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Originally published Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Catching the waves in laid-back Santa Cruz

When in Santa Cruz, you may as well do as the locals do, and go surfing. After all, you can hardly turn around in this oceanfront Northern...

Minneapolis Star Tribune

If You Go

Santa Cruz

Getting there

Santa Cruz is about a 90-minute drive south of San Francisco. Take Interstate 280 south to Highway 92, which curves down to Half Moon Bay. The drive from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz along Highway 1 is exceptionally scenic, with very little development.

Surfing

At Santa Cruz Surf School, a two-hour lesson as one of four students, with one instructor, is $80, which includes a wetsuit and surfboard. www.santacruzsurfschool.com.

Club Ed trucks equipment to Cowell's Beach near the wharf and offers group, private and semiprivate classes, as well as rentals. Ed Guzman, a lifelong surfer, runs the place. www.club-ed.com.

Dining

Soif combines a wine bar, wine shop and polished bistro under one roof. www.soifwine.com.

Cellar Door Cafe: This local-ingredients, communal-dining cafe (linked to the Bonny Doon vineyard) packs them in most nights with a $35 prix fixe menu: www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/visit_us

More information

Santa Cruz tourist info: www.santacruzca.org

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — When in Santa Cruz, you may as well do as the locals do, and go surfing.

After all, you can hardly turn around in this oceanfront Northern California town without hitting someone engaged in surf-related activity. Some cases in point:

— Toward sunset, near the Santa Cruz Surf Museum, two wetsuit-wearing guys stroll home with short boards tucked under their arms.

— On a foggy morning (several locals told me not to mention the fog), two dozen surfers bob on the kelp-strewn swells off Pleasure Point, scanning the horizon for the next "set" of waves.

— Both the downtown and outlying areas feature O'Neill surf shops, named after Jack O'Neill, whose early wetsuits opened the door to year-round cold-water surfing.

— Hot-dog surfers show off daily for onlookers at Steamer Lane, where good-sized surf runs alongside a rocky headland.

Laid-back town

Santa Cruz is at the north end of giant Monterey Bay, about 75 miles south of San Francisco. The town of 56,000, home to University of California, Santa Cruz, has plenty to offer a weekend visitor or someone on a longer vacation: parks, beaches, oceanside strolls, mountain biking, hiking, camping, shopping and good restaurants. At Beach Boardwalk, teens and families crowd the amusement park where seagulls and ocean breezes waft around the rides.

The hippie holdout side of Santa Cruz can still be seen in stores with names like Love Me Two Times and Coffeetopia. There's definitely a college crowd answering the siren call of beach volleyball and falafel stands. Santa Cruz has its yuppier aspect, too, visible in wine bars, steep housing prices and shopping malls. Clean-living, cardio-crazed types can be seen mountain biking at Wilder Ranch, road-biking the coastal highway and going surfing any chance they get.

Municipal parking lots anywhere near the ocean fill up with people making the transition from landlubber to surfer. Standing at the back of their vans and cars, they wax boards, don wetsuits and compare notes. Afterward, they morph back into "civilians," rinsing with jugs of fresh water and changing into street clothes.

Glancing out a window at the Verve coffee shop, filled with locals and the scent of roasting beans, I saw a guy riding to the beach with a rig that held his longboard on the side of his bike.

Surfing school

Santa Cruz has several surfing schools geared to beginners. I arbitrarily picked the Santa Cruz Surf School on Pacific Avenue, where $80 gets you a two-hour class, including equipment. Step One is signing life and limb away on a three-page waiver. Next up: the struggle to get myself zipped into a surprisingly heavy wetsuit.

Three other students and I joined instructor Eric Imsland on a three-block walk to Cowell's Beach, longboards in tow. This beach, year-round home to reliable baby waves, looked like surf-class central, with scores of students and teachers spread across the beach and dotting the chest-high water.

As if on cue, the day's heavy clouds and fog gave way to piercing sunshine.

Lying at the water's edge, we learned the basics of paddling, watching for a wave, and then arching your shoulders up and bringing your feet to the sweet spot on the board.

The water was 56 degrees, but in the wetsuit and with the sun shining, the cold was barely noticeable. We paddled out far enough to get sore shoulders, then watched the swell for rideable breakers.

When you catch one, the wave naturally wants to gather you up and sweep you shoreward until you lose your balance and crash into the briny deep. Thanks to an ankle leash, the board stays with you, and at a safe distance.

The kid in you, that foolhardy and tireless optimist, wants to keep trying, again and again. Maybe next time the tip of my board won't bury itself in the water, or I won't stand off-center, or I'll hit the perfect wave.

After a dozen or more belly flops, and with some encouraging tips from Imsland, I caught a wave and scrambled to my feet for a decent, though wobbly, ride. It felt like I had medaled in the Olympics.

California dreaming

Of course I wish I could have stayed on for the movie-perfect beach campfire. There would have been guitars, beer in bottles and tall tales, minivans topped with surfboards silhouetted against a dying sun.

Instead, I headed back to the surf school (gingerly, since my feet were nearly frozen) to return my equipment, then hit the rented subcompact for the late-afternoon drive back to San Francisco.

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