Friday, May 15, 2009

Moss Beach Road Trip

The view from the cliffs above Moss Beach, near Seal Cove and the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

A year or so ago, I saw a painting by artist Diana Jaye in a Los Altos, California gallery called "Back Door, Moss Beach." It was so lovely, and the name Moss Beach sounded so sweet as it rolled off the tongue, I kept it in my mind. When I moved back to California and checked the gallery, the painting was gone: but I figured I could still find the place. Needing a little serenity, I hit the road in search of same.

I took the I-280 north and zoomed over to California Highway 92, still one of the prettiest roads over the Coast Range I know of. The Portola Expedition of the 18th century had to hike the pass on foot, holding their horses most of the way, and wrote of a nearby Indian trail: "...on a very bad road up over a high mountain...though easily climbed on the way up, had a very hard abrupt descent on the opposite side." And that's one of the nicest things about it. But then, I had the help of my Swedish car.

As you glide down the western side of the pass, you see the most beautiful sight: in the far distance, the mighty Pacific, the color of teal, and, in the valley below, the farms with their fields of flowers.

Repetto's farm on Highway 92, just outside of Half Moon Bay, California.

The maps told me Moss Beach was just a few miles north of Half Moon Bay, off California Highway 1 (the Cabrillo Highway) about 24 miles south of San Francisco. I cruised along until I saw a sign that read "Moss Beach Distillery," with an arrow pointing to the left. So, I turned left onto Cypress Avenue. I passed a big stand of cypress on the right and the road twisted left again as it wound along between the Pacific cliffs, on the one side, and the cozy cottages on the other. Probably cost a lotta millions, those cottages.

Just a little further on, the road becomes Ocean Boulevard, and in a clearing ahead I saw a large building perched above a cliff. It was the Moss Beach Distillery, which isn't a distillery at all. It is a California Point of Historical Interest and a restaurant. In the days of Prohibition, the cove below--often shrouded in mist--was a great place for the rum runners to drop off their goods for the bootleggers. Seizing the intersection of product, location, and demand, entrepreneur Frank Torres turned the shack above the cove into a speakeasy called "Frank's Place." It was, in the lingo of the Dashiell Hammett era, a "roadhouse" and Hammett, being the San Francisco denizen he was and a man with a mighty thirst, became a frequent customer of Frank's. When I arrived, it was about half way between lunch and dinner, so I did not stop to eat. But I did walk through the place and found that every single table has a stupendous view of the ocean. That's a wow.

At right above: the Moss Beach Distillery on its perch above the Pacific.

Outside, there is a patio, where fireplaces burn year 'round and where wool blankets are provided for snuggling--and are needed--most of the year. I saw just a few snugglers out on this cold, foggy, windy day and I was happy to walk back inside to the restaurant. The wind had just about blown my beach hat off.

I could see from the menu and the plates of the diners there at this in-between hour that the Moss Beach Distillery isn't one of those haute cuisine California places where tiny little portions of food are served in nouvelle style decorated with little dribbles of sauce. The place has the down-at-the-heels look of an old speakeasy, with a large, well-worn bar. Its big plates feature fresh fish and piles of "speakeasy" fries and its meals have been voted "Best on the Northern California Coast".

When my Dad was well, he would have loved this place, sitting and watching the ocean crash outside the window. And if I bring my sister here, she will spend all her time looking through her field glasses at the birds and the sea creatures below. But what really struck me was what a great place the Distillery is for a romantic dinner. One of those meals, well-oiled with adult beverages. Note to self: leave old folks for a time and follow this prescription.

Speaking of romantic: heading back on Cypress Avenue I saw the iron gates of a small hotel and decided to stop to investigate. Down a sandy road I found the Seal Cove Inn, a boutique hotel that looks like a French chateau.

The Seal Cove Inn at Half Moon Bay is actually at Moss Beach. It is so pretty that it really doesn't make any difference.

There are just ten rooms at the Seal Cove Inn, some with fireplaces, some with balconies, some opening out on the Provence-like garden. Its a ten-minute walk to the beach, a twenty-minute stroll to the tide pools of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Breakfast is the only full meal served here, but there is an afternoon happy hour, where guests can gather downstairs around the chateau's fireplaces and have tea and California wines. The Inn is expensive--at least for my pocketbook at present--but it is absolutely gorgeous. And there is that nice, seedy Distillery right down the road.

I stopped on the way back to buy a small topiary for my front door. The prices for flowers and plants along Highway 92, between Half Moon Bay and I-280, are considerably less than they are in the Santa Clara Valley. And the weather changed as I headed back over the range. Foggy and windy at the coast: warm and sunny back in the valley. Old Gaspar de Portola spent eighteen years exploring the hills of this part of California. In 1784 he returned to Spain. Whatever was he thinking? If only he'd invested in real estate.

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