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On Pacific swells, it’s all about the board

A shortboarder finds a wave off Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz, where surfing is a year-round activity. A shortboarder finds a wave off Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz, where surfing is a year-round activity. (Bonnie Tsui for The Boston Globe)
By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / March 28, 2010

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — The sun slants low across the sky as I paddle my surfboard out from shore. It’s late winter on Cowell’s Beach in this northern California surfer town. After weeks of rain, it’s a glorious morning: bluebird skies vivid against low gray clouds. There’s a weight to the water, a metallic gleam to the calm surface that intimates a moody depth. Sea lions bark from under the municipal wharf nearby, and from the beach surfers are scoping out the swell.

In summer, Santa Cruz’s colorful boardwalk lights up with nonstop activity: Teenagers prowl the arcades, couples cram into shooting galleries, and kids sticky with cotton candy run around dragging giant stuffed pandas, their parents lagging wearily behind. Vendors sell tickets for everything from roller coasters and merry-go-rounds to nausea-inducing gravity-drop rides. Though late winter and early spring are decidedly quieter, this town never really stops moving.

Surfing is a year-round activity; at the many town beaches, surfers amble along the sidewalks in wet suits (some bike to and fro carrying their shortboards). Every other shop, it seems, sells surfing gear, even for those who don’t surf (surf-logo sunglasses and T-shirts, anyone?). Kayakers launch their boats from the wharf fronting Cowell’s Beach; joggers run along the sand at the water’s edge; beach volleyball players crowd the sand courts; and cyclists churn up the hills for stunning cliff-side views of the Pacific.

In the 1960s, Santa Cruz was a sun-bleached center of the youth counterculture. The first of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ famous “acid tests,’’ those psy chedelic-fueled gatherings made famous by Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’’ occurred just outside town in Soquel. The soundtrack to these mind-expansion events was provided by a little band called the Grateful Dead.

These days, an open, progressive vibe persists. On a recent road trip, my friend Lynsay and I found a lively community heavy on organic cafes and juice bars, independent bookstores, and hippie street performers. In the midst of this, surfing continues to thrive — the reason Surfer magazine last year called Santa Cruz the number one US surf town.

We parked ourselves for a surf-oriented weekend at the Dream Inn, a retro-style hotel that opened in September and fronts Cowell’s Beach and the boardwalk. The inn makes it easy for the uninitiated to try their hand at riding waves; the concierge can arrange for stand-up paddleboard or surfing lessons.

On our first morning there, I paddled to the lineup, and sat up to watch wave lines wrap around the point, linking up with the epic surf spot known as Steamer Lane. Exchanging nods with the locals around me, I realized that, at this moment, there was no place else I’d rather be.

That first surfing session lasted for about an hour and a half one long, smooth ride nearly brought me in to shore — before the sun disappeared and left me shivering right down to my neoprene booties. As I paddled back toward the beach, I watched shortboarders cutting up and back on the near shore peaks that broke under the wharf. Once I hit the sand, I carried my longboard up the beach to the inn. At reception, where other guests were valeting their cars, I valeted my surfboard. How’s that for service?

The Dream Inn is filled with natural light and playful furniture, including lobby rocking chairs made from recycled red seatbelt fabric. The former motel was refurbished last year; all rooms have ocean views, and the upper levels are outfitted with balconies and blue-and-white deck chairs. Our double room had a vaulted ceiling with a silver ceiling fan, floor-to-ceiling windows, and cloud-like white bedding, the neutrals cheerfully punctuated with whimsical touches: surf silhouette paintings on wood by Andy Davis, bright-green shutters, swish-shaped chairs in orange plastic.

A gleaming surfboard-covered ceiling is the design highlight of the hotel’s Aquarius restaurant, whose windows overlook the ocean. The best times there are breakfast (we loved the steel-cut oatmeal with cranberries and brown sugar) and happy hour ($2 sliders and $5 house cocktails are a deal; those with a sweet tooth should try the homemade Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches). All fish on the menu is said to be sustainably raised and caught according to the guidelines of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Early on our second morning, we hung out on our balcony and watched a multigenerational family frolicking next to the water. All were splashing about as if it were summer (water temperatures were hovering in the 50s). “We left a country full of snow, so this is nothing,’’ one of the women told us later, smiling. “We’re from Scotland, you see.’’

The Dream Inn is all about location: direct access to a great surfing beach, easy walking distance to the restaurant-lined wharf and the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and running and biking paths galore. We took a walk out to the middle of the wharf and ended up sliding into a booth at Gilda’s, an old-fashioned diner and coffee shop with views of the amusement park and boardwalk on one side and surfers on the other. Black-and-white prints of trophy anglers and mid-century Miss California pageant winners, along with painted wood murals, contributed to Gilda’s considerable charm (as did the friendly service and $1.95 bottomless cups of coffee).

And should you want to learn more about the history of the sport, walk up to the local surf museum, located at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (it’s visible from the Cowell’s surf break, right at the point). You can learn about surfing’s century-long history as it relates to Santa Cruz, from Hawaiian royalty to local California surf pioneers.

We recommend that you save this visit for last, lest the shark-bitten surfboard and wet suit exhibit deter you from hitting the waves.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.

If You Go

Dream Inn

175 West Cliff Drive

866-774-7735

www.dreaminnsantacruz.com

The 165 bright, spacious rooms all face the ocean; doubles from $169.

Cowell’s Surf Shop

30 Front St.

831-427-2355

www.cowellssurfshop.com

Rentals, lessons ($80 for two hours, including wet suit and board), and surf gear.