Cora and I have had a forgettable 2018. It started with my recovery from a broken foot and then went right into her bout of cancer and the subsequent surgery and chemotherapy. By October the dust was settling and by November it was time to take a short trip.
Half Moon Bay, California on the central Pacific Coast is about a one hour drive from our house in the San Francisco Bay Area’s northeast region. Half Moon Bay was our base of operations from which we explored Pillar Point Harbor about 15 minutes north to the environs of Pescadero about 30 minutes south of Half Moon Bay.
I have a long standing history with Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Bay, just over the hills from San Mateo where I grew up was the beach when dad suggested, “Let’s go to the beach.” On a traffic free day the picturesque winding road to the little town of Half Moon Bay was about a 30 minute drive. From town you could drive north or south to access any number of beaches.
Beach days meant that mom would fry some chicken, and make potato salad and pack it all into the Scotch cooler along with multi-flavors of Shasta sodas. If you’ve been on this Earth for less than half a century you might think a Scotch Cooler is a beverage made with Johnnie Walker – and for all I know you might be right. I’m not much of a Scotch drinker and I certainly wouldn’t have it mixed. I’m referring to the cylindrical ice chest with a red and black tartan design, it was THE primary cooler in suburban households from the sandy beaches of San Diego to the rocky shores of Maine.
Shasta sodas? For those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area, Shasta was the ubiquitous soft drink that came in a rainbow of flavors. I was particularly fond of chocolate soda and strawberry soda. Dad would throw a couple cans of Hamms’ beer in the cooler. The chicken and potato salad were usually supplemented by some homemade biscuits and maybe some slices of mom’s homemade apple or lemon meringue pie.
Since there were no weather apps for phones that were only then in someone’s wild imagination the barometer for weather was to look at the hills that separated San Mateo from HMB. A bank of fog meant it wasn’t going to be a beach day. A finger of fog meant, maybe it’ll clear up and a clear horizon usually meant a good beach day. I say usually because sometimes the anticipation was spoiled once you topped the hill and saw a layer of fog that seemingly stretched from the coast to Japan.
Whatever the weather we would usually persevere anyway. The water really isn’t very swimmable since it’s just north of ice water. I waded and dad might swim a couple strokes and then come back to the beach towel, utter a couple of “damn’s” and have a cold Hamms (Because that’s what you do – swim in frigid waters and then warm up with a cold beer. Right?). It was usually pretty breezy so our chicken and potato salad often came with a light seasoning of beach sand. But that was okay. Mom’s fried chicken was the best. Oh, make no mistake I’ve since had fried chicken that’s tasted better but mom’s will always be the best because of those delicious memories of family outings and cold fried chicken with a dusting of beach sand. A trip to the beach brings a memory of a chilly beach that warms the heart.
It was a bright pleasant November morning when we hit the road for the coast. Our first stop was Princeton-by-the-Sea and the adjacent Pillar Point Harbor, a few miles north of Half Moon Bay.
Just south of Princeton is a rock and riprap jetty that provides a protective arc calming the Pacific waters. Within that jetty is the Pillar Point Harbor home base to commercial fishing boats, Dungeness crab boats and a few tour and whale watching boats.
It’s been years since I’ve been to this area. Princeton and Pillar Point have, over the years, just been drive by reminiscences. I remember Princeton as being a few small businesses just north of the pier. A little seaside shack of a restaurant called Barbara’s Fish Trap sprang up in the early seventies. Just as you got to the foot of the pier there was a little bait shop that doubled as the office for a local fishing party boat that ran fishing trips into the cold Pacific. There might have been a shop or two and a few businesses that supported the boating but by and large the Princeton/Pillar Point area was a sleepy one.
I guess I was just entering my teen years when dad and and I went out to the area to fish. Dad would get home from work, change clothes, pack some sandwiches and we’d be off to the pier to drop our lines with multi-hooked rigs straight down into the water and then pull up two or three Kingfish at a time. It was pretty easy fishing for fish that gave no fight, just hanging limply from the hooks resigned to their fate. As a meal they weren’t all that tasty but catching your own often adds a little flavor of satisfaction that you normally don’t get with store bought fish.
On weekends we would hike out onto the jetty and cast into the ocean. We would find as comfortable a place as was possible among the big rocks and sit and talk in the stiff cool breeze. I don’t recall ever going home with anything but the memory of our companionship. I never really gave dad his due for those little coastal excursions. He could’ve come home from work, had a martini and watched the evening news but instead he shrugged off his jacket and tie and whatever the workday had dished out and took his son fishing. I don’t remember him once ever breaking the promise he’d made to me the night before to drive out to Princeton for a little fishing.
Cora and I parked in one of the parking lots that weren’t there when I was a kid and I marveled about how the place had changed. Barbara’s Fish Trap is still there, spruced up since the old days and who knows if Barbara is still around. There’s still a bait shop and a party boat office but it’s now surrounded by an active business, shopping and dining community that caters to the boating industry, the locals and tourists. Where there was sparse activity, people now stroll a promenade that runs along the shoreline, maybe stopping in the little mall or having a beer and some pub grub at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. I can’t imagine that there’s much fishing from the pier. My recollection is that there were a lot fewer boat docks when dad and I dropped our lines in those waters.
For years, the Pillar Point area was a quiet, sleepy destination familiar mostly to the locals. Today visitors will still find a quiet, quaint seaside charm; squawking gulls, the occasional ding of a boat’s bell, lapping water and barking seals. Grizzled old salts talking briny shop and the bustle of a fishing trade. The breeze is bracing and salty, punctuated with the smells of fish; fresh off the boats or wafting from an eatery’s kitchen.
I guess change was inevitable and it was begun by three young surfers and a dog. It was 1967 when Alex Matienzo, Jim Thompson, and Dick Knottmeyer discovered a break on a point just northwest of Princeton. The story goes that the boys surfed inside the breakwater, on occasion taking a run at paddling to the waters outside the jetty but always turning around because the waters were too big and violent. Matienzo’s dog would often accompany the boys when they went surfing, sometimes swimming out with them but at this location the dog was left tied on the beach. At some point the boys named the beach after the dog who just happened to be named Maverick. The place called Maverick’s had a name before the break became legend.
Eight years later a local surfer named Jeff Clark took on the 20 – 25 foot waves outside the jetty. The break remained a local secret until the early 90’s. In 1992 the giant waves of Maverick’s made the cover of Surfer Magazine and the break and the local community were on the map. Two years later, Mavericks claimed the life of renowned surfer Mark Foo amplifying the notoriety of the break. Life on that stretch of coastline from Princeton to Half Moon Bay changed when the world learned about the big waves and the annual contest. You don’t have to be a surfer to be drawn to the area just to see, if not to ride the giant waves.
It was during the early or mid-seventies that my girlfriend Denise and I decided to spend a day at the beach. Passing through Half Moon Bay we noticed a little street fair going on and decided to stop. We’d stumbled on to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival which at that time was a fledgling little event on Main Street. We strolled through town and browsed the paintings and photographs and various crafts for sale and marveled at the winner of the giant pumpkin contest. We listened to the live music while having lunch. I had a grilled Italian sausage sandwich with grilled onions on a soft roll, a side of fried artichokes and a slice of pumpkin pie.
I remember that lunch because whenever Cora and I go to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival I have to get a grilled Italian sausage sandwich with grilled onions on a soft roll, a side of fried artichokes and a slice of pumpkin pie. It’s become my personal tradition I guess. There’s another tradition that we follow when we decide to go to the festival. It’s called Paulie’s rule and it states that if we aren’t out of the house by 7 A.M. we aren’t going. That’s because that little festival I first visited in the seventies became a success. It’s become a major Bay Area event that attracts a quarter million people for the two day event. Traffic to get to little Half Moon Bay on pumpkin festival weekend is a brutal, patience trying, ordeal of a slog that usually brings a vile string of obscenities from my mouth that scorches ears for miles up and down the highway. If you’re in the area be sure to go but get there early and get out in time to beat the traffic home. Or get accommodations in town. Information about the festival is on their website, The Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival.
Below: Ocean scenes adorn a municipal utility box at Pillar Point
Cunha’s Country Store on Main Street in Half Moon Bay is a great place to get groceries, gifts and a bursting deli sandwich. If you go be sure to step around to the small adjoining parking lot to see the giant mural of surfer Jeff Clark challenging the Maverick’s surf (below).
If you want fresh fish you can either get it right from the boats at Pillar Point or from the Half Moon Bay Fish Market.
Below: A rainbow of fresh fish at the Half Moon Bay Fish Market.
If you find yourself in Half Moon Bay and you have a hankering for a sandwich crafted by a three star Michelin chef then look for the caboose just off Highway 1. Scott Clark left San Francisco’s Saison, once voted one of the top 50 restaurants in the world to open a quaint lunch stand in an old railroad caboose. From Dad’s website, Dad’s Luncheonette is a culmination of Scott’s desire for a lifestyle change after becoming a father, as well as bringing it back to what he enjoys the most – cooking good food and having fun with it, in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
At the end our first day I returned to Pillar Point to take in the setting sun.
Before leaving Half Moon Bay we stepped back through time a bit and had breakfast at the Main Street Grill. Strictly old school complete with the long low counter and the vinyl upholstered booth seating. The service was quick and friendly and the food was delicious and plentiful. I had the Spanishtown Scramble with 3 eggs, linguica sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, onions and spinach. I guess the spinach is a little nod to healthy eating. It all came with a side of hash brown potatoes.
Almost as good as the food was the small town ambiance. Most of the customers who came in, knew each other and chatted with the staff and other diners. A man deeply engrossed in his newspaper set it down and engaged with the older woman who sat nearby at the counter exchanging well wishes, news and local gossip. The owner stopped at each booth to ask the local patrons how they were doing and to talk about the wild fire raging in Butte County 200 miles to the north.
I guess that’s one thing that you take away from Half Moon Bay. Despite the growth and the overly expensive Ritz-Carlton nearby there’s still a peaceful, everybody knows each other, small town feel that you experience at the Main Street Grill the local candy store, Main Street Sweets, The Half Moon Bay Bakery, Cunha’s General Store and many of the other small businesses. Its a great escape from the hectic stress of the Bay Area urban sprawl and techno congested Silicon Valley.