The coastline of Santa Cruz  has more than its share of great surf breaks. The water is cold, demanding full wetsuits year-round, and the shoreline is rough and rocky—nothing at all like the flat sandy beaches of SoCal. But that doesn’t deter the hordes of locals who ply the waves every day they can.
The surfing culture pervades the town—if you walk the cliff , you’ll likely pass the To Honor Surfing sculpture. Santa Cruz loves this statue, and it’s often dressed up and always gets a costume for Halloween.
If you’re a beginner, the best place to start surfing Santa Cruz is Cowell’s  (stairs at West Cliff and Cowell Beach). The waves are low and long, making for fun longboard rides perfect for surfers just getting their balance. Because the Cowell’s break is acknowledged as the newbie spot, the often sizeable crowd tends to be polite to newcomers and tourists.
For more advanced surfers looking for smaller crowds in the water, Manresa State Beach (San Andreas Rd., Aptos, www.parks.ca.gov ) offers fun rides under the right conditions. Manresa is several minutes’ drive south toward Aptos. You’ll usually find a good beach break, and the waves can get big when there’s a north swell.
Visitors who know their surfing lore will want to surf the more famous spots along the Santa Cruz  shore. Pleasure Point (btwn. 32nd Ave. and 41st Ave., Soquel) encompasses a number of different breaks. You may have heard of The Hook (steps at 41st Ave.), a well-known experienced longboarder’s paradise. But don’t mistake The Hook for a beginner’s break; the locals feel protective of the waves here and aren’t always friendly towards inexperienced tourists.
The break at 36th and East Cliff (steps at 36th Ave.) can be a better place to go on weekdays—on the weekends, the intense crowding makes catching your own wave a challenge. Up at 30th and East Cliff (steps at 36th Ave), you’ll find challenging sets and hot-dogging shortboarders.
The most famous break in all of Santa Cruz  can also be the most hostile to newcomers. Steamer Lane (West Cliff btwn. Cowell’s and the Lighthouse) has both a fiercely protective crew of locals and a dangerous break that actually kills someone about every other year. But if you’re into adrenaline and there’s a swell coming in, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more exciting ride on the Central Coast , or indeed in most of California.
Yes, you can learn to surf in Santa Cruz  despite the distinct local flavor at some of the breaks. Check out either the Santa Cruz Surf School (322 Pacific Ave., 831/426-7072, www.santacruzsurfschool.com ) or the Richard Schmidt School of Surfing (849 Almar Ave., 831/423-0928, www.richardschmidt.com ) to sign up for lessons. Who knows, maybe one day the locals will mistake you for one of their own!