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Think of Capitola as a cioppino of a place—a tasty mélange of California surf town and Monterey Bay fishing village, with a generous dollop of Mediterranean romance tossed in, too. Capitola is California’s oldest beach resort and was even once dubbed the “Waikiki of the West.” But Soquel Creek connects the town to nearby redwood forests and gives sections of Capitola the feel of a river city as well. Victorian homes crown heights of Monterey pines, while Capitola’s most photographed landmark is a pastel-hued 1920s Venetian-style beachfront complex. It’s a perfect blend, one whose diverse ingredients come together to create a beach town like no other.
WHAT TO DO
On the Waterfront
Capitola City Beach is packed with a classic mix of surfers, families, strutting dudes and preening babes. It is a scene. And don’t expect to park anywhere close (remote lots with shuttles service the beach). Tucked inside the top of Monterey Bay, the beach’s modest waves are ideal for surfing newbies. Take private or group lessons and rent boards from Capitola Beach Co. (131 Monterey Ave., 831- 462-5222, capitolabeachcompany.com) or walk along The Esplanade to see the historic architecture in the hotel and vacation rental warren of the Venetian Court. Then head out onto the wood-planked Capitola Wharf and fish alongside the old salts for halibut (no license required) with gear from Capitola Boat and Bait (1400 Wharf Rd., 831-462-2208, capitolaboatandbait.com). A more natural—and less frenetic—experience awaits two miles from the village at New Brighton State Beach (831-464-6330, parks.ca.gov). From New Brighton’s half-mile stretch of sand you can walk beneath low bluffs topped with Monterey Pines on a tranquil three-mile round-trip walk that leads to Seacliff State Beach and the remains of a most improbable ship: the Palo Alto, a freighter built of concrete.
Up on Soquel Creek
Sure, you came to Capitola for the beach. But one of Capitola’s most distinguishing features is Soquel Creek, which runs through town. A historic railroad trestle bridges the gap and towers over cottages that may just reorient your waterfront real estate dreams from the ocean to this creek. Pick up a walking tour guide ($1.50) to over 30 local landmarks from the Capitola Historical Museum (410 Capitola Ave., 831-464-0322, capitolamuseum.org), and then follow Riverview Pathway past such classics as the 1926 Windmill House. Soquel Creek’s most famous destination is Shadowbrook Restaurant (dinner nightly; 1750 Wharf Rd., 831-475-1511, shadowbrook-capitola.com). It’s set within terraced gardens overlooking the water. For the full experience, take the “hillevator,” an inclined cable car that leads to the restaurant. Shadowbrook balances a selection of steaks with vegan and seafood entrées, but the setting is definitely more formal than beachy. For a more casual experience, enjoy drinks alongside a trickling waterfall in its Rock Room Lounge and Bar. Soquel Creek briefly steals the beach’s thunder during Labor Day Weekend’s Capitola Begonia Festival (831-476-3566, begoniafestival.com). The event celebrates Capitola’s begonia production tradition with a nautical parade featuring begonia-bedecked barges that depict pirate ships, dragons and other whimsical themes.
Surfer magazine named wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century.” His headquarters straddles the border with unincorporated Pleasure Point. Check out the gear and scene at Capitola’s O’Neill Surf Shop (1115 41st Ave., 831-475-4151, oneill.com). There’s a wetsuit outlet next door and the shop itself draws plenty of serious Santa Cruz-area surfers, so as you browse the aisles you definitely get a feel for the local vibe. The vintage surfboard display includes a hardwood olo board crafted from ancient Hawaiian designs by big wave legend Greg Noll. And a hoodie adorned with an old-school O’Neill logo will give you beach cred back home.
WHERE TO EAT
Bella Roma Ristorante
Michelangelo’s David greets you at Bella Roma (316 Capitola Ave., 831-464-2608, bellaromacapitola.com) where mismatched drapes, a bust of Caesar, and bas-reliefs of chariots manage to transcend kitsch and take on a stagy romance. The restaurant certainly taps into Capitola’s Mediterranean undercurrents but it’s mostly because of chef-owner and Naples native Gaetano Balsamo. For all the faux décor, his food is plenty authentic, from dipping bowls of olive oil infused with fresh garlic cloves to a pappardelle lamb ragu, thick with braised cuts of meat.
Located opposite an archipelago of big box stores, Café Cruz (2621 41st Ave., Soquel, 831-476-3801, cafecruz.com) creates its own atmosphere. A mural depicting the coastal hills and a harvest scene celebrates Santa Cruz County. You can settle in on the covered patio or the courtyard next to a stone fireplace for fresh breezes and dishes that take advantage of the area’s bounty. Breads come from Capitola’s beloved Gayle’s Bakery, an irresistible (and rich) flat-iron steak marsala is topped with local white mushrooms, and the wine list offers Santa Cruz County varietals.
WHERE TO STAY
Inn at Depot Hill
As if Capitola weren’t escape enough, the AAA four-diamond Inn at Depot Hill ($259-$379; 250 Monterey Ave., 800-572-2632, innatdepothill.com) lets you be just about anywhere. Kyoto? Costa del Sol? Its 12 rooms bring alive international destinations thanks to design elements that are evocative and never themey. Reminiscent of a Dutch coastal home, the Delft room features blue-and-white tile. The Paris is sleek and sophisticated with a two-sided fireplace, vintage street scenes and a black-and-white color scheme. The inn is a few minutes’ walk from Capitola’s waterfront but well-removed from the busy scene.
The Jewel Box Bed and Breakfast
Blending Craftsman and Japanese design in an intimate bungalow, The Jewel Box’s two suites ($149-$199; 4630 Capitola Rd., 831-295-9035, jewelboxbnb.com) let you sample Capitola cottage living. Fountains and rustic furniture on the porch create a tranquil space for morning coffee. The Jade Suite has a private living room, while the Opal Suite is smaller but connects to a spacious common area. Either way, you’ll feel like you’re staying at a friend’s place, especially in the morning when you can head into the kitchen, toast up some rustic bread or graze your way through scones, bowls of fresh blueberries and blackberries, and granola and yogurt. If you’re traveling with another couple, the Jewel Box becomes even more of an oasis because you can take over both suites and enjoy the entire house to yourselves. —M.J.