Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wonderful Day Trips From San Francisco: Historic Half Moon Bay

You can see how the bay got its name in this photo taken from the ridge. Photo by Michael Wong from the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce.

It is only six miles over the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Mateo, California to Half Moon Bay. From ritzy, suburban Silicon Valley, Highway 92 takes you through the redwoods and softly you move into rural California. It is the California of flower growers and cattle ranches, of hills and valleys and old-fashioned houses and barns. As you roll down the steep grade of the mountains, you find yourself in the little town of Half Moon Bay, the oldest town in San Mateo County. You are only about thirty minutes from the land of Whole Foods Markets and Google, but you are a world away. It makes a great day trip for anyone visiting the San Francisco Bay area.

Because of its relative isolation--tucked between the rocky Pacific Coast, 23 miles south of San Francisco on California Highway 1, and adjacent to the rugged Coast Range--Half Moon Bay has not been turned into a town of condos and beach clubs. It remains an old-fashioned beach town, surrounded by sea and agriculture.

One of the sights on Half Moon Bay's main business street. It is just one of many historic buildings in the city.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess I have been coming to Half Moon Bay all my life. On summer Saturdays, when my father had finished his chores, we packed a picnic and took our huge Chevrolet over the mountains to the beach. On a hot summer day in the Santa Clara Valley, the idea of a dip in the ocean was refreshing. But Half Moon Bay has a water temperature that averages 52F degrees: freezing is a better word for a Pacific Ocean dip than refreshing! Still, we would build a fire, cavort in the surf, and eat our picnic supper as the sun went down over the Pacific. The park was free, the view was free and everything about a day like that one was a blessing for a child.

Pacific Ocean temperatures are such that a wise child visiting Half Moon Bay always brings a sweater to wear over her bathing suit. That's me, wondering how to incorporate sea kelp into my costume.

Returning to California this year and exploring Half Moon Bay has been a revelation. It takes no time at all to get there. Its just seventeen miles on Interstate 280 from my house in Los Altos to the Highway 92 turnoff. And it is just six miles over the mountains to the beach. And the beach isn't crowded! For most of my life, I thought this little beach town was far, far, away, and learning its proximity, and seeing how little Half Moon Bay has changed has been a delight. My sister and I loved it when we were kids and I'm going to take her back there when she comes to visit me.

Bathing beauties posing early enough in the day to not be wearing their sweaters. Me at left and my long-legged sister at right.

The coast highway, called the Cabrillo Highway or Highway 1, and Highway 92 over the mountains both follow original Indian trails that were discovered by the Spanish when they arrived in California. The Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola arrived on the coast of Northern California in 1776 and founded Mission Dolores in what would become San Francisco. The coast south of the the mission was used to graze cattle and to raise food for the padres.

First the Spanish and then the Mexican government deeded land in northern California to loyal citizens as land grants, thus the land surrounding the little bay was first owned by the wealthy dons. Their laborers from Spain, Mexico and Chile settled in the town above the bay and it was dubbed Spanishtown. But after California became a state in 1850, people from all over the world discovered the California coast. Fishermen, farmers, fruit growers, horticulturalists shopkeepers all came to the regions and in 1874 this influx of newcomers changed the name of the town to Half Moon Bay. I've always thought it was an extraordinarily beautiful name.

A Half Moon Bay cottage, just a few blocks from the beach.

The average price of a house in Half Moon Bay is $700,000, which is an awful lot of money but is about half the average price of a home in Palo Alto, California or Los Altos. And most of the beach homes are modest. There are no high rises as you find on the Florida coast. Whatever legislation it took to accomplish this: somebody did something very right.

Another Half Moon Bay cottage, simple and small.

Agriculture remains the primary driver of the local economy. "Floriculture" or flower growing accounts for most of it, with vegetable crops, livestock, fruit and nuts coming along behind for a total annual gross value of $172 million.

One of the nicest ways to end a day trip to Half Moon Bay is to stop at one of the many farms on Highway 92 as you head back to the Bay Area and buy a bunch of locally grown flowers or plants. On my recent trip I found orchids for $10. Or you could buy a dozen, fresh cut roses for $5. There are artichokes for sale now, and soon there will be fresh strawberries.

This little day trip is a long way in spirit from Fisherman's Wharf and the Alcatraz tour and Ghirardelli Square, but it just a short trip by car and well worth the visit. For me, it will always be a town of happy memories, of the days when my father was young and happy. And though he is ill now and old, Half Moon Bay has remained the same. I like going there now to remember and to make new memories for the years ahead.

That's my handsome father with my sister and me. I've learned so late that his good looks are the least important thing about him.

(All of the above photos are from our family album or were taken by me in Half Moon Bay, except the first photo in this article which comes courtesy of the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce.)

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Florida Beach Basics said...

nice story - love the photos. marge

Robin Chapman said...

I wish I had a few of you Florida conservationists with me so I could identify more of what I was seeing! The water would seem awfully cold to you, though.