Who can resist the charms of historic Monterey or the picturesque seaside city of Santa Cruz? Nobody goes home disappointed, of course, but what many visitors may not take the time to do is visit the small towns and attractions between these two popular destinations.
It’s just 42 miles between Monterey and Santa Cruz, a drive that most visitors will make quickly to get to the many attractions in either of those cities. But if you slow down and take a short detour off the beaten path, you'll find that Monterey Bay settlements and towns like Aptos, Capitola and Marina each offers its own perspective on the bay, each with visitor attractions and a feeling all its own.
Driving south from Santa Cruz on the Cabrillo Highway, it was just a few miles before we took a right on Bay Avenue and drove the short distance down to the charming beach community of Capitola. As luck would have it, we happened upon their annual Begonia Festival, an annual event featuring parades and floats and sandcastle-building and rowboat races.
Look up California Beach Community in the dictionary and Capitola has to be Exhibit A. The drive into town drops down in elevation as you wind your way through charming small-town streets just wide enough for one lane in each direction. With the Begonia festivities at hand, our drive took just a few minutes longer as traffic crept along, visitors looking for coveted parking spaces on what was obviously a very big day for Capitola.
But even without a festival, Capitola rates high with visitors. This is an artsy, scenic town located where the Soquel River meets a wide beach that is popular with local surfers. Boutiques, eateries and vacation rentals keep the town abuzz with visitors who may drive down from San Jose or even San Francisco for a day of people-watching from one of the restaurants that overlooks the river and the beach. People of all ages frolic here on what is considered one of the Central Coasts most colorful beaches.
If crowds and commerce are not your idea of a good beach, another five minutes down the coast and you come to New Brighton State Beach. This is one of the most popular state beaches in California and includes a 93-acre park offering spectacular views of Monterey Bay. A family-oriented campground sits on the bluff overlooking the Pacific.
Down the road a little farther is the unincorporated area of Aptos, which encompasses several small communities including Seacliff, Rio Del Mar, Seascape and La Selva Beach. While the main area of commerce is to the north of Highway 1, away from the beach, its fun to take a few of the roads that lead to the residential areas closer to the water. Its down in this area that you find Seacliff State Beach, known for its fishing pier and a concrete freighter, the Palo Alto, beached just offshore. The ship was towed to the beach in 1930 and spruced up so that visitors could walk the pier to the 430-foot-long vessel and climb on board. But the company offering the tours went broke, the ship was stripped, and today it is simply a unique addition to the Seacliff Beach landscape.
Back on Highway 1, we passed through the agricultural areas near Watsonville where a variety of fruits and vegetables are grown, including such treats as strawberries, blackberries and table mushrooms. Just before Salinas, we came to Moss Landing, a commercial dock just a half-mileoff Highway 1 that has two major points of interest: 1/ the many fishing boats and 2/ Phils Fish Market and Eatery.
The former is self-explanatory. Phils is an obvious phenomenon judging from the crowds that were stopping by this day to dine on fresh fish that was just about as close to the boat it came from as it could get. Located in a non-descript, even dilapidated old storage shed, Phils is so popular that customers park blocks away and wait in fast-moving lines of 30 people or more to place their order. If you like fresh fish of just about any kind, this is the place to go.
A few miles south on Highway 1 and we came to the piece de resistance of our visit to the bay communities, the area known as Marina just north of Monterey. What’s special here is the endless sand dunes and long, wide beach that offers real solitude in one of Nature’s prettiest locations. We had booked a night at the Sanctuary Beach Resort, so this was our stop for the night and what a stop.
We rented one of the bungalows at Sanctuary Beach Resort, a resort actually located on the edge of a national marine sanctuary. This resort is the newest of the Monterey-area resorts, and is the first oceanfront resort built in California in 20 years. Situated on 19 acres of sand dunes, the bungalows are strategically located just footsteps from the beach. They are far enough toward the water that guests are given golf carts to travel between the resort office and the bungalows.
The bungalows at Sanctuary Beach Resort are not cheap cabins on the beach. These are luxurious, well-appointed residences that feature the finest of furnishings. Our junior suite had a living room area with a plush chair and couch, coffee table and built-in wood stove nearby. In addition there were two bedroom areas -- each with a king-sized bed -- a marble-topped desk and a full bathroom featuring, uniquely, his-and-her standing wash basins.
With this kind of luxury, its no surprise that the Sanctuary Beach Resort also features a spa. A major restaurant is on property as well A.J. Spurs, an Old West style restaurant and tapas bar.
But, as with any real estate, the Sanctuary Beach Resorts real claim to fame is its location, unquestionably one of the best weve seen in California. A few steps out of your bungalow and you are on a long, wide beach that, even on busy days, seems remote and solitary. This area is so "off-the-beaten-path" and so distant from nearby parking areas that visitors to the area just seem to keep driving south on Highway 1 where, in 10 miles or so, theyll be at Cannery Row in downtown Monterey.
Meanwhile, guests at the Sanctuary Beach Resort can enjoy a solitude seldom found in a typical California beach community.