Beachfront rentals are rare in California, so when I found an oceanfront townhouse in Watsonville, a south Santa Cruz County agricultural community, at a reasonable price — by California beachfront standards — I scooped it up. Turns out Watsonville is the state’s secret coastal escape. Local surfers say, “We come here to escape the crowds,” pointing at the sand dunes backing Sunset State Beach, one of two stunning beach parks known for epic waves and plenty of sea mammals. Watsonville also is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in time for its 150th birthday, which the city is celebrating all year. The beloved Beer Thirty is slated to open a new beer garden this year, and Storrs Winery debuted its new tasting room this month. Yet California’s strawberry capital is quiet and modest; it might be the last unexplored frontier on the Central Coast. The tab: We shared the condo with friends, so each family paid $600 for three nights (check online deals). Our family spent about $300 on food and drinks and $40 for gas.
The Pajaro Dunes Resort has rented houses, condos and townhouses fronting the Pacific Ocean since 1973. The price was too steep for just our family, so we recruited another clan to join. We spent our days surfing at Sunset State Beach or watching the sunset with local Windy Oaks wine and sausage sandwiches from Freedom Meat Lockers. Each unit has its own decor, though most favor beach chic. Some have barbecues and fireplaces. There’s also a KOA nearby with cabins, Airstream rentals, campsites, a pool and hot tub.
On our last morning, we celebrated this agricultural community’s bounty at California Grill, owned by a multigenerational Azorean farming family. We loved the egg dishes that nod to the Portuguese, Japanese and Latino immigrants who shaped this valley. Before we left town, we hit up Gizdich Ranch for a slice of Dutch apple pie and tea in the apple orchard.
Local resident Victoria McCue pointed us toward the Watsonville Slough, where we hiked along the fingers of the wetlands. “We've got peregrine falcons, egrets, blue heron, ducks, finches and about a billion more birds; it's why we have the name ‘Pajaro Valley,’” she said. Wildflower-dotted trails got us close to a blue heron and a Peregrine falcon snagging a water rat.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Like most, I’ve long overlooked this farming town, but visitors are starting to come for more than the region’s quiet beaches. Annieglass offers tours of its esteemed glass factory, weekend Craftbar workshops and a wine and craft beer bar. Martinelli’s apple juice tasting room, also celebrating its 150th this year, is next door. You’ll also find live music, poetry readings and an art and wine walk. (Check Watsonville150.org for specific events.)
Pajaro Dunes Resort, 105 Shell Road, Watsonville; (831) 728-7400, pajarodunes.com. Rates from $450 a night. (You get a free night in the off season.) Wheelchair accessible.
KOA Watsonville, 1186 San Andreas Road, Watsonville; (831) 722-0551, koa.com/campgrounds/santa-cruz. Airstream trailer and cabins start at $160 a night. Wheelchair accessible.
California Grill, 40 Penny Lane, Watsonville; (831) 722-8052, californiagrillrestaurant.com. Breakfast dishes start at $8. Wheelchair accessible.
Gizdich Ranch, 55 Peckham Road, Watsonville; (831) 722-1056, gizdich-ranch.com. Pies from $4. Wheelchair accessible.
Annieglass, 310 Harvest Drive, Watsonville; (831) 761-2041, annieglass.com. Free tours. Wheelchair accessible.