.)

On our way there, the original plan had been to maybe stop at Point Lobos, a gorgeous state reserve great for hiking and whale watching, but one that is unfortunately not dog-friendly.  Since this was the first time we'd been in the area dog-free, I had thought that maybe we should take advantage of it. But parking was backed out onto the road and we'd already hiked once that morning and besides... I wanted to make sure we had enough time to stop at the first (but definitely not the last!) tourist trap of our trip.

What tourist trap, you ask? Well... I don't want to keep it too much of a mystery. Heh. Heheheheh.

Next stop, Santa Cruz!

When we finally got to The Mystery Spot, I don't know what I expected it to look like but it wasn't quite this. Then again, I didn't really research anything about The Mystery Spot before we arrived, other than the cost and the hours of operation. All I knew is that I had seen the famous bumper sticker all over San Diego.

We drove down a bumpy, underdeveloped entrance to a large parking lot and went in to grab our passes, which cost us around $25-30 with parking included. And since the earliest tour we could go on didn't take place for another 40 minutes, we took a nap in the car until it was our tour time.

Gravitational vortex or optical illusion? You too can try to solve this mystery yourself... if you can withstand 25 minutes of nonstop dad jokes! I should stress that this was through no fault of our specific tour guide... from the sounds of it, all the tour guides have the same script. But if forcing out unenthusiastic chuckles and trying your best to avoid visibly rolling your eyes is your idea of a good time, this is the tourist trap for you!

Once we had some Mystery Spot bumper stickers of our very own, we started making our way back to the coast, stopping only to check out Dig Gardens, a home and garden store I had read about on the Design Sponge blog. If I were ever going to open a store of my very own, it would more or less look like this...

A DIY terrarium bar... excellent idea!

A mile and a half later, we were pulling up to our gorgeous hotel for the night, The Dream Inn, by Joie de Virve. Admittedly, our night in Santa Cruz was the one that was the most difficult to plan. There weren't any good car camping places close to downtown, nor was I able to find many AirBnBs either.

When I started looking for a hotel, once I read about The Dream Inn I knew we had found our home away from home for the night. Located right on Santa Cruz's famous West Cliff Drive, every one of the hotel's 165 rooms has a beautiful view of the Monterrey Bay. This hotel deserves a post of its very own, so you can read about that here.

I couldn't blame Ryan for wanting to hop right into that super comfy bed and take a nap, so I let him rest while I went to check out the rest of the hotel. Eventually I made my way to the hotel's Jack O'Neill lounge, a cool surf-inspired bar located just outside of the hotel restaurant, Aquarius.

I learned that the bar, named after O'Neill founder Jack O'Neill, supposedly sits on the site of Jack's first surf shop. I also learned that it was a perfect beachfront spot for a nice glass of white wine on a summer evening.

Jack lost his eye surfing at nearby Steamer Lane 

After my drink, I went back to the hotel room, woke Ryan up and we headed down to the Wharf to check out the seals and see if there was a place there that we wanted to get dinner.

Originally we had planned to go to the Boardwalk and maybe ride the roller coaster, but unfortunately we were in Santa Cruz on one of the park's few Limited Ride days during the summer. This meant that all the rides had closed at 5pm and wouldn't open until after we'd left the next day. A bummer for sure, but all the more reason to plan a trip back to Santa Cruz soon!

Earlier, the bartender at the Jack O'Neill Lounge had recommended that we get a drink at Splash, a new restaurant on the wharf with a rotating bar. We took his advice and watched the sun set while we had a beer and completed one full half hour rotation around the bar.

The weirdest part about the sunset was that it didn't set over the ocean, something that I've started to take completely for granted after 6 years on the west coast! In fact it set behind our hotel, totally tripping Ryan and I out.

After our drink at Splash, we made the 15 minute walk to downtown Santa Cruz, which in all honesty was kind of sketchy. I mean, I'm sure it had more to do with being unfamiliar with the area than anything else... I could totally see any visitor to OB saying the same thing about areas of my sweet little neighborhood. But still, I mention it because if I was just by myself, I probably would have Ubered.

When we finally got to the section of Pacific Avenue that was sprinkled with restaurants, we settled on Kianti's, a no-frills, family-friendly pizza and pasta restaurant where we had some tasty comfort food at reasonable prices. Too tired to check out Santa Cruz's Monday night bar scene, we grabbed an Uber back to the hotel and made it an early night.

Dawn patrol at Cowell Beach

The next morning I hopped out of bed early, watched the sun start to rise from our balcony and pulled on my running shoes. I had to get a run in for marathon training and it was the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: knock out 6 miles while checking out the entirety of the famous West Cliff Drive.

From The Dream Inn, West Cliff Drive will take you on a 3 mile trip past the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum down to Natural Bridges State Park. It's a great walk, run or drive to enjoy during sunrise or sunset.

Surfer Monument overlooking the world renowned Steamer Lane surf break

I finished my run up on the beach and to be honest, I thought about heading over to Cowell Beach myself. There was a surf rental shop parked on the beach right in front of our hotel charging $20/hour to rent wetsuits and boards for the mellow surf at the Cowell's break.

In the end, I chickened out, too worried about the cold, about Cowell's reputation for being the dirtiest beach on the west coast, and about the Great Whites that are often spotted nearby to try and brave it.

After I showered, we checked out of the hotel and made one final stop before hitting the road: Santa Cruz's famous Verve Coffee Roasters.

Downtown Santa Cruz was much more adorable in the daylight and if we had more time, I would have loved to just enjoy my coffee outside at Verve and people watch the morning away. But alas, we had wine to taste, and no one likes to keep a wino waiting... Napa, here we come!