Rio Del Mar is one of two beachside communities that share an Aptos mailing address (Seacliff is the other) but have an identity all their own. Here, only five miles from Capitola and 10 from Santa Cruz, is a quiet, unspoiled beach town where solitude comes without the cost of seclusion and homeowners can live steps from the sand without breaking the bank.
Don’t look for meaning in the name “Rio Del Mar.” It means “river to the sea” and was made up by an ambitious real estate developer in the 1920s. There is no “river” in Rio Del Mar, which does abut Aptos Creek to the north. There is, however, a full mile of beach in Rio Del Mar, stretching from the creek to La Selva Beach and including Beer Can Beach, Seascape Golf Club and the Seascape Resort. Rio Del Mar isn’t long on commercial options, but it does have a handful of laid-back restaurants — Cafe Rio, Flats Bistro, Palapas and Sanderlings Restaurant — and is only a mile from the shopping and dining center of Aptos.
Rio Del Mar has a diverse real estate market, making it somewhat unique among California beach towns. It delivers the expected ultra-high-end waterfront properties but also has a robust middle-class market and even offers options for entry-level condominium buyers, who may be surprised to find that ocean views can be had for $400,000. Rio Del Mar also has a significant for-lease market, including quite a few homes used as short-term seasonal rentals.
It’s easy to understand why Rio Del Mar is popular with seasonal renters. Not as crowded as Capitola and Santa Cruz, less pricey than the former and less funky than the latter, it appeals to those who prefer quiet walks on the beach and cool, foggy mornings, and to surfers looking to avoid crowds and competition. It’s a neighborly place, family-friendly (as well as dog-friendly) and free of the posturing that sometimes plagues California beaches. The appeal of Rio Del Mar is just as clear on a cloudy Tuesday in November as it is on a July weekend — maybe more so.
But this is not to say that Rio Del Mar’s only charms are solitude. The community is a part of and enjoys the conveniences of Aptos,enhancing not only its access to shops and restaurants but also to outdoor recreational opportunities; being outside is a big part of living in Rio Del Mar. Whether you prefer surfing or paddleboarding, kayaking or jogging along the sand, riding horses or bicycles, hiking or soaking up the sun’s rays, Rio Del Mar will meet your needs. Maybe you’d rather play 18 holes at the Aptos Seascape Golf Course, swim, play tennis or work at the Seascape Sports Club, build a bonfire on the beach or sit and watch the ocean from Seascape Park? That’s all here, too.
Rio Del Mar avoids the higher profiles of its northern neighbors, preferring instead to feel a kinship with nearby Aptos, a laid-back community whose vibe is more small-town than resort, where sidewalks are optional and neighbors are friendly, cool, foggy mornings promise brisk, sunny afternoons and the beach is waiting.
History of Rio Del Mar
The name “Rio Del Mar” was invented by someone at the Peninsula Properties Company after the real estate concern purchased 820 acres of land from the Aptos Land Company in 1924. Peninsula Properties had plans to make the undeveloped beachfront plot into a resort destination.
Two years later, in 1926, A.A. Liederbach completed the first building in Rio Del Mar. Known as the Sea Breeze Building, it housed the sales office of the Rio Del Mar Company (which had been created by Peninsula Properties) and still stands. Since 1926, it’s been a sales office, a bathhouse, a restaurant, an apartment building and a bar. In 1973 it became the home of notorious Rio Del Mar character Georgia Derber, who successfully operated a bar on the first floor until suddenly becoming a recluse in 1988, sequestering herself upstairs until her passing in 2004.
By 1926, construction was already underway on the Aptos Beach Country Club (now the Aptos Seascape Golf Course), followed in 1929 by a resort hotel on Aptos Beach Drive and the Rio Del Mar Beach Club, in 1937. In 1941, the Rio Del Mar Improvement Association was founded. Expectations that Rio Del Mar’s growth would continue unabated, however, were interrupted by the onset of World War II.
The Great War threw a wrench into Rio Del Mar’s future as a resort. The Country Club was shut down and used instead as military barracks, its fairways converted to corn fields. The Rio Del Mar Beach Club was also used as military housing, but not until its owners competed an unsuccessful campaign aimed at convincing war-weary citizens that their a timely beach vacation was their patriotic duty. The club shut down in 1942, reopening several times before finally burning to the ground in 1963.
By 1963, Rio Del Mar had settled into a present that, if not as ambitious as it had once been, was perhaps more stable and long-lasting. Instead of becoming the high-end resort imagined by Monroe, Lyon and Miller of the Peninsula Properties Company, the flats next to the beach eventually filled in with streets full of one-off custom homes, creating the family-friendly middle- and upper-class neighborhood that exists today.