About a half-hour south of San Francisco, a farming and fishing community comes to life in autumn.
Harvest is high time to visit the coastal community of Half Moon Bay. During the second weekend of October, the town rallies around the annual, ever popular Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival*, a harvest homage that plays out as one big street fair along Main Street downtown. But the area locals call “the Coastside” offers a cornucopia of ways to embrace fall all season long.
Curios are cool at Oddyssea, a quirky pirate-themed science-and-art store. Inside, browse a selection of fancy shells, skeletons, test tubes, and other tchotchkes one might find at a natural history museum. Outside, in an area dubbed the "activity and adventure garden," sidle up to a do-it-yourself art table and make a terrarium, a message in a bottle, or sand art. The outside area works on a “doubloon” system instead of cash (doubloons are available inside). The store also sells art kits to go.
There are a handful of bakeries around town, but Half Moon Bay Bakery, which has been open since 1908, is one of the best. During October the bakery is renowned for its pumpkin goodies: ultra-moist pumpkin bread, super-thick pumpkin pie, and even sometimes pumpkin cookies. Other worthy treats include custard-filled donuts, crescent moon-shaped chocolate chip cookies, and focaccia bread topped with artichoke and pesto.
The eclectic menu at Chez Shea comprises dishes from all over the world: enchiladas and chilaquiles from Mexico, a sloppy Joe-style bobotie sandwich from South Africa, and moussaka from Lebanon, to name a few. The restaurant also serves up pasta, PB&J, and a variety of options for kids; the “Shea” in the eatery’s name is a reference to the owner’s daughter, who was in grade school when the place opened in 2006.
While the formal Pumpkin Festival is held downtown, there’s always Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm less than a mile north of town on Highway 1 for anyone looking for a gourd time. John Muller and his wife Eda raise dozens of different varieties of the squash, including Atlantic Giants, which can grow up to 500 pounds apiece. From mid-September through Halloween, the Mullers also put together a harvest village complete with a teepee, a corn room, haystacks, and tractor rides.
The protected waters of Pillar Point Harbor are perfect for paddling, and Half Moon Bay Kayak Company offers guided tours and a variety of kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals by the hour or day. Out on the water, watch out for pelicans dive-bombing for anchovies or California Sea Lions foraging for larger snacks. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a porpoise. All rentals include paddles, paddle jackets, wetsuits, and personal flotation devices. The outfitter also sells dry bags to keep cell phones from taking on water.
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Pillar Point is a great spot for another activity: An epic pub crawl. Start with a Bloody Mary at Ketch Joanne Restaurant and Harbor Bar, the closest bar to the marina and (not surprisingly) a favorite among fishermen. Next hit Hop Dogma Brewing Company inside Harbor Village mall and try one of 20 beers on tap, such as a special jalepeño pepper pilsner. From there walk to Old Princeton Landing, where a new-ish patio is a great spot to cocktail-and-cornhole while listening to live music and munching on grilled artichokes from the garden and calamari dipped in sriracha aioli. Wrap up the crawl at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, where you can throw back a special Pumpkin Harvest Ale and kick up your heels on a fire pit as you watch the sun set over Mavericks Beach.
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Just north of Half Moon Bay, the tiny town of Moss Beach is home to one of the best tide pooling spots in the world: Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. At low tide, the rocky reefs that line the 3-mile shoreline reveal a world of wonder featuring colorful sea stars, chitons, anemones, and more. Don waders for the best experience (and to keep sneakers dry). No matter how cute those hermit crabs might look, it’s important to remember the golden rule of tide pools: Look but never touch.
*Note: Traffic can be heavy during the Pumpkin Festival weekend. Leave early and expect delays along Highway 1 and CA-92 in and out of Half Moon Bay.