Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
Salty ocean breezes blow in from the coast as the meadow barley sways from side to side and the boats’ sails luff in the wind. Miles of sandy beaches stretch out along Half Moon Bay, inviting newcomers into the city’s relaxed way of life while Highway 1 entices travelers to continue their journeys farther south to the Carmel Valley and Big Sur. There is a quality to Half Moon Bay that makes you want to sit back and enjoy the day without paying any attention to the itinerary you may have made, but it’s so hard to not make plans visiting such an incredible destination. Known for its agricultural and fishing industries—as well as for its pumpkins and wildflowers—Half Moon Bay offers endless things to do on land and sea. This is how we’d spend a long weekend in Half Moon Bay.
Driving south from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, the busy city streets begin to give way to narrower highways, blue waters dotted with the occasional surfer, and rolling hills. Though there are less than 30 miles between these two cities, they feel worlds away. It is tempting to rush through the journey to this novel destination, but the drive is half of the experience, and several of the region’s best attractions lie just off the roadways. After passing by the gorgeous town of Pacifica, make a stop in Montara, which marks the midway point.
Nestled south of the now-closed Devil’s Slide Bunker, Gray Whale Cove State Beach is Montara’s hidden treasure. Park in the lot on the east side of the Pacific Coast Highway, carefully cross the roadway, and tackle the steep downgrade before arriving at the beach below. Take a left when your toes hit the warm sand to avoid the clothing-optional section of this cove, and admire the eroded cliffs that line the beach’s eastern edges. Spend some time watching for the migrating whales that frequently travel past this stretch, then continue the drive south.
Entering Half Moon Bay, the Cypress trees seem taller, the Monterey pines appear more sprightly, and the grassy fields feel incredibly inviting. But without clear seaward views, it’s easy to forget that the Pacific Ocean is so close—until you turn toward Mavericks Beach, that is.
The coast seems to pop out of nowhere as the iconic surfing location makes its appearance. Known for its gnarly waves, this world-renowned surf spot is as beautiful as it is famous—making it a popular stop for avid surfers and novices alike. And while this beach once hosted the internationally recognized surf competition Titans of Mavericks between November and April, the nearby jetty offers a different kind of opportunity today: surf lessons. That’s right, you can learn how to surf with the iconic surfing destination in sight. So grab a wetsuit, center your balance, and get ready to see seals and dolphins as you paddle out to catch your very first wave.
Such an exciting morning has worked up quite an appetite, so lunch is in order. Continue the drive south for two miles until you come upon the quaint building of Sam’s Chowder House. Tucked along the shoreline, Sam’s provides the most exquisite views of the ocean and serves some of the best seafood in the Bay Area.
Start off the meal with the crispy lump crab cakes topped with shaved fennel, fresh frisée, and a decadent remoulade sauce. Continue on with the refreshing flavors of the seafood ceviche starring bay scallops and sweet shrimp, which are perfectly balanced by the fresh mango, avocado, and lime juice. But make sure to save room for the main event, because you don’t want to miss out on Sam’s classic lobster roll. The naked version is served warm with a light coating of butter, which allows the flavors of the tender lobster to dance on your tongue. While this one is the clear winner, the dressed version of the roll—featuring chilled lobster meat, celery, chives, and lemon aioli—also comes highly recommended. Incorporate even more luxurious comfort into the meal with a side of smoked bacon–topped brussels sprouts and roasted-garlic mashed potatoes, and your world will never be the same.
Feeling satiated after such a filling meal, hop back into the car and continue the drive south. Park in the Redondo Beach lot, just north of The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, and prepare to walk off your lunch on the California Coastal Trail. This 3.5-mile out-and-back pathway is the perfect introduction to Half Moon Bay’s seaside lifestyle; stroll by one of Half Moon Bay’s most iconic hotels, saunter past Half Moon Bay Golf Links (and maybe even practice your swing at this beautiful golf course), and soak up the scenery at Half Moon Bay State Beach before making the journey back.
After an eventful day, it’s time to check in to the Mill Rose Inn and relax. While there are numerous hotels in Half Moon Bay, there is nothing quite like the vibes of a bed and breakfast to get you into a stress-free state. With six distinctly decorated guest rooms, manicured gardens, and a picturesque gazebo with a hot tub, it’s hard not to get swept up in the whimsical nature of this inn. A deep-tissue massage tops off the relaxing experience and ends the day on a high note as every last bit of tension melts out of your body.
Waking up at the Mill Rose Inn is magical; being surrounded by the meticulously designed decor and patterned wallpaper feels like popping out of a fairytale and getting showered with floral confetti. After taking some time to sit by the window and look out at the gardens, the claw-foot tub beckons for a morning soak.
Following a luxuriously relaxing morning, it’s time to start the day with a delicious breakfast. Head to the dining room for a beautiful spread of fresh fruit, French pastries, freshly squeezed fruit juices, crêpes, quiche, and home-made bread. Once you’ve loaded up your plate, wander out to the garden courtyard to savor the flavors under the sun. The handmade cookies are also an absolute must, but with so many things to do in Half Moon Bay, it’s best to take them to go—especially since it’s time for one of the most memorable experiences in the region: horseback riding along the beach at Sea Horse Ranch.
While there is so much beauty along the coastline of California, Half Moon Bay offers something extra special. The rugged cliffs reach down to touch the cyan waters as green foliage covers the rocky expanse. The entire landscape looks surreal as you gallop along the Pacific Coast. As you ride through the seaside bluffs, onto the pristine white sands of Poplar Beach, and across the equestrian trails to the ranch, everything else fades away. Though the horseback-riding tour lasts over an hour, it seems to be over in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, prancing on the sand near the water’s edge feels like a distant memory (or even a dream).
With a full morning under your belt, hunger starts to seep in, signaling lunchtime. And there’s no better place for lunch in downtown Half Moon Bay than Dad’s Luncheonette. Tucked inside a train caboose, this roadside restaurant is not what you might expect. While it would be easy to write off this eatery as just another quirky spot, its three-Michelin-starred chef, Scott Clark, is changing the face of beach-town comfort food with locally and responsibly sourced bites. Grab either the hamburger or mushroom sandwich; both are served with a soft-boiled egg, melted cheese, red onions, pickles, “Dad’s sauce”, and oak lettuce on slices of grilled white bread. Though this isn’t the most elegant option for a meal—expect a very messy, falling-apart sando—it is one of the most delicious. Pair it with the mac and cheese (which is uniquely topped with chives and puffed wild rice) for a decadent side, or go for Mom’s Herb Salad with Meyer lemon vinaigrette for a refreshing pep in your step.
Several napkins and a few photos later, it’s time to continue on to the next destination. While it would be nice to experience Half Moon Bay’s Pumpkin Festival, this year’s event has come and gone, so it’s on to the next best thing: a hike at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. The towering redwoods evoke a feeling similar to Lake Tahoe or the Lost Coast, wrapping visitors up in their canopied embrace. Even with the closures along the way, this forested region is well worth the excursion—but the many miles of trails that are still unexplored are reason enough for a return trip in the near future.
Sitting amongst the trees is so peaceful that it’s hard to imagine that the town of Half Moon Bay lies just 10 miles west and that the wide-open ocean is merely a stone’s throw farther than that. After spending several minutes breathing in the fresh air of the wilderness and admiring the fluttering branches of the trees, make your way back to downtown to stroll around the shops and eateries.
Exploring the book stores and bakeries makes the afternoon fly by. Climb back into the car and drive north along the coast after making a quick stop at Half Moon Bay State Beach to dip your toes in the cool waters. This is what vacations are all about.
With fully sandy toes and a grumbling stomach, cruise on toward Seville Tapas for incredible Spanish cuisine. The brightly colored building perfectly matches the hues of the eatery’s fresh ingredients and the Princeton-by-the-Sea sunsets. Start off with the rich flavors of the lobster bisque before moving on to the savory El Cubano pepitos—miniature baguette sandwiches filled with slow-roasted Cuban pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard—and the daily empanadillas. Finish off the evening with the flan before retiring to the inn for a good night’s rest.
The sun shines in the windows as you awaken to greet another day. The room appears more inviting as the bitter taste of vacation ending begins to take hold. There is still a bit of packing to do before the morning ends, so breakfast in bed sounds like the only reasonable solution.
Before long, a delectable selection of omelets, breads, juices, and fruits appear at the door. And just like that, all the rushing around comes to a halt, and the relaxation begins yet again. It’s so nice to get pampered every now and then, and having a fresh meal delivered to you on a silver platter is a sort of luxury that will never get old.
After a leisurely meal and another minute or two of packing, check-out time arrives. Feeling simultaneously sad about leaving and excited about the day’s adventures that will take place before driving home, set out to Half Moon Bay Kayak Co. for a paddle amongst the blue swells. Kayaking is one of those activities that always seems to take more out of you than anticipated, but there are few other ways to experience the ocean so intimately. The cool breeze will make you never want to leave, but after a short time, the day must continue on.
Barbara’s Fishtrap is a local favorite, so having lunch here is a non-negotiable item on the itinerary (make sure to bring cash, though, because you won’t want to miss out on any of their specialties). Start with a sourdough bread bowl of creamy clam chowder; continue on with the coastside calamari; and finish with the Dungeness crab or the bay shrimp sandwich. Order from the take-out window to enjoy an unbeatable picnic on the beach, and you’ll wonder why it took you so long to come to Half Moon Bay.
On the journey home, stop by the Point Montara Lighthouse to see the cute lighthouse-turned-hostel just north of Half Moon Bay. Wandering around these shores, it seems impossible that the large city of San Francisco is just 25 miles away, but alas, the time has come to return home.
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