Twenty minutes from the metropolitan sprawl of San Francisco, over foggy green hills and down a winding road to the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find the little farming community of Half Moon Bay.
Originally called San Benito, Half Moon Bay was established with the distribution of Spanish mission lands in the form of land grants by the Mexican government in the mid-1800’s. Because it is cut off from the rest of the world by the mountains of northern California’s Coast Range, the town retains much of the simple charm of its origins.
As in the 1800’s, ocean winds and cooling fog make the black soil ideal for farming. Sandy paths wind down from the Coast Highway to isolated beaches. Pelicans and seagulls follow fishing boats out of Pillar Point Harbor, four miles north of town.
Breakfast at Ketch Joanne in Pillar Point Harbor is an excellent place to start your day in Half Moon Bay. At this same location since 1975, the restaurant takes advantage of the fresh fish provided by the fleet of commercial fishing boats home-ported here. Breakfast is served all day during the week, and until 2:00pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Omelets, many with seafood, range from $6.95 to $16.95. If you don’t fancy an omelet, there is an extensive menu of other options.
Although Pillar Point is a working harbor where fresh-caught fish is for sale, you’ll also find myriad opportunities for water adventures on Johnson’s Pier. Work off breakfast by sea kayaking along the coast, or for a less strenuous experience, opt for whale watching or an eco tour of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and Pillar Point Marsh. Watch surfers catch the big waves at Mavericks, just past the marsh. Boats go out all year around, weather permitting, but whale watching is best during the annual December through April migration.
After a few exhilarating hours in the ocean air, you’ll have worked up an appetite for lunch. Cameron’s Restaurant & Inn is an experience you won’t want to miss. Drive south on Highway 1 from Pillar Point Harbor, past the turn onto Highway 92 and downtown Half Moon Bay, until you see a British pub and a bright red double-decker bus on the right side of the road. The "smoking bus", featured in newspaper articles around the world, is owner Cameron Palmer’s creative answer to California law forbidding smoking in restaurants and bars. The law allows for smoking on an outdoor patio or in a vehicle. A bus parked on the patio qualifies on both counts and, outfitted with tables, chairs and TVs, is very popular with customers who smoke.
Cameron’s is packed with kitsch, starting with a collection of beer cans that covers two huge walls. Other decorations include horse brasses, plates, military hats, beer pulls and just about everything else imaginable. Cameron says, "Bare walls make me nervous, and they’re so boring. When I go out to eat, I like to see some interesting décor, something to look at and study. We decided from day one to load up the walls."
After you have absorbed the ambiance, order a pint or a pot of tea and some pub grub. Cameron’s hamburgers have been voted "Best Burger on the Coast" every year since the restaurant opened. The English pasties (beef, potato, pea, carrot and gravy filled turnovers) are also very popular.
The unique shops on Half Moon Bay’s Main Street provide for a fascinating couple of hours in the afternoon. Moon News Bookstore, in a funky and beautiful old building called the Tin Palace, is a great browsers bookstore. It’s also a newsstand carrying international and domestic magazines and newspapers.
Ocean Books, located a block down the other side of Main Street, carries a good selection of used books and older editions. Further down the street, stop into Half to Have It, an outdoor-indoor antique, furniture and collectible shop with 10,000 square feet of unusual items for your home and garden.
In the 1920’s, Prohibition-era rum runners and bootleggers discovered the isolated beaches on the northern California coast as ideal locations to unload illegal booze. The coastside from Moss Beach to Half Moon Bay thrived with roadhouses and speakeasies catering to party-goers from San Francisco. Today a few of the old speakeasies remain, now respectable establishments like the Miramar Beach Restaurant just north of downtown Half Moon Bay.
In days past, the Miramar’s bar had revolving secret compartments for stashing illicit hootch. Today the elegant four-sided mahogany bar provides an ocean view from every seat. Whether you sip a glass of iced tea or a refreshing cocktail, the bar at Miramar is a choice spot to end your day exploring Half Moon Bay. Sit back and watch the sun set pink and gold as day turns to night over the vast blue Pacific Ocean.
WHAT & WHERE:
Ketch Joanne (17 Johnson Pier, 650-728-3747)
Half Moon Bay Kayak Co. (2 Johnson Pier, 650-773-6101)
California Canoe & Kayak (214 Princeton Ave, 650-728-1803)
Riptide Sportfishing, whale watching (H Dock, Pillar Point Harbor, 650-728-8433)
Cameron’s Restaurant, Pub & Inn (1410 South Cabrillo Highway, 640-726-5705)
Moon News Bookstore (315 Main Street, 650-726-8610)
Ocean Books (416 Main Street, 650-726-2665)
Half To Have It (601 Main Street, 650-712-5995)
Miramar Beach Restaurant (131 Mirada Rd, 650-726-9053)
Fun Facts: Artichokes, flowers and Christmas trees are grown here, and pumpkins – acres and acres of pumpkins; in fact Half Moon Bay calls itself the World Pumpkin Capital. The Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival takes place the third weekend in October and draws tens of thousands of visitors for music, pumpkin carving and celebration of everything pumpkin. Traffic over the foggy hills and down the winding road is massive during the Festival – if you visit during the third week in October, be sure to allow for plenty of extra drive time.