Stay at the Dream Inn For Sand, Sunsets and the Santa Cruz Surf Scene

The beachfront pool hot tub and bar at the Dream Inn, Santa Cruz, California (Photo by California News Press)

By Joanne Thomas

In a town like Santa Cruz, where tourism revolves around the beach, the surf and the Boardwalk, it’s remarkable that there’s only a single hotel – the Dream Inn – claiming a beachfront setting. Since it first opened in the 1970s, the only beachfront hotel in Santa Cruz has promised its guests unrivaled ocean views and direct access to the broad, golden sands of Cowell Beach. It’s right next to the pier, minutes from downtown and within walking distance of Santa Cruz’s famous century-old Boardwalk. Following a multimillion-dollar renovation completed in 2017, the Dream Inn is more enticing than ever.

My family spent a drizzly February weekend at the Dream Inn this past February. The season ruled out those sunny beach days and amusement park rides at the Boardwalk that grace the covers of Santa Cruz tourist brochures, and the rain clouds obscured what would otherwise be a glorious sunset. Yet, the hotel’s exceptional setting and delightful accommodations couldn’t fail to deliver. The gentle waves of the protected cove that fronts the hotel lapped the shore under silvery light, with just a few bundled-up walkers crossing the sand as the daylight dimmed. This scene from our rain-specked balcony was one of lovely serenity, and leaving the window open a crack let in the crisp ocean-scented air along with the soothing lullaby of the waves. All 165 rooms and suites at the Dream Inn boast such a view – every single one faces the ocean and has a private balcony or patio.

With 2- and 4-year old boys in tow, we found the Dream Inn ideal for families, yet its vibe seemed equally appealing to a younger, hipster-leaning crowd. Following its renovation, the property features midcentury modern furnishings, all sleek, clean lines with bold pops of orange and turquoise, plus a nostalgic surf-culture theme befitting its heritage. The Dream Inn sits on the spot where Jack O’Neill, the Santa Cruz legend who pioneered the wetsuit, had his first surf shop. Lining one long wall of the light-filled lobby is a display of vintage surf boards along with a juke box; facing them are comfy sofas, enough to seat a crowd. This is the spot for the evening wine reception, when guests mingle over cheese, crackers and local labels. At the other end of the lobby is the Verve Coffee shop, a collaboration with a beloved local roaster.

Our visit was just days prior to the grand opening of Jack O’Neill’s Restaurant, which replaces the Dream Inn’s previous restaurant, Aquarius. In homage to O’Neill, whose global empire sprung from a humble Santa Cruz surf shop on the same site, the new restaurant boasts a glorious surfside setting and décor incorporating historic photos and memorabilia. Its new bar menu features Jack’s signature martini with blue cheese olives and other creative concoctions made with Santa Cruz-based Venus spirits. Local wines and craft beers are featured too. The breakfast, brunch and dinner menus all showcase the freshest seasonal produce from local farms, along with seafood preparations in compliance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Shared plates are the stars of the menu, but diners can opt for stand-alone entrees and appetizers too. The overall vibe is casual and family-friendly, with live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

A pole bowl from the restaurant at the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, California
The poke bowl from Jack O’Neill’s Restaurant at the Dream Inn, Santa Cruz (Photo by California News Press)

While Jack O’Neill’s Restaurant wasn’t yet open during our stay, fortunately its kitchen was ready to go, and offered its menu for in-room dining. We sampled a generously sized hummus plate laden with salty feta, fresh tomatoes and cucumber, sweet gems of pomegranate and pita wedges, as well as a super-fresh poke bowl accented with ginger, edamame and cilantro. Both are sure to be hits at Jack O’Neill’s Restaurant. Our favorite dish, however, was a gorgeously plated seafood salad (pictured above). It had seared tuna, cracked crab claws and big shell-on shrimp, along with grilled pineapple and creamy avocado, all on a bed of crisp greens. All three were perfect for sharing, and the kind of healthy, produce-forward creations that feel very contemporary and very Californian – ideal offerings for visitors and locals alike.

Another highlight of the Dream Inn is its outdoor pool area, directly adjacent to the beach and flanked by the pier just a stone’s throw away. The saltwater pool is heated year-round and is surrounded by a spacious deck area with rows of chaise lounges and cabana beds. There’s also a huge hot tub, fire pit and seasonal (April to October) bar service at the Shorebreak Pool Bar. The pool is open until 10 p.m., encouraging guests to continue their beach and pool days seamlessly into the evenings. From the pool area there’s direct access to Cowell Beach, an expansive stretch of sand with gentle waves suitable for swimming. The famous Steamer Lane surf spot is close by, as is Main Beach, a.k.a. Boardwalk Beach.

The Details

The Dream Inn, 175 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Phone: (844) 510-1746


  • Free WiFi
  • Restaurant
  • Heated outdoor pool
  • Hot tub
  • Wine and cheese reception
  • Pool bar (seasonal)
  • Cribs and roll-aways available
  • 24-hour front desk
  • Concierge
  • Parking (valet and self-park across the street)
  • Coffee shop
  • Room service
  • ATM
  • Surfboard and bicycle storage
  • Bedside Reading program
  • iPod docks
  • Rainfall showers

California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.

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