Princeton by the Sea, with its odd mixture of commercial, industrial, and recreational industries, feels almost like a childhood playground to me.
It was the sight of most of by childhood fourth of July celebrations. The official fireworks display over the harbor is almost always obscured by the dense summer marine layer, transforming the show into colored blobs flashing in the fog followed by the sharp sound of aerial explosions.
As a child, I was much more interested in the illegal fireworks visitors would ignite on the protected beach of the harbor. Even more interesting was the fifth of July, when a good friend of mine and I would wake up at dawn, ride our bikes to the shore, and begin combing the beach for unused fireworks.
In the early days of my childhood, Romeo’s pier was still an active loading site for the harbor’s commercial fishing activities. The pier, constructed in 1940, is now officially condemned and scheduled for demolition by local authorities. In the time between its closure and fall into disrepair, sneaking out into its mysterious abandoned offices and facilities was a popular pastime for my group of friends.
Today, the only active pier in the harbor is the youngest of the three major piers that served our community in the 20th century: Johnson pier. Amesport Wharf, constructed in the late 1860s, was the first of the three. It was built at the site of modern Miramar, and was falling apart by the time Romeo’s pier came around in 1940. By the time the breakwater was constructed in 1959, Amesport Wharf was reduced to a few lingering pilings.
With its rich and ever-evolving history, Princeton by the Sea remains one of my favorite pieces of our slice of coastline. Having the opportunity to share its hidden treasures with visitors is a delight.
I had one such opportunity today, when a couple from San Francisco decided to take our historic tour of Princeton by the Sea.
When I asked if they’d been there before, they told me, “We’ve driven past here probably a hundred times. We never stopped!”
With the sun shining and the fishermen bustling about the harbor, it was a perfect day to visit. I could understand why the two seemed so pleased with the tour before it had even begun.
We started the tour with a look around Johnson pier. Crab pots piled high on the pier, most of the fishing boats are outfitted for squid harvesting this time of year. Until crab season returns in November, the crab pots will sit unused on the streets, docks, and parking lots of Princeton.
Now the epicenter of the harbor’s economic activity, this area houses a number of historic buildings. Hazel’s, open today as Barbara’s Fishtrap, was a favorite stop for Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio when they were in town. The Princeton Inn, today the site of the Italian restaurant Mezzaluna, was the namesake of this harbor town. The strip of buildings that now house a few local bars and restaurants was once a bustling open fish market.
The sight of fishing boats and the smell of freshly fried calamari wafting from Barbara’s fish trap is evidence that the seafood industry is alive and strong here. The enormous surfboards and the number of surf shops (including Jeff Clark’s Mavericks Surf Shop) are evidence of Princeton’s modern incarnation as a surf town.
Indeed, during most of its history, Princeton by the Sea was largely off the map for surfers. That all changed when Jeff Clark, then a student at Half Moon Bay High School, discovered the unbelievably huge waves breaking just off Pillar Point. That he paddled out and mounted these giants alone at age 17 is a feat in and of itself; the surf spot has claimed the lives of many professional surfers since its surge to popularity in the early nineties. Clark would keep the spot to himself for fifteen years before sharing it with the big wave surfing community. Today, it’s the site of one of the most important big wave surf competitions in the world.
I took my tour group for a walk out to the end of Pillar Point to take a look at the surf spot. Its waves were breaking at the relatively unimpressive size of about ten feet (the big wave season in early to mid winter), but the chance to see the place was impressive enough for these visitors.
“We’ve known about the competition for years and watched it on TV, but we never really realized it was right here in our own backyard,” commented the husband on the tour.
They appreciated the opportunity to discover the best viewing points for the competition, resolving to come watch at the next Mavericks event.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this tour is my inability to share every piece of history that I’ve learned about over the years. With so many anecdotes, historic buildings, and colorful historical characters, I could probably spend more than a day touring Princeton by the Sea.
For now, I need to appreciate the opportunity I have to share this little gem on the coastside with the visitors who come seeking a little insight from a local.
Thanks for reading and we’ll see you here on the coast!
-Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours Guide and Blogger
The Half Moon Bay coastside offers a surprising number of hiking opportunities. From easy paved walks with almost no elevation change to Montara’s impressive peak towering almost 2,000 feet above the sea, there is a trail for hikers of every ability level.
While the longest and highest trails always piqued my interest growing up in this area, years of exploration have lead me to deep appreciation for some of the shorter trails tucked away in the quieter corners of our community.
One of these hidden gems is located just a few miles south of Half Moon Bay proper. Cowell Ranch beach and access trail is a quiet escape. An easy half-mile path leads visitors from an ample parking lot directly to a beautiful beach.
After descending the steps to Cowell Ranch beach, yellow sandstone cliffs tower above beach goers and offer the sensation of near-isolation. Cut off from the noise of highway-1 traffic and out of view of any buildings, one almost feels transported to a place with no people at all.
This is an easy walk with ample free parking, but for those looking to venture further, the trail system extends south along the clifftops and connects to another trailhead, the Cowell-Purisima trail head, just over 2 miles away. Just beyond that trailhead and parking lot is Seal Rock (not to be confused with the Seal Rocks of San Francisco). Lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of the famous harbor seals, the rock’s namesake.
The wonderful thing about this trail system is its versatility. It offers an easy path to the beach with convenient parking and a longer adventure for those who’d like to see more of this quiet stretch of coast. With two trailheads and parking lots, there’s even the possibility for a one-way 2.5 mile hike from the Cowell Ranch beach access parking lot to the Cowell-Purisima parking lot, provided hikers make the proper arrangements for drop-off and pickup.
As a guide at Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours, I’m excited and honored by the opportunity to share this sliver of tranquility just south of our town. After all, the best adventures are those taken in good company.
Thanks for reading and we'll see you here on the coast!
Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours guide and Blogger
In this awesome evening of activities, we infused a little bit of friendly competition between coworkers to inspire a learning spree about the rich history of our coastside community. Afterwards, we celebrated with some wine tasting and mingling over a delicious spread of Italian snacks and Spanish tapas.
The scavenger hunt is a wonderful way to get people working together creatively!
Our group arrived just a touch late to beginning of the session, so with little fanfare we quickly counted off and created random teams. I assigned arbitrary members the role of "team captain," with little explanation of the actual responsibilities of this title.
Most of the members of this corporate group knew each other fairly well, but some worked in different areas. One of the best parts of this activity is it provides the perfect opportunity to build connections across the office where day-to-day work doesn't foster such connections.
With a quick explanation of the rules, the scavenger hunt boundaries, and a hint at the prize, the teams were off. Well, most were. A few clever groups decided to stick around and prod the judges with tricky questions. While this was not strictly forbidden by the rules, they would find little help from the guides.
As the groups were out hunting away, we set up the wine tasting and snacks at our local winery, Barterra.
A little more than an hour later, the first groups started to trickle in.
I don't want to reveal too much about the substance of our scavenger hunt, as internet searches are allowed by the official rules. However, I will say that all of the groups came back with an impressive array of answers, photographs, and creative solutions. As always, the teams that were best able to organize and delegate to the strengths of their members did the best. The winning group took the prize with an impressive sweep, getting all but a couple of the correct answers. They were rewarded with a bottle of sparling wine and a celebratory toast!
As the judges were busy calculating the final scores, our own Mary Corcoran began the wine tasting session. Her enthusiasm and background in the industry make her an excellent sommelier for this event.
After announcing the winners, and celebrating with a toast, the entire group had a chance to taste some of the great wines offered by Barterra. The winery even generously offered a discount to anybody purchasing wine!
This experience was short but sweet. With such a large group, it can be difficult to find a way to encourage bridge building in the limited time we have to work with them. In our experience, a bottle of wine, a little competition, and some quirky local history provide the perfect environment for team building. And what better way to debrief than over some excellent wines, cheese, and traditional Spanish tortilla?
My favorite thing about this group was learning about the fascinating work they do and meeting the awesome individuals I had a chance to talk to after the scavenger hunt. All brought just the right amount competitiveness and playfulness to make the evening as much fun as it was.
At the end of the evening, we said our goodbyes as the group boarded their shuttle (an excellent choice after rigorous wine tasting) and headed to Mezza Luna for a fantastic Italian meal on the coastside.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you here on the sunny coastside soon!
Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours Guide and Blogger
The best part of my job is being able to share this amazing place that I call home with our visitors! This tour started on a sunny Saturday morning at the Ritz Carlton of Half Moon Bay. Our guests were a lovely couple visiting from Pennsylvania. Luckily they were happy to heed our advice of starting this one early, as parking at the nearby redwoods park fills up fast!
We arrived at the coastal redwoods in less than ten minutes after leaving the Ritz.
"The redwoods are so close by!" commented the wife as we claimed the best parking spot. The early morning sun cast a golden hue on the flora still sparkling with morning dew. Purisima Creek sounded almost like a river rushing by the car; this is the end of a record rainfall winter, after all. The three of us took a moment to take in the tranquility of the place before setting out on our hike. We were struck with a profound sense of solitude, being the first to arrive at the park that morning. Away from the sounds of traffic and voices, we had been transported to another world.
From the road we could see a few redwood trees, but the true scale of these amazing centuries-old organisms does not become apparent until you actually stand right next to the tree trunk. Once again I reveled in the joy of showing these trees to somebody who's never seen them before.
This is an excellent photo opportunity. A photo of yourself standing miniaturized next to the biggest trees on earth is the best way to share their size with friends and family. We stopped at the first trees for several minutes taking photos before moving on.
“So, what kinds of animals live here?” asked the husband. I mentioned the shy animals that are hard to spot, including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and the occasional black bear.
“We probably won’t see any of those up here. Banana slugs, however, are almost a guaranteed sighting!” I answered.
“What’s a banana slug?” asked the wife. She had never heard of these animals before.
Standing in the redwoods on a wet morning, I was sure I could show her right away. I looked off the side of the trail, saw a telltale yellow band, and pointed at it.
“There. That’s a banana slug.”
The slug was a small adult, about 3 inches long and still brightly yellow colored. After spotting the first, we looked around and realized we were completely surrounded by the animals. With all the rain, they’d had an enormously successful reproductive cycle. Baby slugs and adults mingled all around us. The visitors observed the animals with the usual curious combination of wonder and disgust.
The redwood forest is a place of absolutes, home to the biggest trees on Earth, the (cousins of) the biggest slugs alive today, and featuring some of the oldest species found on our planet. And on this quiet morning, with the golden sun turning green as it filtered through the redwood canopy, we all felt as if we were in the most beautiful place on Earth.
This group was interested in checking out the south coast as well, the area south of Half Moon Bay closer to the historic community of Pescadero. However, they had not decided what to do yet. We gave them some options and left it up to them. I absolutely LOVE flexible tours like this. The freedom to follow whims makes the tour just that much more personal.
During our redwoods hike, we discussed options. The couple had been disappointed when they went looking for marine mammals at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to no avail. I told them about Año Nuevo, the marine mammal pupping site that provides a similar almost-guarantee of spotting the animals in question.
“It’s a bit of a hike,” I warned. That was no problem for them. We opted to head south towards Año Nuevo. On our way out of the redwoods, the crowds had arrived. The laughter of children running and the chatter of friends on vacation permeated the once-tranquil parking lot. We surrendered our spot and headed south.
The drive from Half Moon Bay past Pescadero to Año Nuevo along highway 1 is an amazing one. The sheer cliffs of San Gregorio State Beach behind the artichoke fields provide vista unique to our section of coastline.
We arrived to Año Nuevo and hiked out. We learned the elephant seals were molting, meaning they were shedding their winter layers of skin. This looks kind of like the animals are suffering some sort of horrible skin disorder. The docents informed us that this is perfectly normal and healthy.
Elephant seals are very big, impressively so. We did not see any adult males, the very biggest of the species. They do not molt with the females and juveniles. Still, we were not disappointed. The beach was littered with mothers and pups, lounging about and throwing sand over themselves.
By the time we got back to the car, we were quite hungry. We headed to downtown Pescadero for a quick lunch.
We stopped at Arcangeli, a bakery and deli on the main strip in Pescadero. The downtown was packed. We struggled to find parking and encountered a huge line at the deli. I had never seen the town so crowded, but so it goes on this coastside. It seems we have more and more visitors every month. And it’s a good thing! These communities rely heavily on tourism for their livelihood.
We grabbed some sandwiches and some fresh-baked chocolate chip scones and chowed down. With no patience for waiting, hunger gnawing at our bellies, we stood outside the deli and ate. The food, especially the fresh baked goods, was awesome (as usual).
We had a lot of fun on this tour, and I really appreciate groups like this that are flexible and just want to have a good time. I feel so lucky to be able to share my beautiful home with wonderful people like this.
Thanks for reading!
-Michael Klear, HMB Coastside Tours Guide & Blogger