SUBURBAN EXPLORER Charm’s for real in seaside town: Capitola beaches and trails are noteworthy, and shoppers can make some genuinely good finds

I had climbed the old, rust-brown trestle above the waters still brown from the organic debris that storm winds had swept in the previous week. My friend James and I had spotted some adolescents who appeared to be in-line skating or skateboarding across the trestle.

A Southern Pacific train makes its morning journey across these tracks between Watsonville and Davenport, then returns in the late afternoon. At other times, the wood-and-iron track serves as a walking path that rises 50 feet above the ground. Imagining the splendid views over Capitola, we immediately made our way up the hillside.

So here I stood above Soquel Creek, trying not to look between the slats through the gaps where the ground had given way into empty space. Gravel borders on either side of the track mercifully provided solid uninterrupted footing. They were also wide enough so that I did not have to stand too close to the edge. Slender wooden railings, which had provided a more substantial psychological barrier, ended just past where the hill did; only thin wire separated me and an accelerated descent.

It would be just like young boys, I mused, to skate on the edge of mortality with such defiant abandon. I stared resolutely at my feet as I made one step in front of the other. Views and photographs would have to be taken in spurts.

A grand vision

The little seaside town, founded by lumberman F.A. Hihn in 1869, has been said to be the oldest seaside resort along the Pacific. Hihn granted the cool coastal spot the name of Camp Capitola in hopes of luring a landlocked state Legislature from dry Sacramento. While it never lived up to its founder’s aspirations, the town has steadily drawn vacationing beach-goers and UC-Santa Cruz students to its delightful New Age shops, art galleries and gift stores. Despite the toy village ambience, the businesses have lovely hand-crafted items with marine themes as well as jewelry, clothing and the like. Little tourist schlock here, thank goodness.

While the storms had taken much of the sand from Capitola beach and deposited branches and rocks in its stead when I was there, the beach’s small, sheltered locale generally provides a relaxing and enjoyable respite. It’s the site of the sandcastle-building contest during the annual Begonia Festival on Labor Day weekend. Surfers ride the crests throughout the day when the waves cooperate. Bordering the sands to one side is the distinctive, 1920s-era pastel stucco and tiled roofs of the Venetian Court subdivisions. Adding to the picturesque skyline is Capitola pier, at the end of which lies a bake shop, gift store and the Wharf House restaurant.

Unhitch the leash

Besides surfers and college students, dogs scamper at every corner here. They have free rein of the beach, and other walking opportunities abound for canines and their owners. Keep them leashed on cliff-edge paths like Grand Avenue, which lies 86 steps above the village shopping area and provides soothing views of Monterey Bay.

Pets without fear of heights are also welcome on the railroad tracks. As I finally approached the end of the trestle, a woman and her two tiny dogs appeared on that hillside where salvation lay. She and one pup walked past me while the other nosed about the soil. After its owner called, the laggard started bounding over each slat, its tiny paws making slow but determined progress. How this pint-sized creature would make it across the bridge and those slats intrigued me, but finding out would have required me looking back.

Details, details

Getting there: From either Interstate 880 or 680, take Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the coast.

Staying there: The Inn at Depot Hill, 250 Monterey Ave., 1-800-572-2632, Rates for the 1901 railroad depot range from $190 to $275. Two-day minimum stays are required for weekends and holidays.

Monarch Cove, 620 El Salto Drive, 1-408-464-1295. Rooms and private cottages, some with isolated ocean views, range from $135 to $225.

Vacations by the Sea, 1-408-479-9360,, has condominiums throughout the village and often has amenities from toasters and fireplaces to roof decks.

Dining options: You’ll never go hungry with the plethora of beachside dining and quick snacks. H. Diggitys, 201 Esplanade, has juicy hot dogs. The homemade flavors at Polar Bear Ice Cream, 115 San Jose Ave., are made in its Santa Cruz branch. Mr. Toots Coffeehouse, 221 Esplanade, just celebrated its 20th anniversary. During the day you can sip espresso or chai outside and enjoy the pier view; inside during the evenings you can listen to live music. Affordable dinner options include Stockton Bridge Grille, 231 Esplanade, or drinks with your meal at Zelda’s, 203 Esplanade.

More information: For festival or surfing events, consult the Capitola Chamber of Commerce, 716-G Capitola Ave., 1-408-475-6522, Besides a historical overview, you can obtain a walking map at the Capitola Historical Museum, 410 Capitola Ave., 1-408-464-0322. Its winter schedule runs from noon to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times