Pacifica, Montara, and Princeton

From the San Francisco city limits, Hwy-1 runs along the Pacific Ocean through the rural and almost totally undeveloped coastline of San Mateo County. The first eight miles or so are high-speed freeway, but after passing through the suburban communities of Daly City and Pacifica, the pace abruptly slows to a scenic cruise. Pacifica, which has a long pier, a popular surfing beach, a bowling alley, an ocean-view Taco Bell, and a handy Holiday Inn Express hotel, makes a good edge-of-town base for seeing the San Francisco area. South of Pacifica, two-lane Hwy-1 hugs the decomposing cliff tops of Devil’s Slide, where the terrifying old highway has been converted into a cycling and hiking path following completion of the current tunnel.

The first real place south of Pacifica is the ramshackle beach town of Montara, where the old but still functioning lighthouse has been partly converted into the HI Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel (650/728-7177).

South of Montara, Hwy-1 bends inland around the rugged shores of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (650/728-3584), a wonderful (but fragile) tide pool area filled with anemones and other delicate sea creatures. The tide pools are visible at low tide only; look, but don’t touch! Hwy-1 continues south past the Pillar Point Harbor at Princeton-by-the-Sea, where you can enjoy a different sort of sealife appreciation: the fresh fish ’n’ chips (plus nice wines and cold beers) at Barbara’s Fishtrap (650/728-7049, cash only).

Half Moon Bay

The first sizable coastal town south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay (pop. 11,324) is 28 miles from the city but seems much more distant. A quiet farming community that’s slowly but surely changing into a Silicon Valley exurb, Half Moon Bay still has an all-American Main Street lined by hardware stores, cafés, bakeries, and the inevitable art galleries and B&Bs. The main event hereabouts is the annual Art & Pumpkin Festival, held mid-October, which celebrates the coming of Halloween with a competition to determine the world’s largest pumpkin—winning gourds weigh more than 1,500 pounds!

Until the construction of the $550-a-night beachfront Ritz-Carlton golf resort, the coastline of Half Moon Bay was almost completely undeveloped, but it’s still pretty nice and accessible, with a four-mile-long string of state park beaches at the foot of bluff-top vegetable farms and horse ranches. The town also retains its rural feel. But thanks to the presence of so many Silicon Valley billionaires just over the hills, it has significantly better restaurants. The best fish tacos (and great fish ’n’ chips) can be had at the Flying Fish Bar & Grill (211 San Mateo Rd., 650/712-1125), off Hwy-92 at the north end of Main Street. Excellent and not outrageously expensive Italian specialties are on the menu at Pasta Moon (315 Main St., 650/726-5125).

Pescadero and Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The 50 miles of coastline between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz are one of the great surprises of the California coast: The virtually unspoiled miles offer rocky tide pools and driftwood-strewn beaches beneath sculpted bluffs topped by rolling green fields of brussels sprout, artichokes, and U-pick berry patches. Access to the water is not always easy, and while surfers seem to park along Hwy-1 and walk across the fields to wherever the waves are breaking, for visitors it’s best to aim for one of the half-dozen state parks, like San Gregorio, Pomponio, Bean Hollow, or Año Nuevo.

The biggest town hereabouts, Pescadero (pop. 643) is a mile or so inland from Hwy-1 and well worth the short detour for a chance to sample the fresh fish, great pies, and other home-cooked treats at Duarte’s Tavern (202 Stage Rd., 650/879-0464, daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner), at the south end of the block-long downtown.

Less than 10 miles south of Pescadero, the photogenic beacon of Pigeon Point Light Station has appeared in innumerable TV and print commercials. The graceful 115-foot-tall brick tower is closed, but the grounds are open for tours (at 1pm Thurs.-Mon. 10am-4pm, donation), and the adjacent lighthouse quarters function as the popular HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel (650/879-0633), which has dorms beds, family-friendly private rooms, and a hot tub perched above the crashing surf.

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