If the Great Pumpkin really does exist, he’s probably local and sustainable and stems from a Half Moon Bay farm.
Dubbed the “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” Half Moon Bay is scheduled to host its 41st annual Halloween Art and Pumpkin Festival Saturday and Sunday (visit www.miramarevents.com for a schedule). A pumpkin weigh-off contest that pays the winner $6 per pound of gourd occurred after press time, but last year’s champion logged in at 1,500 pounds.
The local Chamber of Commerce expects 300,000 people to attend the weekend spree, which features 5K fun runs, pie-eating contests and a “Smashing Pumpkins: Battle of the Bands” concert that showcases young musicians.
To survive the ensuing parking and traffic snags, checking into a hotel for the duration makes sense, if you can still find a spot.
Half Moon Bay offers its share of Halloween spookiness, too – there’s a haunted house set up next to the historical Spanish Town Jail, 505 Johnston St., about a block from Main Street. We witnessed several Scotch tourists line up in front of the building, pretending to be handcuffed for the camera, so it’s on the global radar.
Moss Beach Distillery, with Prohibition-era roots, attributes strange phenomena occurring at a certain table to a beautiful former pianist – The Blue Lady – murdered at the restaurant during a lover’s quarrel. In the 1920s, the Distillery, 140 Beach Way in neighboring Moss Beach, was the place to go to get a stiff drink. Rumrunners liked to use Pillar Point Harbor to traffic their wares – the area’s relative isolation and fog made it easy to bypass the law.
Now the village draws people from the Bay Area and beyond with its charming downtown and vintage finds in antique stores and art galleries.
If staying overnight, local lodging rates start at $26 for dormitory-style, gender-separated rooms at the historic Point Montara Lighthouse or Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostels (reserve these or private family rooms at www.norcalhostels.org/montara or /pigeon).
South of Half Moon Bay, Pescadero’s Pigeon Point Lighthouse measures 115 feet tall and has been guiding sailors since 1872. To the North, Montara’s Lighthouse has been operating since 1875.
Hotel choices include the oceanfront boutique Beach House Hotel, 4100 N. Cabrillo Highway, with Nantucket architectural influences. Standard rooms start at $200, with Port and Godiva or champagne and chocolate-covered strawberry add-ons available to enhance the romance. Oceano Hotel & Spa, 280 Capistrano Road, will also have you living on the edge – of the Pacific – with its 95 luxury rooms on Pillar Point Harbor.
If you want to stay downtown closer to the pumpkin action, the restored Half Moon Bay Inn, 401 Main St., offers packages for its smallish yet plush rooms, starting at a budget-friendly $105 for Piccola Stanza, the smallest room. For families, Bella Vista Villas amount to apartments with kitchens. You can’t miss the Spanish revival building, built in 1932, with its arches and orange-stucco coloring. No elevators, so it’s a climb upstairs with luggage. Dog-friendly amenities include pet beds.
Downstairs, It’s Italia restaurant, with its Tuscan decor and California-Italian cuisine, attracts locals as well as tourists. We were grateful for the $5 French press coffee, a strong and rich brew after the weak American cup we picked up earlier at a bakery.
My $9.50 pear salad with walnuts, Gorgonzola and fruit over baby greens tasted good with extra chicken on top. My partner happily finished his $12 heirloom tomato and ale omelet with roasted potatoes.
If you want the full luxury hotel treatment, rooms start at $405 a night at The Ritz-Carlton, 1 Miramontes Point Road, but you can pay up to $1,200 for a king suite on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Consider the $42 valet fee and $24 daily resort fee when planning ahead. Dog-friendly rooms come with a $125 cleaning charge.
Any time of the year, though, Half Moon Bay provides another world for Bay Area residents who want to escape for the weekend on a tank of gas.
Once used as grazing land for San Francisco Mission Dolores oxen, cattle and horses, the Spanish dons settled on the Half Moon Bay coast during the Mexican War. In the mid-19th century, Mexican and Chilean laborers moved here, so people called it Spanishtown.
In 1874, the town became Half Moon Bay, but it wasn’t incorporated until 1959. Several neighboring towns make up a kind of Greater Half Moon Bay, reaching from rustic northern Montara and Moss Beach farther south to San Gregorio and Pescadero, a sleepy hamlet of 643.
Local farms grow artichokes, sweet peas and pumpkins, which you can buy at San Gregorio General Store, Highway 84 and Stage Road, or at Phipps Country Store, 2700 Pescadero Road. Farm stands along Highway 1 also sell produce. Pie Ranch Farm, which sponsors farm-to-table dinners and dances, has a stand on Highway 1, 5 miles past Pescadero.
On the way in to Half Moon Bay on State Route 92 West, you’ll pass several pumpkin patches. Lemos Farm, 12320 San Mateo Road, which offers train rides, and nearby Pastorino’s Farm are popular ones.
There’s much more to do in Half Moon Bay proper than just buy pumpkins. “When did Half Moon Bay stop being a one-horse town?” my significant other asked me as we walked on Main Street. We both recalled when the town used to be a place to drive to for a day trip, unless you wanted to stay at historic San Benito House, still operating at the center of town.
Fly me to the moon
I popped out of Posh Moon with an armful of clothes, then we bought chocolate bread at Moonside Bakery & Cafe. If you recognize a theme, yes, there’s a lunar flavor to the store names.
We meandered through the shops next door to Pasta Moon, which is Zagat-recommended. It’s a bit pricey for lunch, but dinner choices looked fresh, sustainable and tempting, especially because the place features live music. This weekend, it’s guitar duo Geoff Allan and Ed Dee 6:30-9:30 p.m. Friday, no cover, and the Cypress Jazz Trio 7-10 p.m. Saturday.
Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, 390 Capistrano Road, has a range of interesting beers brewed next door, and I sampled the pear martini, which immediately went to my head. After a few dances to the rock ’n’ roll cover songs of the Cocktail Monkeys, though, I could remember my name again.
Cetrella, 845 Main St., also offers live weekend jazz and rustic Mediterranean cuisine. Friends from Oakland treated us to a celebratory meal there in the romantic and dimly lit dining room.
The same couple recommended the Cypress Inn, 407 Mirada Road, right on Miramar Beach. Rates at this bed and breakfast start at $239 for smallish rooms. We stayed in La Estrella (the Star), which featured terra cotta heated tiles. All 18 rooms boast fantastic water views, with the paved Coastside trail running from the Pillar Point Harbor to south of the Ritz.
If you want to be alone, you can order breakfast delivered to your room on a pretty white tray. We chose to join other guests in the dining room for pancakes and granola, fruit and yogurt. It was fortifying food for our afternoon hike to Princeton-by-the-Sea’s Pillar Point Harbor, full of families walking their dogs and even some surfers at the legendary Mavericks, known for its 50-foot waves and annual surfing contest.
Farther south on Highway 1, elephant seals and sea lions mate and give birth at Año Nuevo State Reserve and State Park from mid-December to March. Docents lead 3-mile walks through the bracing cold during those months with advance reservations for $7. They go on sale online Monday at www.parks.ca.gov.
For more information, visit www.halfmoonbaychamber.org.