The joy of wandering at will

Imagine a scenic peninsula with nearly perfect weather bordered by San Francisco Bay on the east, and by the Pacific Ocean on the west.

Encompassing nearly 450 square miles, San Mateo County stretches south and across the San Francisco Peninsula. At the northern edge of the county is San Francisco International Airport, which is serviced by most major airlines, including the discount carrier Jet Blue. Southwest and Virgin Atlantic are also starting service into SFO.

Mea culpa

I live in California but as many times as I’ve left my heart in San Francisco, I have never taken the time to explore the postcard-worthy destinations in nearby San Mateo County. After a spending a few days in “The City,” my husband, Rick, and I rented a car at the airport and headed south on Highway 101, following the east side of the Peninsula. We sped past the bustling cities and developed areas, opting to check them out on our return trip if time permitted.

Cutting across the peninsula on Highway 92, we discovered that the region was unexpectedly rural, with occasional smatterings of homes hidden among the groves of trees. The sun-drenched hills were interrupted by verdant riverbeds and a patchwork of fields of vegetables and colorful flowers. Were we really in California, one of the most populated states in the nation? We had been on the road less than an hour; and yet it was like entering another world.

As the hills gradually gave way to the wind-worn land rimming the Pacific Ocean, the road ended at Highway One. Whether you turn north or south, there are miles of unspoiled beaches and bluffs in both directions. Driving along Highway One or hiking one of the countless trails leading down the bluffs to marine preserves where tide pools team with sea critters is a experience in quality of life. Add to this a charming assortment of villages, wineries, farms and ranches, and you have a taste of what’s available on the west side of San Mateo County.

It was a pleasant surprise to find this kind of undeveloped beauty so close to one of the most visited cities on the planet. This is farm country, a rural coastal setting not-to-be-found anywhere else on earth. Flowers grown here are shipped all over the country, as are the strawberries, artichokes, cabbage, and a variety of other produce.

The rewards of looking beyond the obvious

While the choices of what to see and do here are endless, these were some of our favorites:


Less than an hour’s drive from the city of San Francisco, the “village” is located slightly inland. Allow an hour or more to wander around the little town. From antiques, collectibles and art galleries, to a kitchenware store, wine and cheese shop, and clothing boutiques, there are plenty of places to spend time browsing.

There are a quite few places to stay, including the fabulous Ritz-Carlton to the south of town, and the charming Beach House Hotel on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Half Moon Bay. Both properties are situated at the ocean’s edge and have magnificent views.

The seafood served at Half Moon Bay’s numerous restaurants is, of course, fresh. In fact, eateries throughout San Mateo County feature menus that incorporate vegetables and fruits grown on local farms. Clams, shrimp, mussels and fish are caught in local waters and delivered to restaurants throughout the area. This is an area of the United States where the “leave-a-small-footprint” and sustainable tourism principles are practiced by both the locals and visitors.

Try the CETRELLA BISTRO AND CAFÉ in “downtown” Half Moon Bay, which has an eclectic menu incorporating regional products into its delicious cuisine. Cetrella offers a wine cellar of between 3500 and 4000 bottles of the finest offerings. Not to be missed as a delicious appetizer are the fried artichokes served with garlic aioli.

For an evening reminiscent of Jolly Old England, stop by CAMERON’S PUB AND INN. Owned and operated by Cameron and Lisa Palmer, the historic building has a fascinating past. It was a speakeasy during the years of Prohibition, and Al Capone’s sister reputedly used it as a gambling house. Even more colorful is the story of the three upstairs rooms, now beautifully decorated and rented out to guests. These quarters once served as a tiny brothel. The grub and grog at Cameron’s are great, and the unique décor includes a 2000-plus beer can collection.

HALF MOON BAY BREWING COMPANY is situated in Princeton-by-the-Sea just minutes from downtown Half Moon Bay. The award-winning brewing company concocts eight of its own beers on the premises. Don’t miss the salmon served with strawberry salsa. Fabulous! My favorite appetizer was the Ceviche. For someone who’s not a “fish person,” I was amazed that I enjoyed these flavorful dishes so much.

Treat yourself to a breath-taking ocean view, while enjoying a scrumptious meal at the MOSS BEACH DISTILLERY, located a few minutes northwest of the small airport on Highway One. The unpretentious restaurant overlooks a portion of the famous Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and offers spectacular panoramas from most tables throughout the dining room.

Enter if you dare, for the Moss Beach Distillery is haunted. Featured on “Unsolved Mysteries,” the Legend of the Blue Lady recounts the death of a trio of ghosts, a story which includes sex, betrayal, and death that left the unsettled specters wandering the old speakeasy for all time. In addition to the tasty fare served in the restaurant, people come to attend séances in the hope of contacting, or even seeing, one of the resident apparitions. We were there on a misty day, with swirls of fog hovering on top of the sea cliffs. And yet, not a single bar stool moved, unless a flesh and blood customer sat on it — or the prankster bartender pressed the button that makes a rigged-up stool move “on its own.”


This is the world’s largest mainland breeding colony for the thousands of elephant seals that converge at Ano Nuevo each year. The best time to see the mating and calving rituals is between December and April, but hordes of the large sea mammals can be seen here throughout the year.


Extending along the coast for three miles and into the ocean for 1000 feet, the James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a continuous series of tide pools containing an abundance of sea life.


This is a good place to snap photos of seals sprawled across the big rock platforms catching the warming rays of the sun. With over 200 species of bird recorded at this 500-acre natural preserve, it’s also very popular for bird watchers and other nature lovers.


At 100-feet-high, Pigeon Point is home to one of the tallest lighthouses in the nation. Built in 1872, it’s still used by the U. S. Coast Guard for navigation purposes. Gray whales can be seen from this picturesque spot between January and April as they make their annual migration between Alaska and Mexico.

Several bungalows are situated on a bluff adjacent to the lighthouse. In spite of the fact that they’re operated as hostels and are extremely inexpensive, the accommodations are a far cry from roughing it. Pigeon Point is a popular location for artists, photographers, and anyone else who want a magnificent, unobstructed ocean view.

San Mateo County:
Leave Your Heart You Know Where and Find it Again on the Peninsula
by Colleen Fliedner

So you’ve been to San Francisco — and think you’ve seen it all: the Golden Gate Bridge, the trolley cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Lombard Street.

Well ... if you haven’t rented a car and headed south into San Mateo County, then you’ve missed some of the prettiest country in California, and some wonderful attractions.


Beach House Hotel
Located on the beach in Half Moon Bay, Tel: (650) 712-0220

The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay,
Tel: 1 (800) 241-3333

Half Moon Bay Lodge
Tel: 1 (800) 710-0778 or (650) 726-9000

Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero. Book ahead by calling (650) 879-0633 or email:

Check the Hostels International American Youth Hostels website at

For more places to stay on the west coast of San Mateo County, visit or contact the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau , Tel: (650) 348-7600 or


Cameron’s Restaurant and Inn,
Tel: (650) 726-5705

Cetrella Bistro and Café,
Tel: (650) 726-4090 or

Half Moon Bay Brewing Company,
Tel: (650) 728-brew or

Quattro Restaurant located at the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley.
From appetizers to entrées and a large selection of wines, you can’t miss with anything you order at Quattro.

Moss Beach Distillery
Tel: (650) 728-5595


Obester Winery near Half Moon Bay. Founded in the 1930s, the small winery has a tasting room and gift shop on Highway 92, the main thoroughfare that runs from the coastside to the bay. Tel: (650) 726-9463;

The James Johnston House in Half Moon Bay. This historic home has been recently renovated and opened to the public for tours. Built in 1853, “The White House” as it is often called, is perched on a hill near town.

For information on Half Moon Bay: or tel: (650) 726-8380

For information about Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, Tel: (650) 879-2120

For general information, contact the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tel: (650) 348-7600



If you would prefer spending your time outdoors, rather than staying at a hotel, stay a night or two at Costanoa, a cross between a campground and a lodge. Situated in a hilly area slightly inland from the coast, the setting is uniquely Californian. Walk to the coast or hike through the forested regions. Sleep in a pre-fab, wood-floored tent cabin, or rent a more luxurious accommodation inside the small log-walled lodge. If you prefer roughing it, pitch your own tent or bring your RV and rent one of Costanoa’s prepared sites.


This large expanse of coastline is known for the tangles of driftwood strewn across the beach and the painters who are almost always present on the overlook.

Traveling Bayside

If time permits — and hopefully, you’ll allow at least two or three days to explore the peninsula — there are some interesting places to stop on your way back to San Francisco along Highway 101.


This superb facility in the City of San Mateo is excellent for family travel. It’s a combination zoo and museum, where you can see live native animals in natural habitats, environmental exhibits, an aviary, beehive exhibit, and indigenous plants. The museum also offers terrific rotating exhibits, so check their website to see what they’re up to. Tel: (650) 342-7755 or


This quirky and nostalgic collection of over 500 Pez candy dispensers and everything imaginable relating to Pez will take you back to your childhood. This is a fun place for both adults and kids. Tel: (650) 347-2301 or


This 36,000 square-foot mansion in Woodside is was built by William Bower Bourn II, who owned of one of the state’s richest gold mines back in the 1800s. The fabulous estate and its amazing gardens are a state landmark and are on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a must-see for garden lovers. Tel: (650) 364-8300 or


Located in San Carlos, the museum is definitely worth a visit, especially if you enjoy aviation history. Located just south of the City of San Mateo, the Hiller includes displays and interactive, hands-on exhibits that span the development of aviation from the early 1900s to the present. The museum hosts the world-famous Vertical Challenge, the largest helicopter show in the country. Tel: (650) 654-0200 or


This heritage museum in Redwood City (the county seat) features exhibits spanning various eras in the history of the San Francisco Peninsula. Included are San Mateo County’s historic courtroom and the largest complete stained glass dome on the West Coast. Tel: (650) 299-0104 or