North of downtown, you’ll find the orderly lanes of Jewel Box and Opal Cliffs. Named after a lumber yard that operated over a century ago, houses in these boroughs were built during the 1950s on streets named after precious gems. Some of the homes in Jewel Box and Opal Cliffs have breathtaking views of the ocean and Capitola Village. Others are more modest and there are even condominiums that can be had for less than $500,000. Capitola’s charismatic downtown and the beach are a 20-minute walk from these areas but Whole Foods and the Capitola Mall are right next door, both examples of the “hidden” Capitola one might miss on a warm, sunny day.
Beautiful, balmy days are important in Capitola, attracting both locals and visitors to downtown, all eager to claim a spot on the sand, wander through the variety of shops and dine at a sophisticated restaurant. Many wrap up their evening at Zelda’s, Margaritaville or another iconic beachfront Capitola hot spot. The lucky among them might book a room at the historic Capitola Venetian or rent a house a few blocks from the water, where many of the town’s original Victorian homes are rented by the week or by the day. These seasonal rentals share the “flats” with owner-occupied residences that range from funky beach shacks and low-rise apartments to beautifully restored vintage treasures.
Capitola originated at the beach, expanding into the flats and cliffs west of downtown, known as Depot Hill. Christened after the railroad depot that has since become the high-end Inn at Depot Hill, this area overlooks downtown and the ocean. Stretching to the city’s border with New Brighton Beach, it also contains some of Capitola’s most treasured real estate, including restored traditional homes from the early- to mid-1900s and a smattering of new residences built vertically to take advantage of the gorgeous views. Homes here routinely sell for well into $2 million while properties on the Capitola Bluffs, which offer unobstructed views of the ocean, can command prices of more than $5 million.
Whether you’re living on a bluff overlooking the ocean, in a tiny cottage in the flats, on Emerald Street in Jewel Box or in a condominium away from the village, living in Capitola is like living nowhere else. Whatever part of town you’re in, a stroll on the beach, a morning spent fishing on the pier, a shopping trip downtown and dinner out on the patio are everyday options These perks make Capitola a singular place, and one of the most desirable addresses on the Central Coast.
Capitola’s modern history dates back to the era of Mexican land grants, to the time of the Sequel Rancho, granted to Martina Castro in 1833. Two decades later, a portion of the rancho was purchased from the Castro family by Frederick Hihn, a German immigrant and entrepreneur who would eventually become Santa Cruz County’s first millionaire. In 1857, Hihn built a wharf at what was called Soquel Landing and set about developing the local fishing industry.
Early Capitola was slow to develop, subsisting on fishing and shipping until two key developments — the first road built to cross the Santa Cruz Mountains and Hihn’s own Santa Cruz Railway — began to define the fledgling town as a tourist destination. This characterization expanded in 1869, when Soquel founder Samuel A. Hall, who’d leased land from Hihn, opened “Camp Capitola.” Legend has it that this campground was named by Hall’s daughter, who was inspired by Capitola LeNoir, a fictional character from the 1859 novel, “The Hidden Hand”. Completion of Hihn’s Santa Cruz-Watsonville rail line in 1876 cemented Capitola’s fate.
Capitola’s fortunes took a huge leap in 1894 with the opening of the Grand Capitola Hotel, an impressive, 160-room inn perched at the beach’s edge. The town became known as “Capitola-by-the-Sea,” a resort whose founders hurried to build infrastructure such as its distinct beach cottages and Victorians, to encourage the town’s growth and burgeoning reputation as a tourist destination.
The new boomtown required more than visitor dollars to thrive. Other early industries like fishing, shipping and agriculture remained popular. Some of Capitola’s southern neighborhoods are built over what were fields of sugar beets bound for Adolph Spreckels’ refinery in nearby Aptos.
Capitola’s residential growth came six years after Frederick Hihn’s passing in 1913. Henry Allen Rispin, a “capitalist from San Francisco and Denver,” purchased most of Capitola, including the Capitola Hotel and 130 lots on Depot Hill. Armed with more ambition than funds, Rispin dreamed big. Among his plans for the town were a golf course, a movie theater and a bowling alley, all of which ultimately failed. Before going bust, he managed to build the Capitola Venetian and an extraordinary mansion that still stands today. By 1929, Rispin had sold his holdings to Benjamin Hays Smith, who subdivided and began selling lots to builders. Two decades later, in the wake of efforts to merge Capitola with Soquel, Capitola incorporated on January 4, 1949.