From my hotel balcony, I watched in flummoxed fascination as huge flocks of birds — primarily gulls and pelicans, thousands of them — swirled over this crescent-shaped Pacific bay, landing on the water to create a floating, screeching, Hitchcock-esque bird island at sunset.
I would later learn that when the water warms in this well-named cove, schools of anchovies move toward the shoreline. The birds follow, creating a feedathon as the Half Moon Bay foghorn continues its relentless, every-10-second beeping.
Bird-watching varies from season to season — this was an early September visit — but there’s always some sort of avian entertainment on the menu here, along with surfing, horseback riding, kayaking, eating and other activities that beg a trip to the Half Moon and back. It’s just about 30 minutes’ drive south from San Francisco.
With so much to do, is it silly that my favorite activity was just watching and listening? Our suite at the Beach House at Half Moon Bay — the entire hotel is suites, with equipped kitchenette, fireplace, TVs, desk, plenty of plugs and a very comfy bed — overlooked the water, and it was hard to tear my eyes off the swooping birds, the kids and dogs cavorting at the water’s edge and, of course, the sun setting behind a cluster of restaurants and bars.
My husband and I eventually left the balcony and walked along a seaside trail to Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. to enjoy a smooth amber ale, along with fish and chips battered with same.
The water attracts many species. If we’d stuck around a few more days, we also might have spotted whales, which were reported following the same warm currents that drew the anchovies.
In a cove just south of our hotel, we saw dozens of surfers enjoying the not-too-huge but reliable waves while windsurfers sailed along just a bit farther out.
Minutes south of that, we took a left turn off California 1 onto Kelly Avenue to explore downtown Half Moon Bay, a four-block Main Street filled with stores that reminded me of Austin’s South Congress Avenue in their eclecticism. Aptly named Oddyssea (601 Main St.) carried shells, sand, toys and … dental mirrors? I picked up some locally made glass earrings and a colorful scarf at the Posh Moon (519 Main St.) and browsed handmade furniture at Cottage Industries (621 Main St.).
While I was admiring one of the millions of murals painted on the sides of downtown buildings, I spied an intriguing little house with a “jail” sign a block away. I walked through a parking lot to 505 Johnson St., where sits, between houses and electrical poles, a 1911, two-cell jail that did, indeed, serve as a jail until 1967.
Time for a taste of wine. Half Moon Bay’s La Nebbia Winery serves more than just wine-tasting visitors. While I was there, a local entrepreneur stopped by with her laptop to grab a glass of wine and park at a picnic table outside to conduct business for the afternoon. Inside, I enjoyed a dry riesling.
Half Moon Bay was the magnet that lured me out of San Francisco (and that’s not easy, because it’s my favorite city in the U.S.), but once I got there, I couldn’t stop without driving a bit farther south for some favorite treats.
So we drove on another 40 minutes south to Pescadero, where we parked for lunch at Duarte’s Tavern, a culinary staple in this part of the world, famous for its artichoke and green chili soups and top-notch sourdough. We arrived around 11:15. The restaurant was open, but lunch wasn’t quite ready. The kitchen was, however, working on the soup, and that’s what we ordered — artichoke soup, creamy and flavorful. The next table ordered a half-and-half mix of artichoke and green chili soups, making the most of the produce that grows in that earth-rich part of California, all with a healthy hit of garlic from nearby Gilroy.
After lunch, goats. Pescadero is home to Harley Farms Goat Dairy, which makes a locally beloved goat cheese on a 1910 farm that also serves as an event venue (the event room overlooks the goats). On weekends, you can meet the goats and learn to milk them for $30, but even on a weekday, when we visited, everyone’s welcome to roam, at no cost, around the farm. We spied a couple hundred goats in the company of a huge, brown llama several pastures away, enjoying the afternoon sun.
On a roll, we drove two more hours south along California’s Highway 1 to the little peninsula that comprises Monterey and Carmel.
Carmel, of course, is home to the famous Pebble Beach and Spyglass golf clubs, some of the world’s most prestigious, and we glimpsed some of those fairways and greens while taking the 17-Mile Drive that winds between Carmel and Monterey. It costs $10, but it’s totally worthwhile, taking in some rocky coastline, some eucalyptus-lined shady streets and some mansions (more being built as we speak). Just look on your map app for various entry points.
After a delicious lunch (some of the prettiest, tastiest spinach cannelloni I’ve ever had) at La Bicyclette, a French bistro in downtown Carmel, we made our way to Monterey and checked in for a night at Mariposa Inn, a highly affordable hotel whose nicely decorated rooms include fireplaces. We visited Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf that night for some tender calamari steaks at Abalonetti Bar and Grill.
The next morning was devoted to one of the world’s great aquariums, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s not cheap — $50 general admission — but it’s huge and beautifully designed, and it sponsors research into sea creatures and the ecosystems of the water. The aquarium features not only huge tanks full of various fish and graceful jellies but also undulating seahorses, darting squids, clambering crabs and, of course, huge tubes of swirling anchovies, swimming with their mouths open so far they seem almost unhinged, the better to scoop up plankton. Here, they are the feeders, not the fed-upon.
That said, seeing so many anchovies couldn’t help but make me want to eat anchovies, so I did, back in Half Moon Bay, atop a perfect Caesar salad at Via Uno before diving into a dish of tender gorgonzola gnocchi redolent with black truffle sauce. This lovey trattoria’s owner hails from the tip of the boot, so you’ll find true Italian food and pizzas, a warm atmosphere and, yes, plenty of anchovies on the Caesar.
IF YOU GO
The Beach House, 4100 Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, beach-house.com/half-moon-bay; suites start at $235
Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., 390 Capistrano Road, Half Moon Bay, hmbbrewingco.com
La Nebbia Winery, 12341 San Mateo Road, Half Moon Bay, lanebbiawinery.com
Duarte’s Tavern, 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, duartestavern.com
Harley Farms Goat Dairy, 205 North St., Pescadero, harleyfarms.com
La Bicyclette, 29 Dolores St., Carmel, labicycletterestaurant.com
Mariposa Inn, 1386 Munras St., Monterey, mariposamonterey.com; rooms start at $109
Abalonetti Bar and Grill, Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, abalonettimonterey.com
Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, montereybayaquarium.org
Via Uno, 2810 Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, viaunorestaurant.com