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Best Places to Retire

Where to Retire If You Love the Outdoors

10 places to swim, hike, ski, fish and soak in the scenery

Santa Cruz, California is a nature lovers resort for retirees

Santa Cruz, where cool town meets sweet beach. — Eddy Joaquim/Spaces Images/Corbis

Santa Cruz, California (Santa Cruz-Watsonville) 

Santa Cruz happily confirms its stereotype as a surfing-addicted, laid-back town of long- (and gray-) haired hippies. But there is more to this beachside mini-city than peace, patchouli and waves.

See also: Ten best states for retirement.

Residents here enjoy quick-strike access to coastal state parks, redwood and sequoia forests, Monterey Bay — and its eponymous aquarium — and serious mountain-grade hiking. Santa Cruz is also an entrepreneur incubator: The University of California, Santa Cruz's extension division specializes in training people for jobs in nearby Silicon Valley. Also, Cabrillo College (enrollment: 14,000) has a Lifelong Learning Institute for students aged 55 and older.

Santa Cruz County is anchored by the cities of Santa Cruz (population 59,946), Capitola (9,918), and Aptos (9,000) along the northern shore of Monterey Bay. The rugged Santa Cruz Mountains hide smaller towns like Ben Lomond (6,234). To the east is the San Lorenzo River Valley, which was logged in the 19th century but retains its sequoia trees, as well as Big Basin Redwoods State Park. To the south is Watsonville (51,199) and a flat, uber-fertile agricultural region famed for its strawberries and winter vegetables.

The economy in Santa Cruz is slightly better than elsewhere in California. Housing prices are coming down but buyers should tread cautiously until the dust settles further. The local unemployment rate (10.1 percent in September 2011) is above the national average but is falling. Self-employment is big here: There are few high-paying jobs but a lot of entrepreneurial energy.

The city is culturally diverse, with one quarter of its residents Hispanic; 5 percent Asian; and 1 percent black. UCSC sponsors numerous performances, exhibitions, films and lectures, many of which are free. The school's arts division is especially active; Shakespeare Santa Cruz, an internationally renowned theater company, mounts productions in summer and during the holiday season. There's also an annual festival honoring Charles Dickens, and an endowment that supports programs in the arts and culture of India.

Traffic gets bad on winding canyon roads, and a lot of people here have long work commutes, although public transportation and carpooling are popular. Santa Cruz has been honored as a bicycle friendly community, and there are dozens of mountain biking trails, including an eight-mile loop through redwoods at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.

Santa Cruz has a high concentration of general practice physicians, but not many specialists and a very low number of hospital beds per capita. But San Jose and its abundant health care resources are only 32 miles away. Santa Cruzians are healthy overall and mortality rates are low, especially from cancer. The metro area has one of the lowest smoking rates of anywhere in the country.

Next: Anchorage, Alaska >>

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