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Deep Culture Travel:

Coastside Castaway: A Weekend in Half Moon Bay

by Karen Misuraca, published in Odyssey

"When we moved here in 1987 to open the restaurant, Pasta Moon, people drove over from San Mateo for dinner saying they hadn't been to Half Moon Bay in twenty years. There was so little on Main Street in those days that even the locals didn't come to town," said Paul Shenkman, proprietor, with his wife, Julie, of Cetrella Bistro and Café.

Midweek on a chilly, fogbound day, you can still amble the four or five short blocks of downtown Half Moon Bay and find yourself nearly alone in a gang of antiques shops, saloons and art galleries in hundred-year-old buildings, many on the National Register of Historic Places. Come a sunny weekend—or just about any weekend—and you will share Highway 92 from the San Francisco Bay Area with throngs of daytrippers seeking walks on the beaches, Main Street boutique shopping, and bowls of seafood chowder.

Bay Area residents call this part of the San Mateo County "coastside"—as opposed to "bayside" on the east side of the Coast Range—and they love the sandy beaches, misty redwood forests, good surfing, and the soothing, laid-back rural atmosphere, just the recipe for a break from fast-paced bayside city life.

Fields of flowers, Christmas trees, artichokes, Brussels sprouts and other row crops spread out around Half Moon Bay, a town of about twelve thousand people. As they have since the middle of the 19th century, Portuguese and Italian dairymen, farmers, and commercial fishermen are the drivers of the economy, along with cut flower and pumpkin growers that have multiplied in recent decades.

In huge greenhouses and in the fields around them, flowers such as carnations, roses, tulips and iris are grown for shipment all over the world. You can buy plants and produce at several places along Highway 92, the winding, two-lane road leading to the coast. A big flower market takes place all year round on third Saturdays (May through September outside on Kelley Avenue, and November through April, downtown at La Piazza).

History buffs cruise Main Street with a walking tour map in hand (available from the Visitors' Bureau kiosk at Main Street and Kelly Avenue). The oldest house in town, a plain and sturdy, blue and white bed and breakfast inn at 324 Main Street, the Zaballa House was built in 1859 by Estanislao Zaballa, the prosperous owner of a large Spanish land grant, a general store and a saloon. Around the corner at 615 Mill Street in an expanded 1900-era cottage, claw foot tubs, featherbeds and Victorian-era antiques are among the fancy trappings of the Mill Rose Inn. Guests wander an old-fashioned garden flush with the scent of blossoms on two hundred rose bushes. Another the turn-of-the-century landmark, the San Benito House at 356 Main is an antiques-filled restaurant and inn where a collection of early coastside paintings and photographs lines the walls.

Just south of town on Higgins Purisima Road, a New England-style, white saltbox stands alone on in a meadow above the sea. When James Johnston came west to make his fortune in the Gold Rush, he built the house, in about 1855, for his Spanish wife, Petra, and their family. The house is occasionally open to the public, and a breezy picnic site is always available. From this high perch, you can watch fishing and pleasure boats glide back and forth, and imagine how rumrunners from Canada plied this coast during Prohibition, unloading their cargos in hidden ocean coves under cover of fog.

Continuing east on Higgins Purisima Road just over a mile, you will come to Burleigh H. Murray Ranch where you can take an easy walk along Mills Creek and past an old dairy barn built in the late 1800's. A unique "English Lake County Bank Barn", it is the only one of its type in California.

Just up the road in Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, hikers take the trail winding up Whittemore Gulch through redwoods and fern grottos. It's two miles to Skyline Boulevard on the high ridge.

Late summer and fall are the best times to hike, beach comb and explore Half Moon Bay, when sky and the sea seem to merge into the same azure blue and daytime temperatures are in the low seventies. During the dependably clear days of October, hundreds of families come to the annual Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, said to be the largest pumpkin celebration in the country, for pumpkin carving, pie-eating, a haunted house, and the exhibition of the 1000-pound-plus winner of the Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off. You can hobnob with the locals at the pancake breakfast and the Halloween costume competition, and cut a rug at an outdoor concert.

One of several pumpkin patches near town, Farmer John's Pumpkin Farm has been a family-run operation since 1947, growing corn, flowers and fifty varieties of pumpkin—bright orange Autumn Kings; peach-colored Long Island Cheese pumpkins; little white Luminas and, just for pies, Red Kabochas. Kids love to run up and down the forty or so rows of corn and climb on a hay bale pyramid. Clementine, an eighty-pound Swiss Burmese dog, joins in the fun.

Local farmers congregate on Saturdays in the parking lot of Cetrella restaurant on Main Street, from April through November, to sell their produce and packaged foodstuffs at the Coastside Farmers Market, everything from fresh artichokes and Brussels sprouts to plants and flowers, artisanal cheeses, honey and fruit preserves, breads, pies, herbs; and wild salmon right off the boats at Pillar Point Harbor, which is a few miles to the north.

You can taste wine from Obester Winery at the Farmers Market and at the winery, which is located on Highway 92 and specializes in hearty reds. Made from Italian bastardo and tempranillo grapes, their ruby port is a rich, Portuguese-style blend of chocolate and prune flavors, just right for a cool night by a crackling fire. "Bottle & Cork Days" at the winery are busy with customers who arrive with jugs and bottles in hand, to be filled at a nice discount off the retail price.

Founder of the Farmers Market, Paul Shenkman established Cetrella in the former Grower's Association building, from which Half Moon Bay farmers once shipped their produce. Inspired by his visits to farmers markets along the Mediterranean, he said, "We're a farming community with a rich bounty. Here in the restaurant we use local produce, flowers and fish, and we wanted to make it available to the everyone."

Beach time is a must on a four mile stretch of what is known as the Half Moon Bay State Beaches, comprising three sandy beaches. At the end of Kelly Avenue, Francis State Beach has RV and tent campsites, cold showers, picnic sites and a visitors center. Dolphins are sometimes spotted leaping just offshore, and whales, December through March. Water temperature is chilly, even in summer, and the surf can be treacherous, so plan to dip your toes and play on the sand. First stop before the beach: buy a kite at Lunar Wind Inventions at 330 Main Street.

Along the bluffs above the three beaches runs the Coastside Trail, a flat, mostly paved biking and walking path that ends, to the north, at Pillar Point Harbor. Off the finger of Pillar Point is the famous "Maverick's", where monster winter waves break over a rocky reef, attracting macho surfers from around the world. At the harbor, the restaurant, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, is the sponsor of the annual Maverick's Surf Contest, which occurs sometime between December and March, on 24-hour call notice, depending on wave conditions. Year round, weekenders and locals congregate around the outdoor fire pits and the horseshoe bar inside the restaurant to sip Mavericks Amber Ale and nutty Pillar Point Pale Ale, which are brewed on-site. Live jazz and blues bands kick off lively Friday and Saturday evenings, while families come in during the week for fish and chips, chowders and hearty pub food.

If climbing Pillar Point hill to watch the surfers with your binoculars is not exactly your style, you can watch the surfing action nearby at Miramar Beach, from your windowside table at Miramar Beach Restaurant. Formerly a circa-1918 Prohibition roadhouse, it is now a seafood and steak place. On the menu are Cajun-style calamari, Dungeness crab cakes, and their legendary chowder loaded with crab, bay shrimp and baby clams, with a dollop of sherry. A sultry, smoky-voiced redhead, Robin Campbell sings Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole songs on Saturday nights.

A scenic seventeen miles south of Half Moon Bay on Highway One, Pescadero State Beach is a two-mile, sheltered strip of sand, tide pools and huge dunes. The sea lions and the seagulls like it here, as do fishermen who catch steelhead and salmon at spawning time in Pescadero Creek. Just across the highway, accessible by a pedestrian underpass, Pescadero Marsh is 600 acres of estuarine wetlands, an important stop on the Pacific Flyway and a must for avid birders, or for anyone who likes to walk on quiet nature trails. Thousands of birds nest, feed and overwinter—you may see Great blue herons perched in the eucalyptus groves; great and snowy egrets stalking the shallows, and marsh wrens prattling in the reeds.

Inland a mile or so, the tiny old fishing village of Pescadero is a popular daytrip destination. A wander around turns up clapboard buildings and steepled churches built in the mid- and late-1800s by Portuguese immigrants. Portuguese heritage is celebrated every year at the Chamarita Festival when marching bands, equestrian groups and ladies in white lace gowns parade down Main Street. Take a peek into the antiques boutiques and stop at Norm's Market, where the aroma of warm artichoke and garlic/cheese bread wafts out the door. Some of the twenty-four kinds of bread are "half-baked" for customers to take home, stow in the freezer and bake later.

Crowded on weekends and worth the wait, Duarte's Tavern and Restaurant in Pescadero has for over a century been the beating heart of the town, first as a saloon, serving a whiskey for ten cents (three whiskeys for two bits). Today the fourth generation of the Duartes serve seafood specialties with a Portuguese accent, creamy artichoke soup; fresh artichokes with garlic aioli, deep-fried calamari, cracked crab, abalone sandwiches, shrimp cakes and olallieberry pie! Local ranchers belly up to the old West-style bar. In 2003, the James Beard Foundation designated Duarte's as an "American Classic," one of only five in the United States for that year.

Before heading back to the metropolis of your choice, treat yourself to afternoon tea at The Ritz Carlton, Half Moon Bay. A rambling, "shingle style" hotel on a rocky bluff above the Pacific, the Ritz, in all its traditional elegance, pays homage to the region's fishing and shipbuilding history. Take a stroll around the lobby, the paneled library and the public areas of the hallways to see a museum's worth of paintings of the coastline, and Portuguese tapestries and antique ceramics. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a telescope in the Conservatory afford dazzling views of the ocean. In the Tea Salon, tiny finger sandwiches, petits fours and scones are served on eggshell-thin Wedgewood china.

And, one more stop on your way out of town, on Highway 92, stop in at the Half Moon Bay Nursery, a blooming kingdom of garden and house plants, from orchids and ferns to thousands of geraniums, herbs, azaleas, climbing vines, hanging baskets and seasonal bulbs—a veritable flower show. On rainy days, it's cozy in the main greenhouse by the wood stove.

Lodging

Beach House Inn, 4100 North Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019. Seaview suites with kitchenettes, fireplaces and soaking tubs. Heated lap pool. Rates from $165, including continental breakfast and evening wine. Phone: 800/315-9366; http://www.beachhouse.com.

Best Western Half Moon Bay Lodge, 2400 S. Cabrillo Highway/Highway 1, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019. Rates from $129. Phone: 800/710-0778; http://www.halfmoonbaylodge.com. Spacious rooms with small patios or balconies overlooking gardens; some fireplaces. Large swimming pool, spa, fitness center. Five minutes to the Coastal Trail.

The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, 1 Miramontes Point Road, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019. 261-room oceanfront luxury hotel with 2 top-rated golf courses and a full-service spa; two restaurants; elegant guest rooms, some with fireplaces. Rates from $195. Phone: 650/712-7000; http://www.ritzcarlton.com.

Harbor View Inn, across the road from Pillar Point Harbor, 51 Avenue Alhambra, El Granada, CA 94018. A simple, contemporary Cape Cod-style motel; large rooms with bay window seats. Rates from $89. Phone: 800/886-6997; http://www.harbor-view-inn.com.

Dining

Cetrella, 845 Main Street, Half Moon Bay, CA 94109. In a warm bistro setting with fireplaces, rustic Mediterranean cuisine; seafood, tapas, meats roasted in a wood-burning oven; cheese cave; exhibition kitchen; live music in the cozy bar. Phone: 650/726-4090; http://www.cetrella.com.

Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, 390 Capistrano Road, Princeton By-The-Sea, CA 94019. Casual, oceanview dining, extensive seafood menu and pub food, heated patio; Sunday live music and dancing. Phone: 650/728-2739, http://www.hmbbrewingco.com.

Miramar Beach Restaurant, 2.7 miles north of Half Moon Bay, 131 Mirada Road, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019. Watch the surfers off Miramar Beach while enjoying seafood and steaks; lunch, dinner, weekend brunch. Phone: 650/726-9053, http://www.miramarbeachrestaurant.com.

Half Moon Bay Coffee Company, 20A Stone Pine Road at the north end of Main Street, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019. Locals and tourists dig into homemade pies, pancakes, burgers, sandwiches and hearty entrees. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Phone: 650/726-3664.

Cameron's Restaurant and Inn, 1410 South Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019. 18 beers on tap, darts and games, pub food and pizza; a red bus just for kids, volleyball and a warm welcome make this a popular English pub. Simple rooms upstairs. Watch for the red phone booth! Phone: 415/726-5705, http://www.carmeronsinn.com.
 
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