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In Our Element

February 2, 2014

So, what is living in Santa Cruz like?

I don’t want to gush about it too much lest we add to the droves of people already moving here, hiking up the cost of real estate way beyond our current reach. But we feel…how should I put it…extremely overjoyed every single day we spend here.

The population of the city of Santa Cruz is about 62,000, and 267,000 for Santa Cruz County. It’s the smallest town I’ve lived in so far. After living in New York City for 14 and 8 years respectively, Michael and I were ready for a smaller-town lifestyle, and we wanted to live in a place that was more integrated with nature. Santa Cruz has a coastline with lots of good surf spots, mountains nearby, old-growth redwood forests, and it’s bike-able.

There are definitely downsides to the town that might deter some people from living here: the crime rate for a town this size is staggering, there are a lot of homeless people all around, drugs are prevalent (pot as well as the harder kinds), real estate is expensive to rent or buy, and it’s hard to find work if you’re super career-oriented. But this place feels really comfortable to us. We’re used to locking our doors and being careful with our personal belongings all the time (which might seem a little sad to some people, but it’s just habit after living in New York City and traveling in poverty-stricken third-world countries), homelessness is just as visible in New York City, rent seems high for the size of this town but it’s still cheaper than our old apartment, and our priorities are more focused on quality of life and doing work we love and believe in than on building high-powered careers at this point.

But enough about Santa Cruz in general. Here are more of the specifics of what we’ve been discovering over the past two months as new residents:

There are 14 state parks within Santa Cruz county, and we’ve only been to 3 so far. One of them is called Wilder Ranch State Park, and it has easy walking/hiking trails along the coastal cliffs. Apparently 12% of the United States’ brussels sprouts are grown in this state park. The views are immense, and it feels really rugged and refreshing to be out there.

The cliff erosion creates mysterious-looking formations such as sea caves:

wilder sea-cave

and slabs of rock shelf that look like they’re sliding away into the sea:

wilder dramatic-coastline

Harbor seals like to hang out on the rock slabs. When big waves came through, some of these chubbers got washed right off their resting places and into the water!

wilder seals

Rail line running through Wilder Ranch State Park:


There’s a cool, hidden fern-filled cave in one of the sandy coves at Wilder:


We spotted these beautiful California quail:

wilder quail

We visited the park with friends of ours who live in the greater Bay area. They’re old friends of Michael’s, so there was a lot of laughter and monkeying around:

wilder snake-rassle

wilder monkeying  wilder friends

Another state park we’ve visited is called Natural Bridges State Beach. It encompasses a beach that used to have two stone arches, but one of them has washed away. The other one still stands:

arch wave

natural bridge




A 5-minute walk landward brings you to a eucalyptus grove that attracts migrating monarch butterflies every winter. They cluster so thickly on the branches that they look like leaves at first glance:

monarch cluster

Walkway to the monarch grove:


Eucalyptus trees:


This fall, there was an epic anchovy run directly off the coast. As a result, whale sightings were much more numerous than normal, and there was an extraordinary abundance of sea life, from birds to sea lions:

wharf and birds

This is Cowell’s, a good surf break for beginners when it’s working:


There are farmers markets galore here: 3 different locations over Saturdays and Sundays, and one on Wednesdays as well. We make sure to shop at a farmers market once a week.


The traffic light control boxes all around town are painted by artists, commissioned by the city. I love “collecting” each one, and constantly discovering new ones. This is one of my favorites, painted by Studio Margo:


Seacliff State Beach is a nice beach for traditional (ie. sandy, not full of rocky cliffs) beach lovers. The S. S. Palo Alto is a concrete ship that used to be stationary attraction with a dining room, dance hall, swimming pool and arcade before the Great Depression, but then the owners and the ship fell on hard times and it was left to ruin. It’s now used mainly by the local bird population.

concrete ship

The day we went to Seacliff, some whimsical creature had set out rocks with cute messages for strangers to find, like Easter eggs:


Around holiday time, we discovered Santa Cruz’s festive spirit. We attended the 28th annual Lighted Boat Parade at the harbor, where people decorate their boats with lights and crazy accessories and compete for a prize:


On New Year’s Eve, we went downtown to the main street and witnessed the DIY Last Night Parade. The parade is unsanctioned by the city, and there are no “organizers” per se; people are just invited to come down to the main street at a certain time with whatever costumes and non-motorized vehicles they want, and walk up and down the street together. They don’t even get permits for closing off to traffic. The spirit of this thing is so Santa Cruz! A little hippie, a little libertarian, very in-your-face-wacky. I loved it!


diy bagpipes




Even the surfer statue at Steamer Lane got into the holiday spirit. Look closely and you’ll see his Christmas balls.


We had two weeks of straight swell over the holidays, and then another two weeks of swell followed that after a short break. Best Christmas present I could ask for:






Every crowded surf spot should have a sign like this:


I see Santa Cruz as a kind of bigger-town version of Kaua’i in Hawai’i, but with colder air and water temperatures. It’s incredibly beautiful here, with redwood forests and endless rugged coastline within a few miles biking from our house. The weather’s been great lately, with average daily temperatures in the high 60’s and lots of sun, although subsequently there’s a drought throughout California that was deemed a state of emergency by the governor. There have been endless weeks of swell, and big swell, not puny waist-high stuff. We see any combination of otters, sea lions, cormorants, dolphins and harbor seals within fifteen feet of us each time we’re out surfing.

With the crime, high cost of living, drug culture and tendency toward weirdness, Santa Cruz  may not be for everyone, but we’ve found a place we’re ecstatic to call home. To us, it’s magical.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2014 1:09 pm

    Great stuff. I enjoyed following your RTW the past year or so and I’m a little sad, as a greedy reader that it is over.

    Can I our someone on my staff interview you both? (if so – I am sean At BootsnAll com)

    • February 2, 2014 1:36 pm

      Hi Sean,
      We would love to do an interview for Bootsnall! It’s my go-to site for RTW inspiration and advice, and we still visit it all the time even after we’ve finished our travels (for now). So cool that you were following us! I’ll send you an email so you have our email addresses.
      Looking forward to it!

  2. February 2, 2014 2:06 pm

    Once again a most wonderfull adventure for us snow bound Canucks. One snow storm after another and heating propane just went up 34%. Yikes! So keep these warm weather tales coming. It has been a wonder adventure but I’m afraid we wont be seeing you for water skiing for some time. The lake will have to thaw eventually. Stay safe.
    Love Uncle T

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