The Wild San Mateo Coast

Alameda Magazine

November 2005

I have a friend who loves to travel. And she’s blessed with an abundance of wealth, making the entire world her playground. But often she’ll pack a small bag and head south, not for Cabo or the Caribbean, but to the San Mateo coast.

Her love affair with the ocean begins along the winding roads that traverse the Santa Cruz Mountains. An imposing barrier between east and west, this rugged spine has been a formidable foe to developers who’ve seen the coast as too foggy, too windy and too inaccessible. “It’s like entering a bygone era,” according to locals who fight passionately to preserve San Mateo County’s farms and ranches. Tiny towns look as though they’re frozen in time, not minutes from a major metropolitan area. But read on and you’ll find a land of surprises, from ghosts to gourmet food and spiritual retreats to world-class resorts. And with this trip, there’s no jet lag.

California Highway 92 cuts a swath through the populated peninsula and turns rural as you head west toward the Crystal Springs Reservoir. Winding through nurseries and roadside antiques shops, Obester Winery stands almost at the junction with California Highway 1. Obester is known for the eight or nine days each year when the winery will fill your clean, empty bottles with private reserve for under $5. But the winery also has picnics, tastings and even a bocce ball court.

What Obester doesn’t have is a ghost. That claim to fame lies solely with the Moss Beach Distillery, a few miles north. Perched on a cliff above the crashing surf, this place was a hot spot during Prohibition and remains so today. Perhaps while you’re dining, you’ll feel a chill or a tap or hear the wail of a woeful spirit. It could be the Blue Lady, whose unsettling story has been told to countless travelers and featured on television’s Unsolved Mysteries.

From spirits to serenity, you head down the coast past surfers and specialty shops and into a world of stunning opulence. The five-diamond Ritz-Carlton stands high above the bluffs of Half Moon Bay, like a grand Scottish lady with the wind and the sea at her beck and call. As the bagpipes call the golfers in at sunset, the moist, salty air is a tonic for the skin and the soul. Staying at the Ritz-Carlton is a feast of all that’s abundant here. Pumpkins are used for the spa’s signature body scrub and hydrating pumpkin body peels. Area farmers bring in local beets, herbs and artichokes for the resort’s award-winning restaurant, Navio. Fresh goat cheese comes from nearby Harley Farms, where it’s handmade with care and a garnish of edible flowers. Life at the Ritz is a celebration that shouldn’t be missed. Just minutes after arrival you feel a lifetime of stress simply melt away.

The San Mateo Coast has a way of getting inside you – the miles of undisturbed beaches, the ancient redwood forests and the patchwork of green that grows out of the sand-colored cliffs. You can have virtually any kind of experience here, from staying at a 19th century lighthouse (Point Montara Light Station) to sleeping in a luxury tent cabin (Costanoa). You can stroll through hamlets like Pescadero, with more than a dozen historic buildings including the town watering hole, Duarte’s Tavern.

Or see the pinniped version of a loud, belching couch potato at the Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Just a short drive from Pescadero and a mile or so hike down a coastal trail is the largest elephant seal breeding colony in the world. December through March is mating season, but at least some of the herd hangs around in the off months.

In stark contrast to the blubber and barking at Ano Nuevo, a peaceful drive through the coastal redwoods is as close as Skyline Boulevard. Winding its way past cabins and conifers, this is the quintessential highway for a road trip. Pull in at the famous and funky Alice’s Restaurant (not the one that Arlo Guthrie sang about) and you’ll see everyone from motorcyclists to movie stars. Stay at the nearby Stillheart Retreat Center in Woodside and you’ll find yourself in such a deep state of quiet that you’ll notice eve the smallest things in nature. Then have dinner at the popular Village Pub, where the menu includes the most eclectic offerings, like wild nettle soup and perfectly prepared sweetbreads.

Feeling déjà vu? It’s not surprising with a visit to nearby Filoli Gardens. You’ve probably seen the long country road to the Georgian brick mansion before. The opening scenes for Dynasty were filmed at this gorgeous garden estate, as well as scenes from a number of popular movies.

From film directors to tourists, folks are finding what my friend has found, a part of the Bay Area that rarely gets noticed. But please, don’t all come at once. The charm of this region is its quiet, untamed spirit: so close to the city, yet so far away.


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