Love is one of those things you can’t schedule, but that didn’t stop us from trying.
Santa Cruz may be known more for being casual and laid-back than for its hopeless romantics, but who’s to say low-key isn’t the most romantic way to be?
Keeping in mind that Valentine’s Day is approaching, we present our visitor’s guide to the ideal romantic weekend in Santa Cruz — though feel free to use this as a year-round reference for finding romantic things to do in Santa Cruz.
Arrive: Friday afternoon
5:00 pm: Checking In
Before you can start having fun, you have to check into your hotel — but where are you staying? Well, depending on what you’re looking for, the Adobe on Green Street is a relaxed, charming B&B; Hotel Paradox is possibly the hippest, most progressively-designed hotel in the area and has reasonable off-season rates; and Dream Inn and West Cliff Inn both offer superb ocean views.
6:00 pm: Colors and Numbers
Time to whet your whistle in downtown Santa Cruz. The area is littered with bars, mostly hang outs for college kids and laid-back locals, but there are a few upscale, romantic joints. 515 Kitchen and Cocktails has a cocktail list that reads like the set list at a jazz lounge, and perfectly-portioned appetizers like the refined goat cheese bruschetta (some self-assembly required). Down the street and up some stairs, Red Restaurant and Bar offers similar fare in what looks like a very fancy, very dimly lit living room out of the 1940s, complete with working fireplace and clawed furniture.
8:00 pm: The Main Course
Since you’re already downtown, this is the perfect chance to enjoy Gabriella Cafe, a tiny ivy-colored restaurant that serves fresh, seasonal American and Italian food. Alternatively, Soif Restaurant and Wine Bar has a similarly simple and elegant ambience, knowledgeable and helpful servers, and a perfectly cooked duck breast.
10:00 am: Take a Hike
It’s time for the two of you to get a little hands-on — with nature, that is. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a great place to enjoy some of California’s tallest treasures, with plenty of easy, beautiful trails to explore together. Stop at a local grocery store like Shopper’s Corner for some fresh fruit and trail mix before heading to Felton for the hike.
1:00 pm: Sandy Sandwiches
After an active morning, it’s time to do what you really came to Santa Cruz for: bask in the sun on the beach. Stop at Zoccoli’s Deli for the best sandwiches in town, but order to go — you’ll be taking them with you to the beach. The Santa Cruz area has a lot of great beaches to choose from, and the picturesque Natural Bridges makes for a great setting for a romantic beach picnic. Lather some sunscreen on each others’ backs and enjoy the view.
4:00 pm: Unplug and Pinkies Up
Checking email on a date has unfortunately become an acceptable practice thanks to the prevalence of smart phones, which is why places like Hidden Peak Teahouse are essential for re-establishing romance. The traditional Asian tea house forbids use of any cell phones and computers, forcing people to become re-acquainted the old fashioned way: actual conversation. Reconnect with your loved one over a steaming pot of puerh tea, served Gung Fu-style.
6:00 pm: Italian Delight
The food at Lillian’s Italian Kitchen isn’t fancy or unusual in concept, but it is the most simply delicious fare Santa Cruz has to offer. The small, cozy ambiance will make for a perfect last meal on your romantic getaway. Tip: this place is small and can fill up quickly; they don’t technically take reservations, but rumor has it if you call at 5 pm on the night you want to dine they might be able to save you a table.
10:00 pm: After-Dinner Entertainment
Santa Cruz has been referred to as the “city that sleeps,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t options for a romantic after-dinner outing. You can check the listings for events at local music venues like the swanky Kuumbwa Jazz or converted old movie house The Rio, or if all else fails, catch a romantic movie at old vaudeville house the Del Mar or cozy Nickelodeon Theatre.
10:00 am: Brunch by the Sea
Two equally delicious brunch spots can be found on the scenic Santa Cruz Harbor. There’s the iconic Crow’s Nest offering killer bloody marys and crab and shrimp omelets, and a cabin-by-the-beach feel. Nearby is Johnny’s Harborside, with slightly more modern decor but a similarly spectacular view, not to mention the decadent cinnamon apple french toast, perfect for two to share.
11:30 am: Scenic Stroll
Work off brunch with a walk along West Cliff Drive, the seaside path that’s as fun for its people and dog watching as it is for its ocean view. If you’d rather pedal than walk, rent a tandem beach cruiser at nearby Pacific Ave Cycles and cruise together all the way to East Cliff.
2:00 pm: Toast to Your Love
Enjoy some of central California’s finest produce in the form of wine tasting. The Swift Street Courtyard has small cluster of tasting rooms side by side, as well as delicious snacks at Kelly’s French Bakery if you need some equilibrium. If you’d prefer to get out of town and closer to the source, head to the Santa Cruz Mountains — just be safe and hire a driver.
5:00 pm: Love is a Circle
Almost everyone has that adolescent fantasy of kissing their lover on a ferris wheel at dusk. Make that corny dream a reality at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where rides are open until six on weekends during February. The Ferris Wheel has a view of the town and the beach, and even if one of you is a little afraid of heights, the scenery — along with your loved one’s kiss at the top — will make it worth it.
7:00 pm: A Local Institution
Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola is the area’s signature romantic restaurant. You take a small cable car down to the restaurant’s entrance, giving you a chance to take in the lush landscaping, which means your significant other should be impressed before you’re even shown to your table. Once seated, you can enjoy old favorites like steak, lobster, and local fish selections.
9:00 pm: All’s Well That Ends Well
It’s located in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz, but you’ll feel like you’re a million miles away from the outside world as soon as you step into the serene Well Within Spa. They’re open until eleven, so make a reservation for a late-night couples’ massage, sauna, or hot tub. Wherever you’re headed back to tomorrow, you’ll return relaxed, refreshed, and hopefully more in love than ever.