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Posts Tagged ‘Half Moon Bay’


Far from Fisherman’s Wharf, on the north west tip of San Francisco, peering out across the vast Pacific, or “Sundown Sea” as the Native Americans called it,  lies Lands End. To the immediate south of that, Ocean Beach stretches towards Half Moon Bay, Pacifica, Monterey and ultimately the Mexican border.

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The following account  is aimed at highlighting some of the attractions to be found in this historic, and often wind and fog ravaged, corner of the city.     

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We start at the Beach Chalet on the western limits of Golden Gate Park. Separated from the beach only by the Great or Pacific Coast Highway, it was opened in 1925, essentially to provide changing rooms for beach-goers. It now houses a popular restaurant and boasts its own brewery.

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It almost goes without saying that it affords magnificent views of the beach and ocean across the road, lulling, as on the occasion pictured, the happy diner into the misapprehension that it is warm and without a breath of wind outside those large picture windows. After all, it was only June and this was still San Francisco.

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Before taking the stairs to the first floor restaurant, visitors should allow time to admire the lovely frescoes depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties, created by French-born cubist designer and former London Welsh rugby player,  Lucien Labaudt, for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Venturing out into the gritty afternoon air after lunch, you should not forego a short detour into the park to relax and wander round the radiant Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, home to the stately Dutch Windmill, the elder of two mills in the park designed to pump ground water for park irrigation.

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I have written about my affection for the Cliff House, a few hundred yards north as the road curves right onto Point Lobos Avenue, on several occasions, notably about the pleasure of eating there:

https://tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/a-cliff-house-brunch-date/

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The current, rather plain and utilitarian, building is the fifth to bear the name on the site. Rebuilt in 1909 after burning to the ground two years earlier (it had survived the Earthquake and Fire of 1906), it houses two excellent restaurants – the street level bistro (pictured below) and Sutro’s below stairs, which offers a more elegant dining experience and equally spectacular wave and wildlife watching. In addition, it hosts weddings, corporate functions and other private events in the Terrace Room.

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The sea lions may have deserted this stretch of coast for a new stage from which they can better entertain the tourists on Pier 39, but Seal Rock(s) remains a fascinating feature that attracts hundreds of gulls , pelicans and cormorants.

The ingenious Camera Obscura, based on a fifteenth century design by Leonardo da Vinci, provides extraordinarily vivid 360 degree images of the birdlife on those rocks.

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Adjacent to the Cliff House lie the ruins of Sutro Baths, the once enormous entertainment complex built by Adolph Sutro – mining engineer, property developer and latterly the first Jewish mayor of the city – who had also constructed the second and most grandiloquent version of the Cliff House in French chateau style.

Comprising six saltwater tanks, a freshwater plunge, natural history museum, Egyptian mummies, amphitheatre and much else besides, the baths could accommodate 25,000 visitors at any one time. Understandably, it was San Francisco’s seaside playground for seventy years from 1896, though it had fallen into disfavour and disrepair long before, as so often in this city, fire finished the job in 1966, just six years before the equally popular and much loved Playland at the Beach close by  was torn down.

Treading among the rocks and pools that remain, one can almost imagine being on a Greek island or an Italian coastal village.

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Opened in the same year – 1937 – as the Golden Gate Bridge, Louis’ family owned restaurant has successfully withstood the competition from its more refined neighbours around the bend in the road, and continues to provide hearty, uncomplicated diner-style fare – and, of course, affords glorious views of the baths and ocean.

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From alongside Louis’, on El Camino del Mar, the road branches eastwards back towards the city, passing the impressive Palace of the Legion of Honour, the moving Holocaust Memorial and the extravagant enclave of Sea Cliff. A more rewarding course is to take the Coastal Trail on foot, winding around the headlands, and from which you can climb down onto China and Baker Beach. The Golden Gate Bridge flirts with the walker at every turn in the path and from behind every clump of trees.

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The Coastal Trail, with its stunning photographic opportunities, is worthy of a post in itself, so I’ll close with another Labaudt fresco from the Beach Chalet and a slightly more modern piece hung up in the bar of the Cliff House bistro.

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Like many visitors I first encountered the Cliff House on a sightseeing tour of San Francisco in October 1995, calling in after the obligatory orientation stop at Twin Peaks.  We had little more than half an hour there, just enough time to peruse the jewellery stalls on the pavement outside, buy a postcard or a packet of Californian seeds in the gift shop and, most importantly, avail ourselves of the washrooms.

We spied an enticing restaurant (there are two of course, but weren’t able even to fit in a coffee.  The tour guide will probably have outlined the exotic history of the three different buildings that had stood on the site, including the Christmas Day fire of 1894, the majestic Sutro Baths and amusement park, the atmospheric remnants of which can now only be seen.  But the history lesson will have passed most of us by, anxious as we were to move on to the more dazzling attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Eighteen years and nine trips later, it has become a ritual for us to have brunch here on the first morning of each visit to the city. Sometimes by car, and on other occasions by MUNI bus, we ride out through the Inner and Outer Richmond neighbourhoods, excitedly counting down, or rather up, the numbers of the avenues. We sweep past Golden Gate Park on our left whilst craning our necks for tantalising views of the bay – and the great bridge – to the right as we pray for the interminable procession of traffic lights to be on our side.

We park up behind the wall separating the Great Highway from Ocean Beach and walk towards the Cliff House, hoping that the line for the bistro on the ground floor is not too long.  Being told – as we always seem to be – that we have around a half hour wait, we venture outside to marvel at both the bird life on Seal Rock and the engineering masterpiece that is the Camera Obscura.

On returning to the restaurant, we are escorted by a cheerful waiter to a table at one of the large picture windows, permitting either views of Seal Rock and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond, or of the long, bullet straight shoreline towards Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and all points south.  Golden Gate Park, with the Dutch Windmill signposting its coastal entrance, sits half a mile away whispering its hidden delights.

We are given ice cold water and divine warm rolls while we scan the menu, though we hardly need it as our order is always Crab Eggs Benedict for myself and Eggs San Francisco for my wife, accompanied by fried potatoes (not fries), onions and peppers, melon pieces, grapes and salad, juice and unlimited coffee. Heaven!

That’s the moment!

It is only now that we feel truly “home” again – with that meal, that view, that hum of civilised conversation that pervades the dining room. The next week, fortnight or, in our upcoming vacation, month, is laid out before us like a procession of Christmas Days, with lavish presents and sumptuous food and drink on every one of them.

As we leave the Cliff House to walk off the meal on the beach or the cliff tops of Land’s End, the next tour bus pulls up and disgorges its occupants, chattering of Chinatown, Pier 39 and Macy’s, all to be ticked off by lunchtime, to the washrooms, gift shop and jewellery stalls.  Perhaps some of them at least will remember that short comfort stop next time they visit the City and decide to inspect the plain looking building by the sea a little more closely.

But I hope it’s not too many, as we would not want our wait for a table to be any more than that customary half an hour would we?

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I blame those frisky young whippersnappers, David Crosby and Graham Nash, but neither Janet nor I were ready to rock too early today after the excesses of the previous evening.  Eventually, we set off on the 74 mile drive to Santa Cruz, joining the Skyline Boulevard at the top of Fulton at Ocean Beach.

Despite the clear blue sky and slowly warming sun, waves crashed onto the beach in swift succession as we passed the Sunset district with its attractive multi-coloured houses that reminded me of Burano in the Venetian lagoon, San Francisco Zoo and Fort Funston as we hit Highway 1.

As we drove through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and Pescadaero State Beach, increasing numbers of surfers could be seen preparing their boards, ironically to ride waves significantly less turbulent than those we had left back at Ocean Beach.  The Cabrillo Highway, which is the acknowledged name of this stretch of Highway 1, is a lovely road with wonderful shoreline vistas, but it is not conducive to speed, particularly if you get stuck behind a slow truck or Winnebago or, as we did, spend lengthy waits at a number of roadworks  created by the Devil’s Slide Tunnels Project.  This, combined with the warm sunshine, had a distinctly somnolent effect on both driver and passenger.

The most poignant sights on the journey were the signs denoting the “Tsunami Evacuation Route”, a reminder of the damage that had been caused to this part of the coast in the aftermath of the recent Japanese earthquake.

As we entered the Santa Cruz city limit lunch was foremost in our minds, so we headed straight for the famous Boardwalk  –  mistake!  The unseasonable weather had fooled us into thinking that the world renowned seaside complex would be throbbing with action, but, of course, it was still off season.  A total of two gift shops, one amusement arcade and a couple of fast food outlets were the only establishments open to the public, and many of the rides were subject to undergoing maintenance work.  The beach. like many others in the immediate area, contained a lot of wooden debris, further evidence of the recent high waters.

We decided, therefore, to head for downtown Santa Cruz.  In fact, we spent nearly four hours there, enjoying the friendly, laid-back atmosphere pervading the clean, tree-lined main street that contained some fine shops, including an outstanding independent bookstore.  Street musicians and artists were prevalent, as was the occasional beggar – even they were “smarter than the average” San Franciscan panhandler.  We had lunch at the Chocolate cafe – warm chicken sandwich with pesto, mozzarella and peppers for me and sesame chicken salad for Janet.  The food was  delicious and service was prompt and pleasant.  Moreover, the seats outside were a real suntrap.

My San Francisco Giants / Gratefiul Dead t-shirt, only purchased in Haight-Ashbury on Sunday,  excited a great deal of admiration in this bastion of the counterculture, including several “nice shirt”  comments and a couple of slightly dopey smiles in my direction.  I managed to buy another Dead t-shirt here, with the American Beauty logo, as well as the one CD that I had been coveting for some time, entitled Crimson, White and Indigo, a three CD plus DVD package of a concert in Philadelphia in 1989.  With tax I paid $42 instead of the near $70 being quoted even on Amazon in the UK.  The cashier, who was sporting a Dead t-shirt, was thrilled that I had bought it, saying that he had been waiting for someone to buy it as it was ” awesome”.  A conversation about the Dead’s visits to the UK ensued.

The most disheartening part of the trip was the imminent demise of Border’s Books, yet another branch in the chain set to close.  It was pitiful to witness the first floor (the second was completely closed) with its vasy empty spaces and pleas for customers to not only buy its products but also the fixtures and fittings.  There was one silver lining however – it was possible to stock up for your winter fuel with a bulk purchase of Sarah Palin‘s America At Heart book at a 60% discount.

We headed back north as late afternoon clouds took over momentary custody of the skies.  Surfers were more evident than they had been this morning.  We decided to stop for a drink at Half Moon Bay, but, given that it was turned 6pm by the time we got there, it too was virtually closed.  However, we did manage a coffee at the friendly San Benito House saloon and restaurant.   

The final leg of our journey home was a little more interesting than we had expected or planned.  Thinking we would rejoin the coast road back to Ocean Beach we found ourselves hurtling along Highway 1 in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Resolving to avoid that embarassing detour I decided that we should try a even more embarassing detour by turning right off the road.  Darkness had descended which added to the sense of being lost and panic stricken, although I was convinced (sic) that we would eventually veer back towards the city.  My confidence was sorely tested as we passed unfamiliar names like Sloat and Portola, but once we had brushed Twin Peaks on our left, it started to return.  As we turned down the hill the view of the City was a new and astonishing one, which made the anxiety of the past ten minutes almost bearable.   

The sight of the enormous rainbow flag at Harvey Milk Plaza on Castro Street brought mutual relief, and we cut off Market and returned to the apartment to gratefully consume the pizzas we had bought at Half Moon Bay.

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In my recent post California Dreamin’……and of Nevada too, I promised, or rather threatened, to burden you with my plans for the San Francisco leg of our upcoming trip.

We have rented an apartment in NOPA (North of the Panhandle) for a fortnight this time, hiring a car for the first week and buying a City Pass, which includes a seven day MUNI passport, for the second.  This will be our eighth trip, the first few of which were only for a few days, so the temptation to revisit the same haunts was strong back then.

But now we are more experienced visitors, and whilst I suppose we cannot shake off the tourist tag, we aim to “live like locals” as much as we can.  We will, of course, still frequent favourite spots such as Golden Gate ParkHaight-Ashbury, AT & T Park, Golden Gate Bridge, Beach Blanket Babylon and the Cliff House, but the emphasis is increasingly on new places and experiences as well as return trips to attractions we have not been to for some years.

With the car we intend to take the opportunity to venture beyond the city to Berkeley, Tiburon / Angel Island and Santa Cruz / Half Moon Bay, none of which we have done more than drive through in the past. 

Time permitting, we would also like to explore part of the northern coast, for example Point Reyes and Bodega Bay (Mendocino may be a little too far).   Given that we will be experiencing our first NHL game between the Sharks and the LA Kings, we will give downtown San Jose a look in too. Monterey / Carmel, the Napa Valley and Alcatraz (by day and night) have seen enough of us in the past, so we will spare them this time.

Back in the city the focus will be more on revisiting sites we have missed on recent trips such as Twin Peaks, Coit Tower and the Palace of Fine Arts / Exploratorium.  In addition, there are places that we have, shamefully, bypassed before that we must visit this time, including the Grace Cathedral, City Hall and the redwood grove at the Transamerica Pyramid amongst others.

New cultural experiences will include seeing our first show at the Castro Theater (Singalong Wizard of Oz?), visiting SF MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and the de Young Museum, none of which we have done before.

I am sure I will be adding to the list over the next four weeks but these are the “must-dos” at present.  Whether we succeed in meeting the challenge will be revealed in the daily blog I hope to maintain during the trip.

In the meantime, if anyone has read this and thought “yes, that’s fine but you have just got to go to………….” please let me know.

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