Santa Cruz: Summer Days Drifting Away to Oh, Oh Those Summer Nights!

Birdsong Boardwalk Sunset

I travel quite a bit. And my daughter does not accompany me when I do. So when I returned home from one journey, I suggested we get away together to celebrate her upcoming 14th birthday and her 8th grade graduation. The only stipulation: it had to be somewhere we could fly to on my Alaska Airlines miles, and I didn’t have a whole lot to begin with.

Kenzie’s eyes lit up and she said, “Oh yeah! We are going to Santa Cruz!!!”

I totally understand my daughter’s allure. Santa Cruz, CA., is a beach community in the Central Valley. I used to go there from the Bay Area often during the summer months while I was in high school. I have lots of fond memories of yelling “Road Trip!” with my friends Sally and Heather and climbing into my convertible red ’63 Valiant, twisting and turning through the redwoods of Highway 17 to go body surfing in the cold Pacific with an occasional harbor seal, dance at reggae and goth concerts, and get kissed by the sun and salt spray on the beach.

It’s not upscale, like Monterey or Carmel, both of which I absolutely adore. It’s a bit rough around the edges. Peppered with aging surfers, skateboarders, assorted tattooed hooligans, hippies still tripping on LSD from the 70’s, and lots of beachgoers, but beautiful coastline, picturesque architecture and great food.

And you need to understand, my daughter is a rollercoaster aficionado. She has been a thrill seeker for as long as I can remember. As a baby, she readily scaled the sides of her crib to escape its confines and climbed chairs and counters. She used her feisty strength to push the boys out of the way to get to the top of slides as a toddler. So when she went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on a class trip last year, and the teacher wouldn’t let the kids ride any rides because she didn’t get waivers ahead of time, I think that ignited the stubborn streak in Mackenzie to return one day and conquer the Big Dipper and the Typhoon. And that day had arrived.

I easily booked tickets for July 4th for 5k miles each way, which is a screaming deal. Especially since I have status and got us into premium seating for free.

Rather than stay in a hotel, I thought it would be fun for her to choose a VRBO for our stay. Mackenzie scoured the site, and narrowed the massive list down to two properties. After developing a pro’s and con’s list, she selected a pretty eclectic choice: The Birdsong Cottage.

This Westside two-bedroom cottage, only a 20-minute walk to the Boardwalk, is owned by an artist and a master gardener. Small, but whimsically decorated, the cottage is surrounded by pops of color from plants like wisteria, roses, trumpet vines and honeysuckle. It was so pretty, and different, and I think it appealed to Mackenize’s artistic side. She loves talented interior decorating and truly appreciates an eye for design.

I told my boyfriend Kenz and I were going to hit the road in the summer and he asked if he could tag along. Mackenzie gave the nod of approval, but I only thought it fair she invite a friend, so her good friend Emma would join us as well.

On July 4th, we were all bumped up to first class for the flight. Such a great way to start our trip! We rented a car at SJO and drove an easy 40 minutes down Highway 17 to Santa Cruz. I’ve never seen that road so empty, but I guess July 4th is the day to stay home and bbq.

We arrived at the cottage and walked up to the front gate, the pathway lined with fragrant jasmine. The gate opened up to a small garden patio and side yard stretching the length of the house. The girls burst through the backdoor to start exploring.

What a beautiful space! Each room was designed with so much care, and finesse. It’s as if the owner took into account every view, from every vantage point. Green, and yellow, and red, stripes and flowers, hardwood floors, and tiles, and small details like whimsical lamps, decorative plates, and curtains with a Van Morrison lyric. The girls and I were in awe and full of positive exclamations. Brad said, “This place is weird.” I said, “You have to view it with an artist’s eye.” “Not my eye,” he retorted. Well, we loved it anyway. Mackenzie and Emma ran through the house, continuing to discover its treasures and nuances, and laid claim to the comfy living room furniture, huge TV, bedroom and private patio.

That left Brad and me with the master bedroom, or what he laughingly referred to as the “passion pit.” The bedroom was deep crimson in color, with a high, soft king-sized bed you literally melt into. The bed faced a gas fireplace and a TV. A small office was off to the side; the perfect place for Brad to do his 5am conference calls without waking any of us up. The bedroom also has huge French doors that open up to the side yard. We opened them up, closed the screens, sank into the bed and drifted into a much-needed afternoon nap, with the cool sea breezes carrying the songs of the birds through the garden.

I remember lying there, amazed at how successfully the owners had blocked out the sounds and the views of the surrounding homes from the courtyard. I felt like I could have been anywhere, but somewhere remote, and peaceful, and so content.

The days that followed were filled with trips to the Boardwalk so the girls could fulfill their need for fun. And there were discount coupons too, so they could ride all day for less than $15. The Boardwalk is not like Disneyland or Great America; it’s a mixture of a high-end carnival with great rides, fun games, novelties and outdoor movies on the beach. We saw Grease one night; the beach packed with hundreds of people in fold up chairs, eating garlic fries and smoking pot. (ugh). They also have a really fun mini golf course to play and arcade to explore.

We went to Seabright Beach to get some sun on our Washington state-translucent skin and frolic in the waves, and we also went to Capitola for the day. The Capitola Beach Company was a great find with rentals on the beach. The girls wanted to do stand up paddleboarding (SUP) and they had the option of exploring the river rather than the ocean. The guys walked their boards down to the river for them and offered to bring them back. They spent an hour leisurely exploring the river under the warm California summer sunshine. When we returned to pay (only $20 each per hour) I asked about surf lessons. They explained Capitola is the best place to learn how to surf and most of their instructors started there. Mackenzie is excited to come back and try during a future trip.

Each night at Birdsong we made dinner. The kitchen was well appointed and they have an excellent barbeque in back, too. We saved a ton by making spaghetti, and grilling sausages and preparing halibut. Brad and I had fun cooking for the girls and it was a healthier option than Mackenzie’s original plan to survive for three days off of Dippin’ Dots.

I think overall, Santa Cruz was a great place to bring a couple of teens for a few days. And it was certainly a good destination for me. I bought a sweatshirt that says, “Salt Water Heals Everything,” and that is exactly how I feel. There is something so restorative about the beach. The cry of the gulls, the salty breezes, the pastel sunsets reflecting off the cool blue, liquid horizon.

Maybe someday I’ll live by the beach again. Until then I’ll suffice with oceanside injections now and then. I think there was everything the girls could have wanted out of vacation here. And we loved the cottage. Truth be told I’d love to stay right on the beach. But if my ideal place isn’t available next time, I hope Birdsong is. One bathroom with two teenage girls was slightly challenging, but nevertheless, the cottage had a bit of a Bali Ha’i quality to it, which made me feel like we had found a bit of a mystical garden. I hope we come back someday.