If crush season in Napa has you dreading the traffic, crowds, and overbooked restaurants, hook a U-turn and head south to Half Moon Bay. Here you'll find wineries, great restaurants, and an ocean-side attitude that's as casual as a beach bonfire. A long weekend here means sipping your way through top-tier California wines, tucking into an artichoke risotto, and golfing along the shore—or you could also guzzle artisanal beers on the boardwalk or hang 10 with the local surfers. But the best activity might be no activity at all: just kick up your feet, watch the waves roll in. Here's our recipe for the best weekend getaway.
Day 1: Half Moon Bay Basics
Half Moon Bay is centered around two places, the beachfront and Main Street. Bounce between the two and you'll get a feel for the scene. Start on Main Street weaving in-and-out of the charming shops and galleries. Your first stop should be the Half Moon Bay Wine and Cheese Company. Pull up a stool here for an introduction to all the local wines and some farm-fresh cheeses. It's hard to step back to the sidewalk without buying a bottle or some artisanal chocolates. (Tip: Circle back here at the end of your trip to pick up goodies for everyone back home.) This is also the spot where you can pick up a pamphlet guide to the local wineries and see which allow visitors.
But it's not all stemware and pate here. After tooling down Main Street, head out to dinner at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. to get a handle on the beach scene. This dog-friendly restaurant and bar is a chill place where locals dust the sand off their feet and grab a few beers. Along with giant juicy burgers and fries, order a beer sampler and taste your way from light to dark brews with flavors like the "Sandy Beach Blonde Hefeweizen." You may spot some of the professional Mavericks surfers unwinding after testing their talents on 50-foot waves.
Day 2: Art and Artistry
Now that you have you bearings, head farther afield and tap into the creative spirit. Forget the timid seaside watercolors; at Half Moon Bay Art Glass instructors provide an introduction to glass-blowing. In this little hot-box studio, novices can try their hand at molding lumps of molten glass into decorative objects, like glass hearts, pumpkins, or paperweights ribboned with bold hues. But if the heat of the furnace is overwhelming, or you doubt your rod-turning skills, you can always buy one of the ready-made examples done by the master glassblowers. The jewelry also makes a lovely gift.
Next door, you can sample another craft—La Nebbia Winery pours up bottles of big beefy red wines and some extra sweet sparkling. Sample some in the rustic tasting room, or take your glass out to the garden, dotted with giant lemon trees.
Circle back to Main Street for dinner. Local favorite Pasta Moon has just the right level of fine dining for this laid back town, and it displays a level of culinary artistry above other Main Street spots. The dining room, decked out in red leather chairs and Italian posters, gives a cozy backdrop for the meal. Servers have a flair for storytelling, and they set the stage for the local cuisine that follows. You can rely on them for wine recommendations. If it's on the menu, order the excellent, ultra-rich lasagna. And don't leave without a few spoonfuls of the butterscotch pudding for dessert.
Day 3: Animal Attractions
What could be more picturesque than walking on the beach? Saddling up and riding across the terrain in a setting only Danielle Steel could imagine. The Seahorse Ranch outfits riders with gentle horses and takes them on a guided ride across a long looping trail that doubles back on the beach. The proprietress may be a bit gruff, and the riding rules are extensive, but it's worth it to live a romance novel moment.
The four-legged cuteness continues at Harley Farms. A fully functioning goat dairy, this charming pastoral retreat is beyond adorable. Adult goats roam around big pens, nuzzling visitors that come up to the fence, and newborn kids are brought into their own pens for extra TLC. (In season, you can purchase a tour that lets you go into the baby goats' pens and hold them.) The little farmhouse here has an extensive gift shop with goat cheese of every variation—salty feta, honey-lavender chevre, etc.—pressed with seeds, edible flowers, and dried fruit. You'll also find soaps and body lotions made with goat's milk.
After your farmyard romp, end your day back at the beach with dinner at Sam's Chowder House. Set up into the hill of Half Moon Bay, this restaurant gives sweeping views of the waterfront. (Tip: Call ahead for a reservation right around sunset and ask for a table by the window.) The menu is full of seafood favorites; try the homey clam chowder or lobster rolls that would make Mainers blush.
Where to Stay
If you can spring for it, the Ritz-Carlton is lush to the extreme. Their public spaces are tasteful, with substantial dark wood furniture and fireplaces evoking a tony estate. Each guest room circling the bay has its own private fire-pit, the ultimate sunset-viewing spot. Golf-lovers tee off at one of two the 72-par courses and then rest weary muscles in the spa with an Ocean Mist Stones massage.
For a leaner budget, try the Beach House Hotel. Here, you'll be situated closer to the action along the beachfront, but alas, you'll also be closer to the fog horn, which never stops sounding.
The closest major airport is SFO, but some small planes fly into the Half Moon Bay Airport. The drive from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay is just a 45 minute ride south on California's gorgeous Route 1 (depending on traffic). You will need a car to reach the attractions farther away from the center of town.
Photo credits: Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay courtesy of Ritz Carlton; Pasta Moon lasagna courtesy of Pasta Moon; All other photos courtesy of Maria Hart