A Magical Coastal Nature Retreat Near Half Moon Bay
Walking the paths of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, I marveled at the stands of century-old cypress trees. I felt as though I’d entered the bewitching forest of a Gothic fairytale. Once I reached the preserve’s coastal cliffs, I got to spy on the harbor seals resting on the rocks below. Between February and May, this protected coastline serves as a rookery for harbor seals. During pupping season, you can spot the adorable pups huddled near their mothers. Further north, the path leads to a series of tide pools exposed at low tide where you can view vibrant, underwater worlds swimming with sea stars, anemones, crabs, and tiny fish.
The Fitzgerald Marine Preserve lies just 30 minutes south of San Francisco in the tiny coastal hamlet of Moss Beach near Half Moon Bay. The drive from the city follows Highway One as it hugs the cliffs above the ocean. I had booked a room at the Seal Cove Inn, which borders the marine preserve and has a bewitching charm all its own.
Inspired by European country manors, the boutique hotel was built in 1991. Sheltered by a dense forest of cypress trees, the inn is secluded on a tranquil bluff near the ocean. The only sounds are the twittering of birds, trickling fountains, and crashing waves rising up through the canyon. A rich tapestry of gardens surrounds the inn and ivy climbs the ochre-colored walls to the gabled dormers. A garden path leads to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve directly from the inn.
The inn offers 11 elegant guest rooms, each with cozy gas fireplaces, plush robes, king beds, and luxurious linens. I stayed in a balcony guest room on the second floor, which features vaulted ceilings and a private balcony with a view of the gardens below. The room is a warm, elegant perch for watching the winter storm clouds roll in from the sea. The room’s newly remodeled bath was finished with white subway tile, barn-style glass doors, a rain showerhead, and driftwood-inspired accents.
When I arrived, I was greeted with scrumptious chocolate chip cookies and a glass of local wine. The inn’s concierge helped me with making dinner reservations at Moonraker just up the highway in Pacifica, where I enjoyed incredible oceanfront dining as the sun was setting. Later that evening, I made myself a cup of tea from the complimentary beverage bar (which also features a fancy espresso machine) and sat by the fire in the living room to catch up on work. The clouds cleared later that night and I caught sight of stars twinkling in the clerestory windows as I fell asleep to the sound of the waves.
In the morning, I was treated to a fabulous breakfast with gluten-free house-made granola, yogurt with berry coulis, fresh fruit, sliced ham and cheese, a hard-boiled egg, fresh pastries from a local bakery, and local olallieberry jam. Just outside the window, the gardens were all aflutter with tiny birds, quail, bunnies, squirrels, and a feisty blue Steller’s Jay.
After breakfast, I walked along the cliffs to the historic Moss Beach Distillery. Known as Frank’s Place during prohibition, it was a popular speakeasy that attracted silent film stars and politicians from the city. Its location on the cliffs above a secluded beach was perfect for the clandestine activities of Canadian rumrunners. Today, it’s a restaurant and bar serving California coastal cuisine with spectacular ocean views.
Later, I hiked the coastal trails at Pillar Point Bluff, which overlooks the legendary Maverick’s surf break. The massive waves that form between November and March during winter storm surges lure big-wave riders from around the world to Half Moon Bay. Around the point, Pillar Point Harbor is one of the last working harbors in California where you can buy fresh fish from the docks. It’s also home to charming waterfront eateries and placid waters for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. Lucky paddlers may catch sight of rays and leopard sharks gliding through the waters below.
Driving a little further south on Highway One, I spent the afternoon browsing the historic old town district of Half Moon Bay. The charming downtown has long been a gathering place for both locals and visitors. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, unique shops and cafes line the town’s main street. A few favorites of my favorite finds were the beautiful plants and packaged teas from Garden Apothecary, the home décor at Adobe, and the impressive selection of wines at Half Moon Bay Wine & Cheese Company.
The Coastside Farmers Market runs every Saturday morning in downtown between April and December. Downtown is also home to a number of popular events including the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, Shakespeare in the Park, Night of Lights, and an old-fashioned 4th of July parade.
Lead photo of the cypress forest at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve by Kevin Henney, courtesy of Visit Half Moon Bay