When in Santa Cruz, you may as well do as the locals do, and go surfing.

After all, you can hardly turn around in this oceanfront Northern California town without hitting someone engaged in surf-related activity. Some cases in point:

• Toward sunset, near the Santa Cruz Surf Museum, two wetsuit-wearing guys stroll home with short boards tucked under their arms.

• On a foggy morning (several locals told me not to mention the fog), two dozen surfers bob on the kelp-strewn swells off Pleasure Point, scanning the horizon for the next "set."

• Both the downtown and outlying areas feature O'Neill surf shops, named after Jack O'Neill, whose early wetsuits opened the door to year-round cold-water surfing.

• Hot dogs show off daily for onlookers at Steamer Lane, where good-sized surf runs alongside a major chunk of rocky headland.

• The magazine rack at Bookshop Santa Cruz features about a dozen glossy surfing 'zines.

Growing up in Chicago, I saw big unruly Lake Michigan waves in the fall, and I have tried body-surfing a few times. But the closest this aging flatlander has come to actually surfing is on the Internet, or watching "Hawaii Five-O." That was about to change.

Santa Cruz, at the north end of giant Monterey Bay, is about 75 miles south of San Francisco. There are two main ways to drive down from there: freeway-fast (the 101 to the 85 to Hwy. 17) or spectacularly scenic (Hwy. 1, from Half Moon Bay).

The town of 56,000, home to University of California, Santa Cruz, has plenty to offer a weekend visitor, or even someone on a longer vacation: parks, photogenic beaches, oceanside strolls, mountain biking, hiking, camping, shopping, eating and several movie theaters. At Beach Boardwalk, teens and families crowd a clamorous mini-Minnesota State Fair, but with seagulls and ocean breezes.

The hippie holdout side of Santa Cruz can still be seen in stores with names like Love Me Two Times and Coffeetopia. There's definitely a college crowd answering the siren call of beach volleyball, cantinas and falafel stands. Santa Cruz has its yuppier aspect, too, visible in wine bars, steep housing prices and shopping malls. (Heck, the book "True Prep" lists it as one of "The 42 Preppiest Places to Have a Summer Home.") Clean-living, cardio-crazed types can be seen mountain biking at Wilder Ranch, road biking the coastal highway and going surfing any chance they get.

Municipal parking lots anywhere near the ocean fill up with people making the transition from landlubber to surfer. Standing at the back of their vans and cars, they wax boards, don wetsuits and compare notes. Afterward, they morph back into "civilians," rinsing with jugs of fresh water and changing into street clothes.

Glancing out a window at Verve, filled with locals and the scent of roasting beans, I witnessed the never-in-Minnesota sight of a guy riding toward the beach with a rig that held his longboard on the starboard side of his bicycle.

Learn to surf

Santa Cruz has several surfing schools geared to beginners. I arbitrarily picked the Santa Cruz Surf School on Pacific Avenue, where $80 gets you a two-hour class, including equipment. Step One is signing life and limb away on a three-page waiver. Next up: the semi-humiliating struggle to get myself zipped into a surprisingly heavy wetsuit.

Three other students and I joined instructor Eric Imsland on a three-block walk to Cowell's Beach, longboards in tow. This beach, year-round home to reliable baby waves, looked like surf-class central, with scores of students and teachers spread out across the strand and dotting the chest-high water.

As if on cue, the day's heavy clouds and fog gave way to piercing sunshine.

Lying on the sand at water's edge, we learned the basics of paddling, watching for a wave, accelerating and then arching your shoulders up and bringing your feet to the sweet spot on the board.

The water was 56 degrees, but in the wetsuit and with the sun shining, the cold was barely noticeable. We paddled out far enough to get sore shoulders, then watched the swell for rideable breakers.

When you catch one, the wave naturally wants to gather you up and sweep you shoreward until you lose your balance and crash into the briny deep. Thanks to an ankle leash, the board stays with you, and at a safe distance.

The kid in you, that foolhardy and tireless optimist, wants to keep trying, again and again. Maybe next time the tip of my board won't bury itself in the water, or I won't stand off-center, or I'll hit the perfect wave.

After a dozen or more belly flops, and with some encouraging tips from Imsland, I caught a wave and scrambled to my feet for a decent, though wobbly, ride. It felt like I had medaled in the Olympics.

Of course I wish I could have stayed on for the movie-perfect beach campfire. There would have been guitars, beer in bottles and tall tales, minivans topped with surfboards silhouetted against a dying sun. Instead, I headed back to the surf school (gingerly, since my feet were nearly frozen) to return my equipment. Then I hit the rented subcompact for the late-afternoon drive back to San Francisco.

I took my time, heading north on the two-lane coastal highway in light traffic. Among many scenic sightings -- pelicans patrolling low over silvery waves, sprinklers watering huge strawberry fields, giant rock formations and sloping headlands, brown hills covered with evergreens rising to the east -- the one that the new me really identified with was a solitary surfer leaping to his feet on his board just as a big wave caught him.

Claude Peck • 612-673-7977