Where In The World Is San Mateo County? - My Family Travels

From San Francisco, instead of heading to Marin, go south and check out the area between SF and San Jose for some great surprises.

You may never have realized it, but if you’ve ever flown in or out of San Francisco International Airport, you’ve been in San Mateo County.  Located just south of the “City by the Bay,” it shares a 50-mile-long peninsula with its famous neighbor and holds several treasures worth checking out when you’re in the region. From surfers to seafood, vineyards to vistas, this place has it all.

San Mateo’s coastline offers wonderful beaches where your family can picnic, sunbathe, explore the bluffs, fly a kite, join in a Frisbee game, kayak and watch the surfers.  Check out Montara State Beach (with its own lighthouse), Bean Hallow Beach (great for kids), San Gregorio State Beach and Coyote Point Recreation Area where swimming (if closely monitored) is available.  The town of Half Moon Bay has several miles of good beaches including Surfer’s and Dunes Beaches.   

Coastal Highlights for Beach Bums

Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero (650/879-2120), which at 115-feet-tall is one of the tallest in the country, may look familiar to you as it is one of our most photographed lighthouses. Overlooking the ocean 20 miles south of Half Moon Bay, it continues to guide mariners as it has since it was inaugurated on November 15, 1872.  Although the lighthouse itself is currently closed to the public, the grounds are open for exploration, and guided history tours are available on weekends.  The views are spectacular and there are bird-and seal-watching opportunities.  Seasonally, between January and April, gray whales may be seen migrating between Alaska and Mexico along the coast.

Located north of Half Moon Bay near Pillar Point Harbor is Maverick’s Point, where an underwater rock formation causes waves to reach as high as 60 feet.  A surfing contest considered the “Super Bowl of Surfing” takes place here annually, and Maverick’s is the destination of the best and most intrepid surfers from around the globe.

Nature exploration is available at Moss Beach’s Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, where naturalists are available to lead hikes and help explore the sea urchins, crabs, sea anemones, starfish etc. that appear in tide pools at low tide.  Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve at Pescadero State Beach offers over 500 acres to explore, including a sanctuary for migratory birds and waterfowl, as well as residents such as mallards, kestrels, egrets and Great Blue Herons. Ano Nuevo State Reserve is where the largest breeding colony of elephant seals, in addition to colonies of sea lions, harbor seals and other marine mammals breed and give birth.  Check their site to arrange for guided tours of the amazing spectacle when thousands of seal pups are born on the dunes.

Goats, Grapes and Gardens for Foodies

My most favorite destination on this trip was to Harley Farms (205 North Street, Pesdadero 94060; 650/879-0480).  Owner, cheesemaker, tour guide and welcoming host, Dee Harley took over a 9-acre 1910 cow dairy farm with 6 American alpine goats in 1993.  The herd now numbers 220 who graze happily on the pasture, and are most friendly to visitors.  They are milked twice a day in a spotless, comfortable milking parlor, and each produce a gallon of milk, which translates into one pound of cheese, every day.  Dee says that the only way to produce quality goat cheese is to have happy, healthy goats.  She seems to have just that combination.

The cheese-making room is also open for touring, and here you can observe the processing of the curds and whey, and watch as the logs and rounds are decorated with edible wildflowers from the farm as well as fruits and nuts.  Two-hour tours are available by reservation and also include milking a goat and a cheese tasting.  Call ahead to reserve a tour which costs $20 for adults, half price for children 6 to 10-years old; no charge for younger children.  Your family will love this.

How about some wine to compliments your goat cheese?  La Nebbia Winery (12341 San Mateo Road, Half Moon Bay 94109; 650/726-94653), which has been producing wine for over 25 years, features a tasting room with award-winning wines in a relaxed setting.  Sip your wine in a scenic picnic area, play a game of bocce and pet the resident kitty.

Another natural showplace is Filoli (86 Canada Road, Woodside 94062; 650/364-8300), the 1915 estate and 16 acres of formal gardens of a prominent San Francisco family. They gave their property it’s unusual name by combining the first two letters from the credo: Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life.  The estate was eventually donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and has been open to the public since 1976.  It has been used in many movies and television shows including the long-running series “Dynasty.” 

Self and docent-guided tours of the house and grounds are available daily.  While it is certainly interesting to see the home and its furnishings, the gardens were the highlight for me.  I’m not knowledgeable about growing things and don’t even keep houseplants, but the grounds were a truly spectacular sight with exquisite trees and flowers too numerous to remember.  Highlights include the 10-acre fruit and olive Orchards, the Sunken Garden with reflecting pool, Yew Allee, a tree-lined walkway lined with over 200 Irish Yews, the Knot Garden with interwoven plantings, the Herb Garden, and the Cutting Garden whose flowers are used in arrangements throughout the house.

Details, Details

With locally-grown produce, fresh seafood and local wineries and breweries, dining in San Mateo County is a real treat, so we spent the weekend eating.  Area restaurants and hotels that make an effort to buy and serve local products are recognized by the County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, its Farm Bureau and its Harbor District with “As Fresh As It Gets” awards. We had the opportunity to try these notable eateries: 

The recently honored 231 Ellsworth (231 South Ellsworth Avenue, San Mateo 94401; 650/347-7231) is a beautiful space serving elegant cuisine accompanied by a wine list of 800 choices.  Make a reservation, arrange for a babysitter, and have a wonderful evening. 

In a more casual mood?  Check out the historic Moss Beach Distillery (140 Beach Way, Moss Beach 94038; 650/728-5595) which dates back to the 1920s when it was known as “Frank’s Place.”  With its location on a secluded beach adjacent to the activities of bootleggers from Canada, Frank’s Place operated a successful speakeasy and was a popular watering hole for the rich and famous from San Francisco.  Now, with great ocean views from every seat, and a terrace with firepits overlooking the ocean, this is a great spot for seafood, steaks and, of course, alcohol.  The sliders are delicious and the kids will love them.  If you visit, your family may run into “The Blue Lady,” the resident ghost who has been featured on TV’s “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Sam’s Chowder House (4210 North Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay 94019; 650/712-0245) also offers breathtaking views along with indoor or outdoor dining.  Serving New England Style seafood in a California setting, you can choose from clam chowder or cioppino, lobster rolls, shrimp, oysters, calamari, fresh fish, live Maine lobster and authentic clam bakes.  Sam’s is committed to the environment and serves sustainable seafood, chosen carefully and caught the right way. 

If you’re looking for someplace unique, check out Cameron’s Restaurant and Pub (1410 North Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay 94019; 650/726-5705).  Don’t miss the authentic double-decker buses (some are smoking areas for customers, and some offer video games for kids) parked outside.  You can order pizza, hamburgers or steak, or try British fare like fish and chips, bangers and mash or pasties (along with over 20 beers on draft) while you check out the varied memorabilia.  The kitsch is extensive and includes a collection of over 3,000 beer cans.  There’s also a game area with shuffleboard, darts, pool, foosball, pinball, outdoor horseshoes and volleyball.  This place is really unusual.

The Half Moon Brewing Company (390 Capistrano Road, Half Moon Bay, 94019; 650/728-2739) is located near the Maverick’s surf break and has named its signature amber ale in its honor.  You can enjoy spectacular ocean views and sunsets from two outdoor patios, a fun menu full of local products (try the fish tacos and beer-battered artichoke hearts) with plenty of items for the kids, and a variety of house-made brews (a beer sampler tray is available).  Note that all seafood items on the HMB Brewing Company menu are ‘Seafood WATCH Safe’, that is, designated as sustainable and environmentally healthy seafood choices for the consumer.

Sleeping on the Coastside, as this part of the country is known, we stayed at the charming Beach House Hotel (4100 North Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay 94019; 800/315-9366, 650/712-0220).  At this seaside getaway you can relax in the cozy lobby warmed by a wood-burning fireplace, swim in a heated oceanfront pool or soak in the Jacuzzi, and luxuriate in the spa.  The majority of the accommodations offer gorgeous ocean views and either a patio or balcony from which to enjoy it, and rooms are equipped with complimentary high speed internet access.  Area activities include exploring the historic Main Street filled with interesting shops and cafes, whale watching tours, walking and biking, and local gallery hopping. 

Other Coastside lodgings include the Half Moon Bay Lodge and Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn, both in the town of Half Moon Bay. For more information on activities, restaurants and lodging, including pet-friendly hotels, parks, restaurants, beaches and nature trails, log on to  www.VisitSanMateoCounty.com.

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