Monterey Bay is one of the world’s natural treasures, a gorgeous curved coastline with Santa Cruz at its northern tip, and Monterey at the southern. Just offshore, the Monterey Submarine Canyon plunges to 6,000 feet, and the cold-water upwelling teems with plankton and small fish, drawing thousands of seabirds, as well as sea lions, dolphins, and whales. Draw a line across the bay and it’s only 25 miles from tip to tip, but a drive from Monterey’s airport to Santa Cruz could easily take you an hour, maybe two.
So why not land in Watsonville, right in the middle? Think of it as Monterey Bay’s midfield. Playful sea otters, organic produce, and secluded beaches are minutes away. Explore bohemian Santa Cruz. Ride the roller coaster on its historic Boardwalk, or take a train up to a virgin redwood forest. You can also head south and visit Monterey for its aquarium and motor racing.
Monterey Bay is shaped like a backwards “C,” and prevailing northwesterly winds tend to push clouds and fog down over the city of Monterey, often leaving Santa Cruz and Watsonville in the clear. Since Watsonville Municipal Airport (WVI) is about 3 nm inland, it can often be VMC when the nearby Marina (OAR) and Monterey (MRY) airports are blanketed by fog and stratus.
Arrivals from the south should be aware of numerous MOAs and Restricted Areas along the coast, as well as Monterey’s Class C airspace. Contact NorCal Approach on 127.15 MHz. Arrivals from the east can follow CA Hwy 152 westward from Los Banos Airport (LSN) past the San Luis Reservoir. The always-busy San Francisco Bay Area lies to the north. Use caution for heavy traffic at all altitudes and secure flight following from NorCal Approach (see your sectional for frequencies). Weather permitting, the easiest route from the north is along the coast, underneath the San Francisco Class B.
As you approach Watsonville, you should be able to see Santa Cruz to the north; the Elkhorn Slough, a salt marsh just north of the power plant’s twin smokestacks in Moss Landing; and Monterey to the south. Listen for weather on ASOS 132.275 MHz. Watsonville has two paved runways: 2/20 and 9/27. Winds usually favor Runway 20, which is also the calm wind runway. However, the localizer approach is to Runway 2 with a minimum descent altitude of 700 feet MSL, nearly 500 feet lower than the 1,163-foot pattern altitude. Look out for opposite traffic on practice instrument approaches. IFR aircraft usually turn off to the southeast and start climbing away by the time they reach the missed approach point at the south end of Runway 2/20, however, the local FSDO and airport authorities are reviewing airport procedures in early 2015, so be sure to check approach plates for any changes. Fly in on the second Saturday of the month for cheap fill-ups! Transient parking is directly in front of the terminal, attended daily 7:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., 831-768-3575.
Blessed with a mild climate, the Pajaro Valley was first settled thousands of years ago by Costanoan Indians. They left traces of their campsites throughout the Pajaro Dunes and along coastal valley streams. When 18th-century explorers arrived, they reportedly found a straw-stuffed bird near a river and named the waters Rio de Pajaro, or “River of the Bird.” The Gold Rush brought an onslaught of white settlers who logged the coastal redwoods and established large-scale farming.
Watsonville was named after Judge John Watson, and incorporated in 1868. The valley remains an agricultural center, growing over 60 varieties of fruits and vegetables, especially berries, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and artichokes. The local population is overwhelmingly young and Hispanic, with farm workers collectively earning over $100 million in yearly wages.
The first sawmill west of the Mississippi was built just north of Santa Cruz in 1842 and named Roaring Camp. Ironically, the huge coastal redwood trees around the mill were preserved, while those in surrounding areas were logged, mostly as fuel to burn limestone for potash. By 1875, a train was carrying tourists up from Santa Cruz to see the remaining big trees.
It is said that California surfing began in Santa Cruz in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes surfed on locally-milled redwood boards. The Boardwalk, founded in 1907, is California’s oldest amusement park and a historical landmark. Today’s Santa Cruz, with about 63,000 inhabitants, is known for its liberal and activist leanings, fostered largely by the University of California at Santa Cruz campus, which opened during the tumultuous 1960s.
Monterey’s importance dates back hundreds of years, as it was originally California’s capital under Spain and Mexico. The Custom House, the state’s first historic landmark, supervised all entry and taxation of imported goods brought to California by sea. An enormous sardine fishery supported Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck, but that fishery collapsed in the 1950s. The area is now home to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the bay itself is a marine sanctuary. Funded by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard and run by his marine biologist daughter, Julie, the aquarium opened in 1984.
If you’d like to go skydiving, look no further than the Watsonville airport for Skydive Surfcity, on the field just west of transient parking. The staff members specialize in tandem dives with first-timers. You can get a video of the entire experience, including free-fall, which lasts about 60 seconds. The parachute is opened at about 5,000 feet MSL and you have about five minutes to practice steering and enjoy the peaceful sunset view before landing on the beach, over 18 only, 10,000-foot jumps $199, 12,500–14,000-foot jumps $229, video $79, 831-435-5169.
The airport also plays host to the Watsonville Fly-in & Air Show each fall. The show features plenty of warbirds and wild aerobatics by civilian performers to thrill everyone, three-day adult tickets $32, one-day $20, children 6–12 $12, 831-763-5600.
Kayak alongside sea otters in Elkhorn Slough, one of California’s largest wetlands. It’s about a 15-minute drive south of Watsonville on U.S. Highway 1, in the neighboring town of Moss Landing, just north of the harbor. Reserve a one-, two-, or even a three-person kayak with Kayak Connections and go where you please, or take a tour. There’s enough space for a backpack inside the kayak. With binoculars and a telephoto lens, you should be able to count the whiskers on an otter’s face. I floated in one spot for half an hour watching an otter dive repeatedly, coming up each time just a few feet away with a new morsel to be loudly munched. About 100 of these cute critters inhabit Elkhorn Slough, tumbling and playing when they’re not devouring crabs, clams, and other shellfish. Sea lions and harbor seals also live here, and you’ll find them resting on shore, along with pelicans, cormorants, and hundreds of terns. The water is calm, so it’s an ideal place for a beginner. Mornings are less breezy, of course. You’ll probably stay dry except for a few drips, as the kayaks close with a skirt, but wear synthetics that dry quickly, breathe, and keep you warm without overheating. Hang your camera on a short leash around your neck, stuff it in your life vest to keep it dry, and you’re good to go. Allow about four hours, single kayak $35, double $50, triple $65, marshland and whale watching tours $60–$85, 2370 Hwy 1, Moss Landing, 831-724-5692.
Fresh produce is what Watsonville is all about. At Gizdich Ranch, in the foothills a 10-minute drive east of the airport, you can “Pik-yor-Self” strawberries, olallieberries, boysenberries, and apples (May–Sep), and then walk or play on the ranch grounds. On Saturdays between September and May, you can watch apples being pressed into juice. If you’d rather not pick, reserve a flat of berries, grab a jar of jam, fresh juice, or a pie, open 9 a.m.–5 p.m., 55 Peckham Rd., 831-722-1056.
Downtown Watsonville’s farmer’s market overflows with ripe goodies at low prices. There’s also an abundance of prepared Hispanic treats like pupusas, churros, and tacos, or try grilled meats and fresh corn-on-cob or salty-sweet kettle korn, bring cash, Peck & Main, every Fri 3–7 p.m.
Come to Santa Cruz to watch monarch butterflies congregate in winter or attend the Woodies on the Wharf car show in summer, with vehicles decked out as custom surf cars. Crowning the city (literally) is U.C. Santa Cruz, named one of the “greenest” campuses in America. Nestled deep within a towering redwood forest, students in their dorm rooms can feel as though they are living in tree houses when they look out the window. The Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council has a visitor’s center, open Mon–Fri 9 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–4 p.m., Sat–Sun 11 a.m.–3 p.m., 831-425-1234 or 800-833-3494.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a half-mile of old-time fun along Main Beach, with over 34 rides and attractions, including the 1911 Looff Carousel and the 1924 Giant Dipper roller coaster. There are plenty of other thrill rides as well as restaurants, shops, games, an indoor arcade, a laser tag arena, bowling, and even miniature golf. You can always come here for free and enjoy the atmosphere, even when the rides are closed. Pay only for rides you want to try, $3–$6, or get an unlimited rides wristband, $33. Top 40 Bands play on the Beach Fridays during summer, free, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz, 831-423-5590.
Don’t miss the wildlife at Natural Bridges State Beach, which is also a beautiful place to stroll. Whales, seals, and otters are frequently seen playing offshore, and it’s a haven for birds, both shorebirds and pelagic species. Come at low tide to see starfish, crabs, and anemones in the tidepools. From October to January, the eucalyptus trees north of the beach are filled with thousands of monarch butterflies “chilling” here for the winter before they begin their great cross-country spring migration. Birders often find unusual warblers in these trees as well. The free, short-term parking lot is a great place to spy on cormorants and guillemots on the rocks below, 2531 W. Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, 8 a.m.–sunset, 831-423-4609.
You can also walk among the redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park up Highway 9 from Santa Cruz. You’ll find old-growth redwoods up to 285 feet tall and 1,800 years old, 20 miles of trails, a nature center, and bookstore. The visitor center is open daily 10 a.m.–4 p.m., 101 N. Big Trees Park Rd., Felton, 831-335-7077.
Visit the big trees via the standard-gauge Beach Train that travels through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to Roaring Camp, then down the scenic San Lorenzo River Gorge, across a 101-year-old bridge, through an 1875 tunnel, and back to Santa Cruz, three hours round trip. Another railway choice is the authentic 1890 narrow-gauge Steam Train, departing from Roaring Camp through redwood groves and over trestles to the summit of Bear Mountain while conductors narrate the history of the railway, forest, and Roaring Camp, 1 1/4-hr round trip, fares $27, age 2–12 $20, 5401 Graham Hill Rd, Felton, 831-335-4484.
Ever get the “leans” when you’re flying in IMC? You’re convinced you’re turning, but the artificial horizon says no. It takes discipline to ignore the sensations from your body and focus on the instruments. So for a little fun, every pilot visiting Santa Cruz should try the Mystery Spot. Did aliens leave mysterious magnetic metals underground here? Is it a vortex? Balls roll uphill, short people become tall, and you can walk on walls. You’ll be undeniably perplexed. Wear comfortable shoes; you can hike in the surrounding redwood forest before or after your 45-minute tour. Make a reservation so you don’t miss out, open 9 a.m.–7 p.m. (Memorial Day–Labor Day), otherwise Mon–Fri 10 a.m.–4 p.m., weekends till 5 p.m., tickets $6, parking $5, 831-423-8897.
Motor racing fans know Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as one of the most challenging road tracks in the world. A smooth surface, low grip, and major elevation changes present serious challenges to the finest drivers, but the infamous Corkscrew is simply one-of-a-kind. Reaching the apex of a long hill, drivers must negotiate a turn they cannot see, while braking, losing grip on the front end, and then suddenly dropping three stories as the track falls away, twisting all the while. Pirelli World Challenge, Porsche Rennsport, and other series races run here. County-fair-type food and drink are served in multiple areas, admission generally runs $30–$70 for a single day, $70–$100 for multi-day tickets, special access and suites up to $510 per person, 1021 Monterey-Salinas Hwy, Salinas, 831-242-8201.
Wanna leave the race car driving to… you? Skip Barber Racing School offers an array of programs at Laguna Seca, including MazdaSpeed racing school, Formula Car racing, and high-performance driving school, with one-, two-, or three-day programs, $595–$5,495, 860-435-1300 or 866-932-1949.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium ranks among the top aquariums and oceanographic research institutions in the world. From the million-gallon Outer Bay tank to myriad jellies, seahorses, seabirds, deep sea creatures, playful otters, and a massive three-story kelp tank, it’s always a great way to spend a day, adults $40, children 3–12 $25, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (opens in summer at 9:30 a.m., open till 8 p.m. weekends), 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831-648-4800.
Cannery Row itself is Monterey’s thriving tourist area full of shops and restaurants. It runs along the bay waterfront from David Avenue to the Monterey Presidio.
The beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, U.S. Highway 1, mostly winds its way along the coastline, but sometimes veers inland. Because it does this near Watsonville, casual travelers are unaware of Pajaro Dunes, which is lucky for you, if you choose to stay there. An enclave of vacation-rentable homes and condos spanning 1 1/2 miles of pristine Monterey Bay beach near the mouth of the Pajaro River, it’s the perfect place to cook meals together, play tennis or beach volleyball, finish that book, and gather inspiration. Four miles west of Watsonville, 25 miles north of Monterey, and 20 miles south of Santa Cruz, it is a great central location from which you can explore the entire area, provided you can drag yourself away. Houses vary in design from classic beach shingle to mod domes, and range from two to seven bedrooms, so if you want to share your hideaway with friends, they can share the cost. Pajaro Dunes occasionally runs promotions, such as a 2015 deal of three nights for the price of two. Rentals are stocked with appliances, linens, towels, and dishes, so you just need to bring your personal items and food if you are cooking. Many units have barbecues and fire pits for outdoor fun, two nights $450–$3,500, 105 Shell Dr., Watsonville, 831-728-7400 or 800-564-1771.
Rooms at Watsonville’s Best Western Rose Garden Inn are AAA three-diamond-rated and are comparable to rooms at Monterey’s Best Western Park Crest Inn. From here, it’s roughly a half-hour drive to either Santa Cruz or Monterey. There’s a shopping center nearby if you forgot something. Rooms feature free WiFi and refrigerators, $99–$175, 740 Freedom Blvd., 831-724-3367 or 888-685-5760.
Two Santa Cruz beach hotels merit attention. Both are within easy walking distance of the Boardwalk, wharf, and restaurants. The Dream Inn pays homage to 1960s chic, with lime green, yellow, and orange room accents and mod furniture. All 165 guestrooms feature ocean views and private balconies or patios. Step right out onto the sand or watch the sunrise from your room. Dream Inn also offers a pool, Jacuzzi and kids’ wading pool with free weekend yoga classes on the deck, free parking and WiFi, $199–$719, 175 W. Cliff Dr., 831-426-4330 or 866-774-7735.
The Sea & Sand Inn only has 22 rooms on the cliffs overlooking the beach, but the grounds are spacious and meticulously maintained. Every room has an ocean view, though rooms 206–208 are best. You can get an in-room Jacuzzi or fireplace, and there’s a free continental breakfast, refreshments on summer afternoons, wine and cheese hour each night from October through March, and free WiFi, $119–$499, 201 W. Cliff Dr., 831-427-3400.
As you might expect, both Monterey’s Cannery Row and the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf brim with seafood eateries. Recent gentrification in Santa Cruz has brought exciting new restaurants to this sleepy town.
Looking to try something different? Why not give organic Afghan and Mediterranean fusion a go at the warm and quaint Laili Restaurant in the middle of Santa Cruz. It’s great for lunch or dinner anytime, and has a lovely patio in the summer months. Try the Boranee Kadu, sweet and savory Afghan pumpkin, or the Mantoo, delectable Afghani dumplings to start. Finish with a lamb braise shank, or the roasted trout with delicate spices, entrées $10–$22, Tue–Sun 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. & 5–9 p.m., open until 10 p.m. Fri & Sat, 831-423-4545, 101-B Cooper Street, Santa Cruz.
Aquarius is literally on the beach, adjacent to the Dream Inn. It serves American cuisine and sustainably-caught seafood. The modern décor is bright and airy by day; watch beachgoers and surfers through floor-to-ceiling windows. By night, the woven-wood lamps, resembling fisherman’s floats, cast a romantic glow. Heirloom tomatoes, basil, and corn accompany the crab risotto; entrées run $15–$33. An extensive brunch is served on Sunday, Mon-Fri 7 a.m.–2 p.m., weekends until 3 p.m., with breakfast until 11:30 a.m., dinner Sun–Thu 5:30–9:30 p.m., Fri–Sat 5:30–10 p.m., 175 W. Cliff Dr., 831-460-5012.
On Cannery Row, Sly McFly’s Refueling Station serves up hot Blues, Jazz, and old-school R&B acts along with its fresh seafood, steaks, pasta, and sandwiches. Colorful stained-glass windows with antique racecar motifs recall the passions of its legendary auto racing namesake and the Laguna Seca racetrack (they’re the fanfest headquarters during MotoGP week). They’ve been a local fave for more than 30 years and have been voted best food/entertainment for 12 years by local paper Coast Weekly, entrées $10–$21, 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m., weekends until 2 a.m., 700 A Cannery Row, Monterey, 831-649-8050.
If you got hungry while kayaking watching the otters crunch all the crab, head over to Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, just south of Elkhorn Slough, to satisfy your seafood cravings. The Food Network’s Bobby Flay loves this place, and why not? You can’t get any fresher—it’s at the harbor. Eat in the big, bright, high-ceilinged room where tables share space with the fishmonger’s cases, or out on the heated patio, where live music fills the air, Mon, Wed, and Thu nights. Savor champagne-sautéed oysters, Dungeness crab, or the ever-popular Rock Shrimp and Bay Scallops in Basil Sauce. People call from all over to order his Cioppino. Try the fire-roasted artichokes, picked across the street, entrées $14–$25, Sun–Wed 10 a.m.–8 p.m., Thu–Sat 10 a.m.–9 p.m. (winter), daily 10 a.m.–9 p.m. (summer), 7600 Sandholdt Rd., Moss Landing, 831-633-2152.
Ella’s at the Airport opened in the airport terminal in March 2015. It offers locally sourced, organic California fare with Italian roots for lunch and dinner throughout the week, and brunch on weekends. Their dining area closes from 2:30 to 5 p.m., but the bar and lounge remain open with a nice selection from the full menu such as the Fire Roasted Jalapeño Poppers or Gorgonzola Garlic Bread. Full regular fare includes burgers, pastas, and wood-fired pizzas as well as specials and entrées $13–$26, Tue–Thu 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri until 10 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–9 p.m., 831-728-3282. Also check out their original in-town location for breakfast or lunch, Mon–Sat 6:30 a.m.–4 p.m., 734 E. Lake Ave., 831-722-0480.
It’s roughly a 30-minute drive north to Santa Cruz or south to Monterey from Watsonville, so you’ll want a car rental. Hertz has an office just east of Ella’s at the Airport (see Where to Eat), walk through the terminal and then turn left, rentals from $42, Mon–Fri 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.–noon, 831-722-2760 or 800-654-3131.
Watsonville Airport’s central location makes it easy to explore all the Monterey Bay area has to offer. Drift peacefully among the wildlife in your kayak or revel in screaming machinery at Laguna Seca. “Chillax” along the historic Santa Cruz Boardwalk or marvel at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s dazzling collection of sea creatures. Walk among the redwoods, pick your own berries—it’s all here, all year round, along the great Monterey Bay.