Deal with it: Fog season is here and it’s freezing outside. It seems counter-intuitive, but now is the ideal time to hit the beach. The days are long, and you can linger on the sand till after eight o’clock—provided you’re swaddled in woolens.
It’s gardening season too, and there’s no better place to gather posies and shrubs than at nearby Half Moon Bay, the Bay Area’s agricultural capital. Though most famous for its pumpkin patches, HMB is also flower central: local florists come here to fill their trucks.
You should too—the garden stores are fabulous.
Downtown is good for a stroll, but the shopping is mediocre—unless you like to buy Christmas ornaments in June. The real money shots lie along the coast. A series of state beaches surrounds the town, with high bluffs, rocky coves, and long sandy shores. Some of them are jaw-droppingly beautiful, the ideal backdrop for a horseback ride or game of golf. Too much work? Spend an afternoon building sandcastles, or oohing and ahhing over critter-packed tide pools.
Because it’s a mere 30 miles from the city, HMB is a primo day-trip destination, but it also makes an ideal one-night getaway—especially midweek, when you can score terrific deals on lodging. You’ll return to work the next morning rested and refreshed, like you’ve just had a mini-vacation. What better way to spend a night?
For more details on the surrounding area, check out our San Mateo Coast guide.
- Play golf high above the crashing surf.
- Stock up on the season’s best produce—right at the farm.
- Kayak protected bays and spot zillions of birds.
- Barge the dunes to Mavericks, site of the famous surfing competition.
- Get far away from the city without the long drive.
- 45 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Limited culinary landscape; eat simple.
- Lackluster nightlife; plan to catch up on your DVD viewing.
See & Do
Beaches are the main draw; pack a trashy summer novel and a blanket. If you luck out and get sunny weather, head north to the locals’ fav, Montara State Beach (aka McNee Ranch), two coves south of Devil’s Slide, on Hwy 1. The water is clear, the sand pristine, and the drop-off so steep that whales swim right up to shore (Nov-May). I prefer clothing-optional Grey Whale Cove, immediately to the north, but I like lying in the sand in the buff. If you do too, make this your first choice. Park on the inland side of Hwy 1; leave the kids in the car.
On a so-so-weather day, or if you need the amenities of a ranger station (read: you have little kids who pee a lot), choose Francis State Beach, which locals simply call ‘State,’ as in, ‘I’ll meet you at State.’ It’s in the middle of the half-moon crescent of beaches at the edge of town; take Kelly Ave.
To see the site of the famous Mavericks surfing competition, head to Pillar Point, and hike over the dunes. For the best waves, come after a winter storm. Oh, and Skip Surfers Beach; it’s dirty.
You’ll feel like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput as you explore the fabulous tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, north of town in Moss Beach. I’ve never seen tide pools packed with so many teeny-tiny, colorful critters, and they seem to extend forever. Amazing. Wear a pair of non-slip shoes. Tell the kids: Avoid plucking animals from the rocks; it can kill some of them.
Take your daily walk (or bike ride) along the paved Coastside Trail, which runs 5mi south from Pillar Point Harbor, about 3mi north of town, to Miramar, just south of town, by the Ritz-Carlton. This is a great route for kids, and you can pick up the trail anywhere along the water. Rent a bike (kids’ models too), from Bike Rec, right on the beach, but call ahead for availability.
Or see the beach on horseback on a guided ride at Sea Horse Ranch. Some of the horses look a little less than lively, but they’re generally in good shape. No reservations necessary.
I prefer kayaking. I’ve not toured with them, but have heard high praise, from trusted sources, for Half Moon Bay Kayak Co., which rents boats and guides tours, from sunset paddles to wildlife-viewing trips. Give ‘em a try. Reservations required.
The golfing is gorgeous at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. The greens are well tended, and best of all, those on the ocean course are on high bluffs above the churning surf. Though it surrounds the Ritz-Carlton, this is a public course. Hooray.
You probably know about HMB’s famous pumpkin patches (in season, the best is Farmer John’s), but there’s more to the ag scene than squash. Greenhouses and garden shops line Hwy 92, just east of downtown, and they’re way better than any I’ve found in the city. My favorite is the Half Moon Bay Nursery, which has great variety and huge greenhouses to roam. But buy your pots down the street at Fabbri Statuary—the selection is fabulous. Fabbri also has some cool garden fountains and arbors.
But don’t stop at plants: Plan to fill the trunk with veggies and fresh produce too. There are stands up and down the coast, but G. Berta’s tops my list. Arrive early on Saturday to shop the Coastside Organic Farmers Market; it runs till November, 9am to noon. Love those strawberries!
Buy fish straight from the fishermen on the docks at Pillar Point Harbor. HMB has the last working fishing harbor between San Francisco and Monterey, and every day boats haul in their catch. For the best selection, arrive before 10am. To learn the day’s catch, call 650-726-8724, press 3. (Bookmark this page: as far as I know, other travel guides do not provide this number…but I bet they will now.)
Downtown HMB is cute (follow signs to Main St), but with the exception of five independent booksellers, the shopping is kinda lame. One exception: Cunha’s Country Store, a hundred-year-old emporium where you can find everything from canned soup to cowboy boots. Look upstairs—you won’t believe the selection of stuff. Alas, the store just sold in the last week of May. I hope they don’t change a thing (but you know they will—dammit).
If you’re here on a Sunday and enjoy live jazz, plan to spend the late-afternoon with the locals, tapping your toe at the intimate indoor-outdoor concerts presented by Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Kids are always welcome, but if they’re fidgety, sit outside. There’s beer and wine, but you can also bring your own. Take a picnic with you too.
Nightlife is so-so, unless you’re idea of a good time is ponying up to the bar with a pint of Guiness. The most happening spots on a weekend night are the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., which sometimes has live music (call ahead), or the super-fun Cameron’s English pub, where every inch of wall space is covered with bric-a-brac, including an eye-popping collection of beer cans.
Half Moon Bay Restaurants
Pick up sandwiches for the beach at the Garden Deli & Cafe at the San Benito House($), which bakes its own bread. If you’re here on the weekend, drop by the fish-market counter at Sam’s ($–$$). The deli makes tasty fish salads and other to-go items perfect for a picnic. Details on the restaurant follow.
For fish, kick-back-casual Sam’s Chowder House ($$–$$$$) is where it’s at—and it’s the only place for outdoor ocean-view dining between SF and Santa Cruz. Sam’s makes both Manhattan and New England clam chowder, and each is nearly perfectly executed—redolent with spice, but not so much that you can’t taste the briny flavor of the clams. Other specialties include a spicy ahi-tuna poke, filler-free crab cakes, lobster rolls, ceviches, and freshly shucked oysters. If it’s crowded when you arrive, snag one of the Adirondack chairs outside while you wait—sitting here evokes images of being on an ocean liner, staring out to sea. Delicious. For the best chances of scoring one of the coveted window tables, make reservations or come mid-afternoon, between peak dining hours. But fear not: even from a non-window table, the views are terrific.
Pasta Moon ($$–$$$), the second-choice favorite in town, draws accolades for its trattoria-style Italian cooking, especially the housemade pastas (standouts: sausage lasagna, and butternut squash ravioli with sage butter) and wood-fired pizzas. Detractors point to inconsistency from the kitchen—a justifiable concern when you’re paying $20 for entrees. Blame it on a changing roster of chefs. Still, the dining room is fun, and it’s often packed with local bon vivants. For romance on a warm day, choose one of the sidewalk tables for two, next to the flower-filled window boxes.
Old timers swear by Barbara’s Fish Trap ($$–$$$), on Pillar Point Harbor, in tiny Princeton-by-the-Sea. The place is fun—when you can get a table—but I always leave feeling full, mostly because I inevitably get suckered into ordering the fish and chips. (Barbara’s interpretation does nothing to elevate my appreciation for the genre, but the dish is tasty enough.) I like Barbara’s, and you probably will too—unless you’re a BoBo food snob, in which case stay far away.
Feed the kids at Cameron’s ($–$$), an old-time English pub with everything from bangers and mash to burgers. Dig the crazy beer-can collection. Little ones like the video-game room inside the double-decker bus parked outside. Or take them for fish tacos at Flying Fish Grill ($), where you can sit outside at plastic tables surrounded by flowering vines.
HMB has two good sushi restaurants. Lately locals have been choosing Shiki Japanese Restaurant ($–$$), which also has super-cheap weekday lunch specials. Alas, it’s in a strip mall. For more atmosphere, choose Sushi Main Street($$). The quality is comparable to Shiki’s, but the room is much prettier—all dark wood and low lighting—a better choice for a proper sit-down dinner.
If money is no object, book a table at Navio ($$$$+), at the Ritz-Carlton. I love the look of the cushy room—the arched wooden ceiling looks like an upside-down ship’s hull—and the views of the ocean are superb. In typical fancy-pants R-C style, all the dishes on the French-California menu are highly manipulated and beautifully presented, but they sometimes miss. I had a spot-on creamy asparagus soup, but on my entree salad, the confit of duck had been slightly burned, resulting in a bone-like consistency hard enough to remove a filling. But I’m sure this was a sloppy mistake by the lunch cook. Better to come at dinner, when the real chef is on duty. I’d happily eat here again, but only on an expense account. One caveat:
I detest Navio’s corporate hypocrisy. They brag about using local, sustainably grown ingredients, but they also sell caviar from Iran, which is endangered because of over-fishing and water pollution. I hope Navio’s chef will soon put his money where his mouth is, and start carrying the excellent, California-grown Tsar Nicoulai osetra instead. Go the Ferry Building and try it. I just had some last week. It was fabulous, with all the hallmarks of ultra-fresh roe—round, firm, and not all fishy—and it was sustainably farmed. Now that’s luxury.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Half Moon Bay Hotels and Inns
I’ll start at the top and work down in price. I’ve not reviewed the generic motels because…well, they’re generic. You don’t need me to tell you about ‘em.
The hands-down top place to stay is the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay ($$$$+), a behemoth, vaguely New England-style resort built on bluffs above the ocean. Rooms have all the requisite amenities of a proper luxury hotel—goose-down pillows, thirsty towels, plush carpeting, thick robes, Bulgari bath amenities—but the decor takes zero risks. However I love the bathtubs: though only big enough for one person, they’re extra deep and have sexy chrome fixtures—there’s even a bath butler on call to draw it for you (but why would you want a valet in your room when you’re undressing?). As you’d expect, service is excellent (the R-C credo: ‘We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen’). The opulent spa is fabulous and has 16 treatment rooms with 40 menu options, including some with Vichy showers. A golf course surrounds the property, and of course there’s a pool. If you’re willing to spend the money to stay here, don’t book a courtyard-view room; they overlook an ugly, suburban-style gated community. Instead shell out for an ocean view room for maximum romance, but skip the much-touted, patio ocean-view rooms, unless you like living in a fish bowl. Oh, and if you don’t like being overly warm when you sleep, request that housekeeping strip the feather bed at turn down.
If you can’t quite swing the Ritz, book a room at the Beach House Inn ($$$$), which also fronts on the water. The rooms themselves are deep and narrow, with the bed at one end, the living room at the other. All have wood-burning fireplaces and kitchenettes. The pillows could be fluffier, but at least some of them are down (but I suspect duck, not goose). Bathrooms are sparkling clean. Best of all, you can throw open your French doors and gaze out to sea.
I’ve not yet seen the Oceano Hotel and Spa, up the road at Pillar Point Harbor, but it looks quite schmancy and has views of the water. If you stay here before I do, post a comment at the bottom of the page.
If you’re into B&Bs, Half Moon Bay has two good choices, both with very visible on-site owners. The Mill Rose Inn ($$$$) has the most beautiful gardens in town—a veritable riot of color. The Empire-meets-Victorian decor is frilly and heavy handed, but the beds are ultra-comfy, with high-thread-count sheets and nice big pillows. There’s a hot tub too.
The Old Thyme Inn ($$$$) occupies an 1898 house, and is simpler in its decor. Some rooms have fireplaces. My favorite is on the first floor, and has a giant Jacuzzi tub. Take breakfast in the charming garden, beside a gurgling fountain.
A high-end motel with extra amenities and lovely gardens, the Half Moon Bay Lodge ($$$) is under the banner of Best Western, but it was taken over from another company known for its quality furnishings. You’ll find left-over details like Spanish tile in the baths and colorful fabrics in the bedroom. Alas, the paper-thin bed sheets suck, and the pillows may as well be stuffed with rags. Still, if you’re on a moderate budget, make this your top choice. But bring your own down bedding. Kids love the pool; parents like the hot tub.
Right in town on Main St, upstairs from a bar and restaurant, the Half Moon Bay Inn ($$$) opened in 2006 and everything looks fresh and clean. The bathrooms are like closets and rooms are tight, but they’re exceptionally well furnished, with details like Italian linens and fancy European dressers.
Across the street, the San Benito House ($) has frilly Victorian-style rooms, but what a bargain! If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll do great here. Who cares if the bed’s mushy, when you’re paying under a hundred bucks? Breakfast included. NB: a few rooms share a bath; ask when you book.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $150
- $$$ = $150 to $200
- $$$$ = $200 and up