I admit it: I’m a fool. In the 17 years I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve spent little time on the peninsula, mistakenly deeming it too suburban, too close to home to merit more time than an afternoon. No more. I have a new love—the southern San Mateo Coast.
The beaches here sprawl—from wide-open sandy strips, to hidden rocky coves—and each is wildly different from the next. But there’s more here than just beaches: the rolling inland hills are protected in a series of parks and marshlands, ideal for day-hiking. In between, small towns beg exploring, and lush, green farms dot the countryside. Plan to poke your head into country antiques shops, then load the trunk with strawberries. Or pick your own: the olallieberries ripen through the end of July.
An amazing seventy percent of San Mateo County is dedicated open space—seventy percent! Just south, it only gets better. How magical to see the primordial old-growth redwood forest spilling into the churning sea at the edges of Big Basin Redwood State Park. The coast here looks just as it always has—and there’s no chance of it being developed, thanks to the Peninsula Open Space Trust.
Chase the margin of green. Variegated bands of color undulate across the landscape, and they’re mesmerizing. The inland hills have turned toast-brown under the early summer sun, but here, much of the land remains emerald (thanks to the ubiquitous fog), with man-high purple and yellow wildflowers, and waist-high golden grasses whooshing in the wind. And you won’t believe the birds—so many species, and they’re everywhere, their constant choruses enthralling.
Residents of Half Moon Bay claim the whole coast as their own, but really, the southern San Mateo Coast is a different place altogether. Here’s why: At night in HMB, you see the lights of the megalopolis glowing on the cloud bottoms. But on the southern San Mateo coast, if you see any light at all, it’s emanating from Santa Cruz—which conjures way more romance than Daly City.
Now that California’s highways are jammed with lumbering RVs, I can’t think of a better nearby destination—especially with gas prices as they are. And if you can’t find time for an overnight, this is the ideal place for a day trip—far enough to snap you out of your work-day hypnosis, but close enough for you to get home in time for reruns of The Sopranos. But you’ll miss those dark nighttime skies. See if you can’t squeeze in an overnight. I sure am glad I did.
See & Do
Strands of beaches run the coast, each with its own character, from hidden coves to wide-open stretches of sand; read complete details on finding the perfect beach. On the inland side of Hwy 1 state parks and reserves line the coast, from redwood forests to grassy marshlands chock full of fluttering birds. Read about my favorite state parks, including the must-see Año Nuevo State Reserve.
No place on the San Mateo coast conjures more romance than the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, the tallest light station on the Pacific coast. The stately, 115ft-tall tower has stood sentinel at the tip of the rocky promontory since 1872, and though the first-order Fresnel lens has been replaced with a high-wattage modern lamp, the lighthouse looks essentially as it always has. Alas, in 2001 a storm broke the iron band that holds the tower together at its top, and now the inside is closed to the public. But you can still walk around the base. (Need a tax write-off? Consider a contribution to save the lighthouse.)
Pigeon Point is a stellar for whale-watching, January through May—but in early June, I spotted an enormous whale breaching, its giant tail plainly visible without binoculars. Everyone was jumping around, pointing in amazement. What fun! Follow the picket fence behind the lighthouse to the blufftop viewing area at the very tip of the point. (Though it’s closed after sunset, you can sneak in—at your own risk—and watch the waves crash under the moonlight. Shhh!)
Most people never bother to take the little trail to the beach, but you should. At the start of the picket fence, next to the parking area, look for the path through the flower garden. At the bottom of the steps lies a small, rocky cove, good for beach-combing and snapping pix. I especially love watching the rock-bound kelp dance in the waves of the ebbing tide. Just north of the lighthouse, a 100yd path leads to a series of tidepools, well worth exploring; come at low tide, and leave the critters where they lay, lest you unwittingly kill them by picking them up.
Find the perfect beach on the San Mateo Coast.
The best (and only) thing to see in itty-bitty San Gregorio, is the San Gregorio General Store, a hundred-year-old emporium that carries everything from flannel shirts and cowboy boots, to cast-iron cookware and an esoteric collection of books on gardening and politics. Locals drink cold gin at the full bar at the store’s front (which may be why no cameras are allowed inside). Everyone will turn around and look at you when you walk in. Welcome to the country.
I love pretty little Pescadero, a town of garage sales, weathered picket fences, and front-yard flower gardens. Most people come only to eat at Duarte’s Tavern (see Restaurants, below), never bothering to wander north to discover the super-cute collection of country furnishings and bric-a-brac at Country Road Antiques. You can’t beat the prices, and the owners couldn’t be friendlier. At the end of the street, there’s a marvelous old cemetery at the north end of town—a perfect hilltop spot to picnic and gaze at the pastoral landscape.
What are all those little signs around town, the ones with the girl and the goat pointing up the road? They’re directing you to Harley Farms Goat Dairy, Pescadero’s main attraction, after Duarte’s Tavern. On weekends, you can see the goats being milked, then sample pungent cheeses. But even if the farm is closed, you can wander ’round back to pet sheep and goats and even some llamas. The animals are alert and playful too: as soon as they see you coming they’ll rush the fence. Kids l-o-v-e coming here. So do I.
For a bird’s-eye perspective on the coast, take a 7mi-long scenic drive along Stage Rd, north from Pescadero to the blink-and-miss-it hamlet of San Gregorio. The road snakes through the outer edges of town (what’s with the house with the ten-foot-tall, rusted-metal skeleton holding a submachine gun?), past rolling fields and horse farms, topping out on high ridges with drop-dead vistas of the undulating hills, the ocean looming in the distance. Gorgeous.
Find the best nearby state parks for hiking, biking, and bird-watching.
The tiny town of Davenport, just over the Santa Cruz County line, is known for four things: a giant cement factory; a tiny dilapidated jail (behind the Davenport Roadhouse); one of the Bay Area’s finest art-glass studios; and a fabulous organic berry farm.
Lundberg Studios batches its own glass from high-quality sand (most other glassblowers buy ready-made glass and re-melt it), resulting in amazingly rich colors that are uniquely Lundberg. Check out the crystal encasements (aka paper weights). If you’re looking for gifts to take home, this is the place.
If you make only one stop on the southern San Mateo coast, make it Swanton Organic Berry Farm, an old-fashioned, self-service farm stand where you’ll find the sweetest, most succulent berries imaginable (this is where Whole Foods buys its strawberries). The stand also carries homemade pies, strawberry lemonade, and hot cocoa to warm you up on a foggy day. There are big lawns outside where the kids can plan while you peruse the black-and-white photograph collection on the walls of the stand for a primer on local history. If you have extra time, you can also pick your own berries—a great way to kill a few hours.
Or ditch the kids and go wine-tasting in the hills above town at Bonny Doon Vineyard. They do a terrific job with Rhône varietals (syrah, mourvèdre, grenache), but don’t overlook the crisply sweet desert wines—the muscat vin de glaciere is superb, with heavy overtones of peach.
Like hiking in solitude? Above Davenport, 7000 acres of new parklands, called the Coast Dairies, were recently acquired by the BLM and California State Parks—and there’s nobody here. For more details, read our San Mateo Parks guide.
San Mateo Coast Restaurants
The top spot to eat on the San Mateo coast, Duarte’s Tavern ($$–$$$)—pronounced DOO-arts—is famous for its creamy artichoke soup and olallieberrie (blackberry) pie. The country-style, all-American menu is homey, with dishes like pork chops and applesauce, artichoke omelets, crab sandwiches on griddled white bread, and fresh-caught fish (check out the display case by the door to make your selection). Alas, some dishes are bland; to avoid disappointment, order anything that’s served with gravy. The room gets packed at peak periods; to beat the crowds, come in between main meals (the restaurant is open all day). Expect a country-casual atmosphere: pine-paneled walls, linoleum floors, and mismatched antique oak tables. Wear jeans. Full bar. Make reservations.
Well, whadya know? One of the Bay Area’s best taquerias is located in Pescadero—at a gas station. There’s no sign outside Mercado y Taqueria de Amigos, just a few gasoline pumps. The place looks like a convenience store because…well, it is. But don’t let that stop you from eating here: the food is spot-on. Order the carnitas.
In Davenport, the recently opened Davenport Roadhouse ($$–$$$) serves three meals a day (but closes between 3pm and 5pm). Though I’ve not yet eaten here—it was dark on my last visit—I’ve heard good things about the food. There are some interesting-sounding dishes listed on the menu, many from a wood-fired oven—things like cioppino, and artichoke-leek lasagna with arugula oil. The new owners are trying to make a bang—they’re even going to start an Ethiopian-style coffee service, prepared fireside. My only fear is that some dishes sound a bit ambitious for the local talent pool to pull off successfully; I’d recommend ordering simple dishes until I know more. If you don’t have time for a full meal, there’s a deli counter where you can order food to take to the beach. Full bar. Closed Mondays.
Also in Davenport, the roadside Whale City Bakery ($) is a good choice for a hot breakfast or sandwiches at lunchtime, including a damn good BLT. Order at the counter, then grab a seat in the barroom or sit outside and stare across the road to the ocean. The bakery items are so-so; better to stick with ice cream for desert. No dinner.
Cascade Restaurant ($$$), at Costanoa Lodge, is disappointing. It’s expensive too, given the kitchen’s lack of finesse. The highly recommended pot roast I ordered came undercooked and was served with a vague sauce that was little more than boiled-down, unseasoned cooking water. And the portion was embarrassingly big, enough to feed three people. Breakfast ain’t much better. I get the distinct sense that they don’t have a real chef running the show, just a bunch of cooks following someone else’s recipes. The lighting is horrendous (screw-in compact fluorescents), the room cavernous, and the service spotty. If you’re staying at Costanoa, you may want to eat here to avoid having to drive to dinner, but convenience is its only saving grace.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
San Mateo Coast Hotels and Inns
I hate to give away the secret, but Pescadero has a kick-ass romantic retreat called the Pescadero Creekside Barn ($$). A big loft room on the second floor of an old whitewashed barn, it’s filled with a sweet collection of homey, unfussy country-antique furnishings, including a clawfoot tub in the corner of the kitchenette. Privacy is the order of the day: the owners program the lock in advance, and you won’t ever see them unless you have a problem. I can’t wait to come back here—if I can even get a res, now that I’ve told the world about it. Book well in advance for weekend visits.
The Pescadero Creek Inn ($$) has traditional B&B rooms in a historic house decorated with a mishmash of antiques. Book the little garden cottage for maximum privacy. The gardens are charming, with mature trees, colorful flower beds, and hidden nooks with wooden benches perfect for reading. Full breakfast.
Also in Pescadero, The Tower ($$–$$$) has only one room, and it’s at the top of an old water tower. I haven’t seen the interior—it was booked on my last visit—but I hear from locals that it’s got a good amount of space and comfy antique furnishings. And the views are superb: this is one of the highest structures in town. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
The only lodging in Davenport is at the Davenport Roadhouse Inn ($$$–$$$$), which has a handful of rooms upstairs from a restaurant. All have French doors opening up to a shared veranda, where you can gaze out over the ocean from across Hwy 1. The beds are comfy and have good linens, but some rooms are small and have no windows except for the glass double doors, which have louvers to allow air in. For the most space (and air circulation), book the corner ‘Captain Davenport’ room, which also has the best ocean views.
The largest selection of rooms is at Costanoa ($$–$$$$). Originally conceived as an eco-lodge, there are four types of accommodations here: a campground, tent cabins, duplex cabins with fireplaces, and hotel-style lodge rooms. The location is stunning: the resort’s 75 acres are surrounded by state park lands, and the ocean is never out of earshot.
Costanoa isn’t for everyone. Only the generic-looking lodge rooms have bathrooms. The best-looking rooms are the cabins with fireplaces, but they have no plumbing (bring a water-storage bottle). The shared bathing facilities are satisfactory, if not spotless, and there’s a sauna and outdoor fireplace just outside, a nice touch on a chilly evening. I also like the inexpensive tent cabins (also with shared baths) for their extras like bathrobes and heated mattress pads, but turn off your light when you have sex, lest you put on a shadow-puppet show for the neighbors.
A change in management a couple years ago resulted in amenity cuts, such as slippers—an essential item on a trek to the bathroom in the middle of the night—and overall service standards have diminished. The regular clientele isn’t happy. For example, the front desk won’t switch your cabin if you happen to be sharing a paper-thin wall with a loud family, which is a good possibility on weekends. (To avoid this, book two adjoining cabin rooms.)
Still, I like Costanoa very much, if only for its killer location and mesmerizing hilltop views above the sea, but I wish they would establish some adult-only rooms—kids are everywhere, and they’re ridiculously loud. But come on a weekday, and you’ll have the place to yourself.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up