If you're torn between a city getaway and one that getsback to nature, consider a visit to the Coastside area just south and west of San Francisco. This rural stretch of oceanfront is so close to — yet distinct from -- the city that you can stay in a secluded lighthouse overlooking a cragged unpopulated coastline and still pop into town for dining at one of San Francisco's finest restaurants.
From Pacifica on down through Half Moon Bay to Pescadero, this part of the California coast is a tapestry of small towns, farmland, gorgeous coastal scenery and beaches, all easily accessed from Highway 1. The big attraction here is the ocean, of course, but historic buildings, Mayberry main streets, parks, trails and wildlife preserves make this much more than just a day at the beach.
We never had visited the "other" side of San Francisco and as we drove the busy freeways north toward the city we could see we had only a few miles to go, yet we were still near the heart of city. How could this be? The photos we had seen of our lodgings in Pacifica made it look like we would be enjoying coastal scenery just as breathtaking as the coastal drive between Los Angeles and the Bay area. Then suddenly the freeway took us up over a hill and westward away from the city's congestion. And there it was: the spectacular coastline just like in the brochure.
Storms were in the area this particular day and the sea was tempestuous. We drove the gentle slope down into the Rockaway Beach area where the Best Western Lighthouse Hotel is located. A couple of lodgings are nearby but the Lighthouse is the only one perched at the edge of the small beach where waves on this day seemed as high as Oahu's North Shore. The roar of the ocean made it feel like we had left civilization far behind.
This would be our headquarters as we explored the Coastline area and it was an excellent choice. During our visit, this hotel was going through a major transformation from aging motor inn to a stylish, updated oceanfront hotel. Truckloads of new furniture were arriving to complete the renovation on the bottom floors — the top floors where we were staying had already been completed. The "transformed" rooms included an attractive new charcoal and tan color scheme with matching draperies, carpeting and furniture. Tasteful paintings were placed on the walls.
The location of this hotel is stunning. Our fourth floor room looked right out on the beach — as did many other rooms along the western side of the hotel -- and we enjoyed the constant sound of those thunderous waves. A small shopping area and a couple of restaurants are nearby, while we also took advantage of a wide walking trail that we could take right from the hotel's property to some rolling hills a little further inland. The beach itself is relatively small and, with the surf activity on this side of the island, probably a lot better for viewing than swimming.
From Pacifica, it was just a 15-minute drive down the coast to Half Moon Bay, a favorite with vacationers. There are some 55 miles of beaches along this part of the Coastside area and it seemed like a good number of those were right in Half Moon Bay. We took a trail along the bluffs and then went down another trail to the beach level where on this windy day we had miles and miles of beaches to ourselves. No doubt on less windy days there are more visitors enjoying these wide, seemingly endless beaches.
We enjoyed the downtown area of Half Moon Bay which features many historic buildings as well as bed-and-breakfast inns and plenty of shops to keep you occupied for hours. Interestingly, this entire town is a wireless "hot spot" so, if you're bringing your laptop, here is the place to plug in and get your emails.
It's probably clear by now that trails, hikes and walks figured prominently in our Coastside visit, but we only tapped a small number of the available resources. Numerous state parks and coastal trails of all varieties are found in nearly all theof the communities along Highway 1. McNee Ranch State Park is a 700-acre preserve near Montara Mountain that offers picture-perfect ocean and hillside views. San Pedro Valley County park is an 1,150-acre park in Pacifica that offers several short, scenic trails.
Eco-tourism is big in this area only minutes from downtown San Francisco and among the activities to put you in touch with your planet are visits to area wildlife preserves and farms. Pillar Point Harbor is a working fishing harbor where you can interact with fishermen and women and learn how they make their living from the sea. In fact you can go fishing yourself on one of the local charter boats, or take a boat out to watch the whales that travel the Pacific Coast.
And how's this for an interesting option: Spend part of your visit staying on a local family-owned farm where you'll get an up-close view of how farmers make their living from the soil or from animal products. You can also tour a farm if you don't have time to stay.
In addition to the seashore activities such as beachcombing and tide pooling, there are a couple of bird refuges in the area. The Pescadero Marsh is where about 200 species of birds rest and feed each year and the trail that leads along an old marshlands dike offers some great views. At Pillar Point, bird-watchers have sighted about 20 percent of all North American bird species including herons, snowy egrets, loons and grebes.
Finally, be sure to visit the two historical lighthouses located in the Coastside area. The Point Montara Lighthouse is in Montara and just off Highway 1 — although keep a watchful eye or you'll miss the turn-off. It was built for mariners approaching the sometimes fog-shrouded San Francisco Coast and dates back as far as 1875. The current 30-foot tower and lens have been in operation since 1928. The grounds are currently leased to American Youth Hostel, Inc. and are open from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m.
The Pigeon Point Lighthouse State Historic Park is located south of Pescadero on the way to Santa Cruz. The lighthouse lens was lit for the first time in 1872 and this particular lighthouse is one of the two tallest on the West Coast. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk with guided tours and docents available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. There is a hostel at this lighthouse as well.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Coastside area is the stretch of coastline just on the west side of the mountains from San Francisco and South Bay cities. It's only minutes from the city by freeway.
WHAT: Coastside offers a wild and natural setting with spectacular.
WHEN: Any time of year. Bundle up for those winter walks, and sometimes even summer months are quite cool down on the beach.
WHY: Lots of natural beauty that can be combined with visits to the city.
HOW: For more information on the Best Western Lighthouse Hotel, visit www.bestwesternlighthouse.com or phone 650-355-6300. For more information on Half Moon Bay and area eco-tours, visit www.halfmoonbaychamber.org or phone 650-726-8280.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway