Walking on Water

by Sarah Tuff

Serenity now? Yes, please. We’re going to take you on a paddleboarding road trip along the California coast, starting in the surfing mecca of Santa Cruz, before cruising to the breathtaking beauty of Big Sur, and finally to the allure of the Channel Islands. Stops include not only the best places to SUP, but also the top spots to stay and play in these classic Golden State gems. Along the way, you’ll discover fresh seafood, historic sights, and wondrous wildlife.

After flying into San Jose, it’s a quick 40-minute drive south to Santa Cruz, weaving through the mountains on Highway 17, to check in at the beachfront Dream Inn. Stylishly revamped to recall the surfing heydays of the 1950s, this hotel is steps from paddleboarding a bay teeming with wildlife. Be sure to check out the rafts of sea otters floating on their backs.

Take a lesson from Ed Guzman, who’s been paddling these waters for more than 30 years—he’ll bring your gear and cool California vibes to your doorstep at the Dream Inn. Santa Cruz is also famous for its boardwalk, a worthwhile detour where you can take a ride on the old-fashioned wooden Giant Dipper roller-coaster.

Venture along the Santa Cruz Wharf to see the sea lions, shop boutiques, and browse the seaside dining options, which range from fish and chips at Stagnaro Bros., to the more upscale Riva. Stretching a half-mile into Monterey Bay, this is the longest wooden pier in the U.S. and one of the best spots to kick back with a beer and scout out your next SUP expedition.

Arguably the most iconic place to stay in California, meanwhile, lies 70 miles south in Big Sur, at the Post Ranch Inn, a rustic-luxury hideaway on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Surrounded by redwoods and personalized service (not to mention glass-walled windows, a blissful spa, and acclaimed artwork), you’ll be well-rested for another SUP adventure. Be sure to rent a board in Santa Cruz before you leave, and stop in Monterey (the Aquarium is world-renowned) on the way to Big Sur.

Post Ranch Inn

Big Sur’s 90-mile coastline is one of the most famous in the world. Begin near Bixby Bridge, where you can marvel at the span, 260 feet above sea level, before exploring the nearby caves where seals hang out among the placid, teal blue waters. Experienced paddlers can check out the wave-tumbled Portal, or chill on one of the area’s pristine beaches.

Back at the Post Ranch Inn, you will feel deserving of the four-course, freshly- sourced dinner, and your own private soaking tub in your 1,000-square foot room. Your next destination is the Channel Islands National Park. To break up the drive there, stop in Santa Barbara for an extra paddle along Stearns Wharf and Goleta Pier—or take a walk on land by strolling among the historic red-tiled missions.

In Channel Islands Harbor, find any supplies, as well as insider tips, at the Channel Islands Kayak Center, run by longtime pro surfer Mike Lamm. Island Packers Cruises, the National Park’s official boat service, has regular ferries from the harbor. You can also book a private boat or hop on a plane with Channel Islands Aviation.

Pack a picnic lunch from Harbor Mart before hopping on the ferry to explore some of the five islands comprising this National Park. And don’t forget underwater equipment to accompany your over-water excursions—some of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba diving is off Anacapa Island, where sea urchins, periwinkles, and limpets can be found in the shallow tide pools of Frenchy’s Cove. Channel Islands National Park is camping-only, but plenty of creature comforts await in hotels including the Pavilion Hotel and the Zane Grey Pueblo in Avalon.

For beginner and experienced paddlers alike, this stretch of the California coast will restore your serenity, soul, and body with its awe-inspiring sights and unique bays, caves, and coves. It’s a mix of challenges and rewards found only in the Golden State.


This blog post is an article from Manifest Magazine. Read the digital issue in its entirety here.

Leave a Comment