A mere 20 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is a stunning yet understated coastal escape, where low-key is a way of life. By Lindsay Lambert
Among the most thrilling characteristics of California are its vast beaches teeming with hard-bodied beauties, glamorous shopping avenues lined with top-end designer boutiques, verdant hills studded with multimillion-dollar mansions, and vibrant cities constantly abuzz with tourists and harried professionals. But the best part about Half Moon Bay—a coastal hamlet some 20 miles south of San Francisco—is that you won’t find any of that here.
The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay
Instead, Half Moon Bay is an escape that’s sleepy by comparison, a stone’s throw from the glitz, glamour, and grit of the Bay Area, yet far removed enough in atmosphere that it might as well be a thousand miles away. Here, coastal bike trails replace congested shopping plazas, handfuls of surfers stand in for throngs of busy businessmen and women, and, despite some ostensible wealth in the area, there’s nary a garish sports car or mega-mansion in sight. Half Moon Bay is the type of place to which travelers come to blend in with the locals, and where locals live in peace.
Devoid of high gloss and hype, a visit to Half Moon Bay is perhaps best spent in pursuit of simple pleasures: eating, drinking, enjoying natural scenery, relaxing, and, if so desired, an occasional adventure. Half Moon Bay and its immediate neighboring towns offer a well-curated selection of restaurants, shops, and leisure options that make getting back to basics the best part about a stay here.
To best take advantage of Half Moon’s Bay rugged coastal scenery, and to get acclimated to your new surroundings, park your rental car and consider a bike instead. An eco-cycling tour of Half Moon Bay’s coastline allows guests to enjoy up-close views of the town’s stunning seascape, from its colorful spray of wildflowers to its windswept beaches and clifftops. Cue Phil and Mary Hill, whose company Coastal Elegance (coastalelegancetours.com) offers eco-cycling tours, as well as intertidal nature hikes for those who prefer to explore on foot. Marine life enthusiasts and bona fide cycling buffs, the couple lead clients on extensive tours (their top-of-the-line Cannondale bikes are the most comfortable we’ve pedaled), taking care to explain everything from the town’s history to its ecosystems along the way. A nice touch that guests will be sure to appreciate, the couple fills their guests’ pockets with protein bars, chocolates, and other energy-inducing snacks before hitting the trail, even packing organically grown fruit for them to enjoy during a seaside pit stop.
Biking is bound to drum up a big appetite, and the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company (hmbbrewingco.com), which is located all too conveniently on Capistrano Road along one of Coastal Elegance’s cycling routes, is the perfect place to refuel after a long ride. At the waterfront restaurant, patrons can take their pick from gourmet, pub-inspired dishes featuring fresh, locally sourced fish (the Baja fish tacos are excellent) and produce. The artichoke heart appetizer—the fleshy nubs are battered with the brewing company’s own Mavericks Amber Ale and fried to perfection—is nothing short of divine. Naturally, washing down your meal here with a housemade beer is a must.
If adventures take you farther north, nearby Moss Beach is home to the Moss Beach Distillery (mossbeachdistillery.com), which offers an extensive menu featuring hearty fare like chowders, salads, burgers, pasta, and surf-and-turf options (the Distillery happens to also offer those same intoxicating artichoke hearts, a California staple). In addition to its menu offerings, the Distillery’s staff, dramatic setting, and stunning views contribute to its charm, but its most celebrated feature is its history—complete with a murder mystery.
For even more dining options, plus a plethora of charming shops to peruse, head to Main Street in downtown Half Moon Bay. There, visitors can opt for authentic Italian cuisine at Pasta Moon (pastamoon.com)—the fried asparagus starter is too good to be true, as is just about any dish finished with the restaurant’s tangy red sauce—or grab a sandwich and coffee and other light bites at a number of delis, cafes, and bistros.
Like its neighbors Napa and Sonoma to the north, Half Moon Bay is home to a handful of wineries, although without the tourist traffic often experienced in the former. Right in town at La Nebbia Winery (lanebbiawinery.com), visitors can sample red and white wines, dessert wines, and port, and sample the winery’s gourmet food products. (Wines at La Nebbia are not made from grapes grown on site, though once guests sample a 2002 Amador County port served in an edible chocolate cup, they might not mind.)
Before bidding adieu to La Nebbia, visitors should duck into Half Moon Bay Art Glass (lanebbiawinery.com/halfmoonartglass.html), an unassuming shed-like structure discreetly located at the rear of the winery. There in his studio, glass artist Douglass Brown creates whimsical blown- and sculpted-glass pieces inspired by various forms of nature—sea creatures, fruits, vegetables, and flowers among them. For visitors who are curious to try their own hand at his craft, Brown offers glass sculpting classes for patrons of varying skill levels. Half Moon Bay is a prolific pumpkin-growing region (known as the World Pumpkin Capital, Half Moon Bay will host its annual namesake Art & Pumpkin Festival October 15 and 16), and Brown’s signature glass pumpkins are perfect keepsakes.
A gorgeous drive some 20 miles southeast along thickly wooded Route 35 leads travelers to Thomas Fogarty Winery (fogartywinery.com), a posh, polished winery set 2,000 feet above sea level in the stunning Santa Cruz Mountains. Visitors will be tempted to while away a whole day here sipping Fogarty’s earthy reds, fruity, floral whites, ports, and sparkling wines, but the easy atmosphere here, just like in Half Moon Bay, is reason enough to make the trip.
Where to Stay Combine stays at a high-end hotel and an under-the-radar B&B for a well-rounded stay in Half Moon Bay.
The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (ritzcarlton.com/hmb) is home to the town’s most luxe lodgings. Set on a high rocky promontory giving way to jaw-dropping views of the Pacific, the hotel comprises a variety of guest rooms and suites with multiple optional amenities: fireplaces, terraces, and ocean and golf course views. Ocean Front Terrace Fire Pit rooms are a real treat, allowing guests to kick back on their own private patio, taking in ocean views while cozying up to a crackling fire. Adirondack-style patio chairs and a gourmet s’mores kit will make venturing away from that spot all but impossible.
In addition to its impeccable guest rooms, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay boasts a world-class spa with 16 treatment rooms (travelers whose agenda includes romance will enjoy a couple’s massage at the spa, complete with a customized sensory experience) and the beautiful oceanfront restaurant Navio, whose Sunday brunch is legendary among locals.
A short drive north, Moss Beach’s Seal Cove Inn (sealcoveinn.com) is the antithesis of the Ritz-Carlton, if only in size. The inn comprises just 10 cozy, romantic guest rooms that open up to views of its beautiful flower garden and grounds. Bathrooms with oversized jetted spa tubs and private Juliet balconies are among the inn’s amenities, but when guests unwind in front of their log-burning fireplace with a bottle of just-bought wine, little else will matter. Daily breakfasts are modest yet homemade, and afternoon tea and hors d’oeuvres are the perfect jumping off point for a few hours on the town.