If this beachside hamlet had a theme song, it would be this sweet 1914 tune:
“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!
“You and me, you and me,
“Oh, how happy we’ll be!”
Who wouldn’t be happy visiting this charming village? The summer crowds are gone and spring break is months away. Lodging is abundant, the shops and restaurants are eager for business and the Mediterranean climate is famously mild in winter. The window is open from now into March.
California’s first seaside resort (or so it is widely said) hugs the northern edge of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, sandwiched between Soquel and Aptos, a few miles east of Santa Cruz. Sunset magazine calls Capitola “one of the top 20 best small towns in the West.”
At 1.7 square miles, it’s smaller than Santa Cruz and bigger than Carmel, with a vibe that echoes parts of both but mirrors neither.
Absent are the carnival overtones of edgy, traffic-crazed Santa Cruz, but the beach scene is a dominant player. The municipal pier is much smaller than the Santa Cruz Wharf, and without resident colonies of sea lions, but it is one of Capitola’s defining images. You won’t find the dog-walking millionaires in jeans who stroll the pathways of Carmel, or that town’s upscale European-style bistros, but the restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and shops are very much part of the Capitola experience.
A walkabout in the tourist-oriented downtown – Capitola Village – paints a clear picture: Surf shops, sandals and flip-flops. Bathing suits, beach towels, T-shirts and sunglasses. Crystals, crafts and jewelry. Bins of pastel-colored saltwater taffy, mounds of freshly made fudge. Calamari and clam chowder, and this telling offer on a hand-lettered sign in the window of a Thai restaurant: “To go only – french fries, $3.99.”
Capitola is beach volleyball and stand-up paddle boarding. Tiki torches, bamboo trim and glass bricks. Antique lamp posts, rusted sconces, wall murals and chalk art. Purple bougainvilla spilling over sun-bleached walls, gardens bursting with colors, palm trees lining the boulevards. Vintage buildings time-worn by salty breezes. So many mermaid motifs that a visitor half-expects to spot one of the legendary creatures cavorting under the wharf.
“Unlike Santa Cruz and Carmel, I feel like I’m stepping into a European coastal hamlet when I go there,” said former Sacramento resident Portia Tanaka, who has lived in Santa Cruz for six years. “It’s very much a visually unique village, not just a stop along Highway 1.”
Capitola has had two bouts of nature-driven drama in recent years. In September, shoals of anchovies moved into the bay, attracting humpback whales, sea lions, dolphins, pelicans and gulls for an extended feeding frenzy. The whales and pelicans should have migrated weeks ago, but remained to give whale-watchers and birders unprecedented viewing opportunities. The circus could go on through December, marine biologists say, or end tomorrow.
A natural event of far greater consequence struck on the morning of March 26, 2011. Soquel Creek – a river, really – flows 16 miles from its source in the Santa Cruz Mountains and meanders through Capitola, ending in the Soquel Creek Lagoon by the beach. A flash flood gushed through the village after fierce rainstorms overwhelmed a drain pipe and caused the river to overflow. Three feet of water flooded stores and nearby homes, forcing evacuation and road closures.
A detailed history of Capitola is at www.capitola village.com, but the short version is this: The town began as a campground in the 1870s, when German immigrant Frederick Hihn and his daughter, Lulu Hall Green, recognized its potential and set about turning it into a resort. In one version of how it got its name, Green dubbed it Camp Capitola after a character in an 1859 magazine serial, “The Hidden Hand.”
Hihn developed the campground in earnest as the Southern Pacific Railroad began bringing thousands of heat-wilted vacationers from the inland to the seashore. By 1874 it had segued into a destination, with a small hotel, rental cottages, parks, shops and concerts. In 1895 Hihn built the gem of the resort, the 160-room Hotel Capitola, which later burned down. Camp Capitola became Capitola-by-the-Sea in 1900.
Hinh’s daughter inherited the resort after her father’s death in 1913, and sold it in 1919 to a San Francisco developer whose scheme to “modernize” it ended in bankruptcy in 1929. By 1930, the resort closed and Capitola’s homeowners and business leaders took control, incorporating in 1949.
Which brings us to this sampler and a parking tip: An expansive metered lot is off Capitola Avenue, above City Hall. The fee is a bargain at 25 cents per 30 minutes. Handily, a change machine is on site.
For such a tiny place, Capitola Village and its nearby environs have a diverse dining scene – Italian, Mexican, British, Thai, Japanese, Mediterranean and American. Think casual.
The three party places are along the Esplanade, and front the lagoon near Stockton Avenue Bridge. They have full bars, beach-themed dining rooms and outdoor patios with views of the bay, Capitola Wharf and the pastel-colored Venetian Court condo-hotel complex.
Look for burgers and fish tacos, wings and sliders, pasta and steaks, and drink specials at Margaritaville (831-476-2263, www.margaritaville capitola.com; the “flower vases” are Patron tequila bottles), Paradise Beach Grille (831-476-4900, www.paradisebeach grille.com) and Zelda’s (831-475-4900, www.zeldason thebeach.com). Zelda’s attraction is the dining patio literally on the beach, where folks loll under umbrellas and sip bloody Marys at weekend brunch.
Mr. Toots Coffeehouse is a semi-hidden gem up a flight of stairs next to Margaritaville (831-475-3679, www.tootscoffee.com). Sip excellent coffee drinks (the Toot-n-komen is Peerless brand organic dark roast with cinnamon, nutmeg and honey) paired with locally baked pastries and four-star quiche (cheese-mushroom-chard). A mini-library, couches, piano and displays of local art add to the laid-back ambiance, but the view-friendly balcony is the place to be.
P.S: The coffeehouse is named after the ditzy character in the Charles Dickens novel “Dombey and Son,” whose defining quote is, “It’s of no consequence.”
On the outskirts of the village is Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, where the crowd takes numbered tickets and lines up for a cornucopia of sandwiches (tri-tip), salads (almond-tarragon chicken), hot entrees (polenta casserole) and fancy pastries and fragrant loaves of rustic breads (504 Bay Ave.; 831-462-1200, www.gaylesbakery.com). You might get past the croissants and eclairs, but not the garlic-cheese twists.
Wine-tasting rooms seem to be opening in every small town in Northern California, and have become standard additions to travelers’ itineraries. This trio offers vino by the glass, flight and bottle.
Cava Wine Bar stocks California wines, but wanders afield with 80 varietals from around the world. Small plates include salamis, cheeses, olives and nuts. 115 San Jose Ave., (831) 476-2282, www.cavacapitola.com.
Armida is a tasting room for artisanal Armida Winery in Healdsburg, specializing in zinfandel, pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. 103 Stockton Ave., (831) 462-1065, www.armida.com.
It’s Wine Thyme lists reds and whites from leading wineries around California, plus champagne, prosecco, dessert wines and port. Small plates of cheese, hummus and bruschetta. 116 Stockton Ave., (831) 477-4455, www.itswinetyme.com.
Capitola Village and neighboring blocks are jammed with shops stocked with goods that range from kitsch to quality. One go-to is Capitola Mercantile, an “indoor bazaar” selling everything from jewelry and resort wear to candy and seashells.
These caught our attention during our wanderings:
How does owner Jennifer Jones fit her “eclectic mix” of stuff into tiny Jones & Bones? “We focus on specialty foods,” she said, such as estate-bottled olive oils from Italy, sea salts from around the globe, caviar, and flavored Virginia peanuts from the Blue Crab Bay Co. Beyond that: hand-carved mango-wood salad bowls from Thailand, metal sculptures made from recycled oil drums and street signs, and Portuguese handbags fashioned from cork (“It’s the new leather,” said Jones). 621 Capitola Ave., (831), 462-0521, www.jonesandbones.com.
Rainbow City Limit shows its humor with rubber chickens and kites, yo-yos and Route 66 clocks, Curious George tote bags and Lava Lamps. “We have a bit of everything for the young and old,” said owner Babette Fendon. Why all the Beatles paraphernalia? “Because I’m a huge fan and this is my store,” she said. Her favorite Beatle is Ringo, her favorite tune is “Rain.” 116 San Jose Ave.; (831) 476-9769, www.rainbowcitylimit.com.
Many Hands Gallery is a consignment store specializing in multimedia art by 80 local artisans. The wall displays are rotated out every 60 days to accommodate new pieces. Paintings, photographs imprinted on metal, jewelry, sculptures, totems, assemblage art (silver sugar bowls in tandem with found objects). One series of ceramic bowls looks so Mediterranean it would be at home in a Greek museum. 510 Bay Ave.; (831) 475-2500, www.manyhands- capitola.com.
Joyce Murphy opened Pacific Gallery as a framing shop 30 years ago and expanded to include art, home décor and gift items. Among the treasures are displays of Annieglass by glass artist Annie Morhauser of Santa Cruz. Pieces of Annieglass decorate the White House and are in the Simthsonian American Art Museum. Also: animal figurines from Kenya carved from recycled flip-flops, purses from Australia, and beach-oriented “Pouf” seating cushions made of indoor-outdoor material. 321 Capitola Ave.; (831) 476-3855, www.pacific galleryandgifts.com.
Get your “dude” on when you walk through the door of Surf N Shack, the Hawaiian-style beach shack that’s home to the beach and skate cultures. Custom surfboards, skateboards, tiki collectibles, and surf and skate clothing and gear from California’s top makers, including Istyly of Santa Cruz. 117 Capitola Ave.; (831) 475-5119, www.surfnshack.com (under construction).
A walk through history
One must-do is a self-guided walking tour of landmark buildings constructed between the late 1870s and the 1940s. They’re dramatic and gorgeous, and some are officially designated historical sites. Download the tour map at www.capitolamuseum.org.
Among the 38 attractions are Capitola’s earliest church and the Six Sisters, side-by-side town homes built as rentals in 1903. Also noted are the Hidden Walking Trail, a stairway up a hillside from Deasy Park (worth the view), and Riverview Pathway, which starts at Stockton Bridge and parallels a stretch of Soquel Creek. Check out the “cottages” along the route.
The exhibit “Picture This” is at the Capitola Historical Museum, a 1920s farm cottage. “It’s a display of (memorabilia and) the best photos in the museum’s historical collection of 20,000,” said museum curator Frank Perry. The museum will close at the end of December and reopen in March with an exhibit paying homage to Harry Hooper, the Hall of Famer who played for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox between 1909 and 1925. He retired to Capitola, where he served as postmaster for 24 years.
Next to the museum are a century-old renovated beach house from Santa Cruz and three outdoor changing rooms from the early 1900s. 410 Capitola Ave.; (831) 464-0322, www.capitolamuseum.org.
The original wharf was built in the 1850s and was replaced in the 1980s. The 855-foot-long pier is the ideal spot for a stroll, with great views of the village, the bay and the cliff-lined coast, especially at sunset.
You’ll find the Wharf House restaurant (831-476-3534, www.wharfhouse.com) and Capitola Boat & Bait (831-462-2208, www.capitola boatandbait.com). Rent a kayak or a motorboat, or rent a rod and reel and fish off the pier.
“You never know what you’ll catch,” said manager and “lead guy” Ed Burrell.
Lodging varies from plain to precious; ask about seasonal specials. This sampling is indicative.
We stayed at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, in a room with a mini-fridge, microwave oven, coffeemaker, two flatscreen TVs, free Wi-Fi, living room, king-size bed and pullout sofa. Plus: full bar in the lobby, heated pool, exercise room and continental breakfast. Rooms from $99 to $159; 1255 41st Ave.; (831) 427-2900, www.marriott.com.
The handsome two-story Inn at Depot Hill is a former train station and now a first-class bed-and-breakfast. The downstairs common rooms are stately with tall ceilings, chandeliers, original sconces, hardwood floors, fireplace and antique furniture. The dozen themed guest rooms and suites feature feather beds. Full breakfast and afternoon wine and hors d’oeuvres. Rooms from $289 to $389; 250 Monterey Ave., (831) 462-3376, www.innatdepothill.com.
The pastel-colored all-suite Venetian Court opened in 1925 with obsessive attention to detail and odd touches – parapet walls, arches, balconies, carved doors and gargoyle sculptures. It’s an architectural marvel in the Mediterranean vein, with rooms furnished with Mission-style furniture and Tiffany-style lamps. Rooms from $69 to $300; 1500 Wharf Road, (831) 476-6471, www.capitolavenetian.com.
The Capitola Hotel has 10 themed rooms dressed in “breezy Caribbean décor” in a former sundries shop-lodging built in the 1940s. Coffee, tea and biscotti in the lobby, a private courtyard outside. Rooms from $99 to $149. 210 Esplanade, (831) 476-1278, www.capitolahotel.com.
Beach House Rentals maintains 60 properties, from studio apartments to five-bedroom houses. “We focus on upscale rentals with ocean views,” said owner Dede Harrington. Rentals from $300 to $600 per day, $1,500 to $3,500 per week. 312 Capitola Ave., (831) 475-1808, www.beach- houserentals.com.