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Half Moon Bay: A Weekend Escape

For Halloween fun, join the parade to this coastal getaway.

pumpkin at Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, image
Photo caption
The World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon Bay draws some hefty entrants.


Pay a visit to Half Moon Bay, Calif., in mid-October and you may run into an unusual mix of characters—mermaids, gorillas, fairy princesses, and even caped crusaders like Batman—milling about the streets. Welcome to the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, a weekend-long celebration of the most familiar orange gourd around. Each year, hundreds of harvest-happy folks descend on this small seaside town in search of pre-Halloween high jinks.

Along with a colorful Main Street parade, the family-friendly festivities include live music, an arts-and-crafts show, fancifully carved pumpkins, and pumpkin pie-eating contests. Not a big pie fan? Then try the pumpkin bread, pumpkin ice cream, or pumpkin cheesecake. The World Champion-ship Pumpkin Weigh-Off draws a number of hefty en-trants, some as big as washing machines. Last year's winner—a 1,173-pound giant from Oregon—beat out three other 1,000-pound-plus competitors.

And while pumpkins may be October's fruit of the month in Half Moon Bay, they are far from the only reason to seek out this coastal community a short drive south of San Francisco. The unassuming town blends in naturally with the surrounding hills, rugged sea cliffs, sandy beaches, and shadowy stands of redwood that define the San Mateo coast. The leisurely five-block stretch of downtown is speckled with a few hip shops and eateries, yet still exudes a Mayberry-like quality. When the fog starts creeping in with the autumn sea breeze, you've got yourself perfect sweater weather.

The Spanish first laid claim to this stretch of the California coast as part of their New World landgrab in the 18th century. This fertile land proved to be a boon to Mission Dolores, 30 miles to the north, which received a portion of its crops and cattle. In the 1840s, two decades after Mexico broke free of Spanish rule, the tiny seaside town of San Benito sprang up. By 1872, the residents decided that a name change was in order and looked for inspiration to the crescent-shaped bay nearby.

Half Moon Bay continued to thrive through the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks mostly to an influx of dairymen, farmers, and fishermen. The present-day fields of artichokes and brussels sprouts, the bustling fish and flower markets, and the pick-your-own pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms are all a continuation of this rural legacy.

More recently, the heart of the town, off Highway 1, has become a draw for eclectic shoppers and art lovers. Garden statuary and terra-cotta pottery dominate the courtyard at Half to Have It, while antique tables, desks, dressers, and other furniture stand wall to wall inside.

At Nuestra Tierra, the accent is on traditional Mexican craftsmanship, evident in the handwoven Zapotec rugs, ceramics, turquoise jewelry, and ornate Oaxacan wood carvings. Closer to the ocean is the two-story Dunn Mehler Gallery. Owners Dayle Dunn and Carl Mehler have ex-panded upon the traditional art gallery concept to include cooking classes with local chefs and storytelling events for children.

Kids will also dig searching among rows of pumpkins for just the right one at Farmer John's Pumpkin Farm. Or wandering atop the rugged seaside bluffs on the Coastside Trail. This five-mile-long stretch is brightened by vivid orange California poppies and softyellow lupines, and offshoot paths lead to sandy beaches and the ocean below.

The whole family can indulge at the plush, 261-room Ritz-Carlton. Young guests can ditch their parents and enjoy activities like tide pooling. Of course, you needn't splurge on a room to enjoy the two ocean-view golf courses, the robust menu at Navio, or such unusual treatments as a pumpkin body peel at the spa.

For slightly less opulent yet equally cozy lodging, consider the Zaballa House Bed & Breakfast. Built in 1859, the Victorian is the oldest building in downtown Half Moon Bay. Or enjoy the European-style trappings of the Mill Rose Inn. The inn's country garden, with its more than 200 rose bushes, is awash in color nearly all year long.

When hunger strikes, you'll find plenty of options. Besides dishing up scones and sandwiches, the La Di Da Jazz Café presents folk and jazz by local musicians. For lunch, cruise north to Pillar Point for a hearty bowl of clam chowder or a helping of fish-and-chips at the extremely popular Barbara's Fishtrap. Tap into some Mavericks amber ale—named after the famous 30-foot offshore swells that lure surfers from around the globe—and tasty pub grub just across the street at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. For lounging, nothing beats the patio at the Moss Beach Distillery, a bit farther north off Highway 1. If the wind acts up, grab a wool blanket and order some steamed mussels. Should you encounter the Blue Lady, the distillery's resident ghost, you're on your own.

Back in Half Moon Bay, Pasta Moon serves linguine with ahi tuna and wood oven roast rack of lamb. Tempt yourself with homemade rav-ioli or scallops with lemon-caper vinaigrette at the San Benito House. This restored 1905 hotel now serves as a bed-and-breakfast and a saloon. If your eating vocabulary includes words like unagi, maguro, and hamachi, you may want to open a dialogue with Sushi Main Street.

No matter what language you speak or what costume you wear, you'll no doubt find Half Moon Bay to be a sweet bag of treats just waiting to be tasted.

Photography by Robert Holmes


This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.