How Do I Love Thee, Pillar Point Harbor? Let me Count the Ways
It’s the real deal. It’s home to sea-wizened commercial fishermen (and women) and their fleets, people who live aboard ancient boats that have been berthed here for years, aggressive sea lions that compete for the day’s catch, and local hangouts for coffee and beer pre- and post-fishing.
It’s a gathering place for all kinds of people. Recreational fishing, fresh catch, local restaurants, and water sports attract locals and visitors from around the San Francisco Bay area and from around the world. People watching is almost as much fun as bird and marine mammal watching.
It’s a great place for a relaxed sail. My children learned to sail in the protected harbor at the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club, an unpretentious club based right on the harbor. The Yacht Club sponsors regattas on a regular basis, from tiny Lasers to the Cal-20 fleet lovingly maintained by club members. Fancy a sailing lesson or a scenic cruise on a beautiful catamaran? It’s available at Pillar Point Harbor. If you’re in luck, you’ll see more impressive yachts sailing in for weekend cruiseouts from around the San Francisco Bay Area to the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club.
It’s home base for Mavericks, one of the top 10 big surf spots in the world. Just out the mouth of the harbor, Mavericks lures big-wave surfers from around the world. There’s a distinct northern California surfer vibe here. It’s not for the faint of heart: the dark cold water, waves that can exceed 50 feet, and shallow sharp reef combine to make this one of the most dangerous surf spots in California, if not the world. Inside the harbor at Johnson Pier is Jeff Clark’s Maverick’s Surf Shop. Jeff Clark was the first to venture out to Mavericks on his own back in the 1970’s, and today you can sometimes find him at the shop. He designs Jeff Clark surfboards which are coveted (and shipped) all over the world, but even if you aren’t a surfer, there’s cool gear to buy there.
It’s a water sports haven. Depending on the weather and wind, there’s standup paddleboarding or windsurfing. Kayaking is a great sport in the harbor or out the mouth of the harbor for ocean kayaking. And you don’t have to lug your own equipment - there are a couple options for kayak and SUP rental right at the harbor.
It’s a foodie heaven. I’m so excited to see an increasing number of fantastic restaurants. Some prefer the old school ambiance of Ketch Joanne’s or Barbaras Fish Trap. Others want an international experience - Seville for authentic Spanish tapas or Mezza Luna for house-made pasta. There are great happy hour opportunities too - Half Moon Bay Brewing Company features their own microbrews and specialty cocktails on special all afternoon for those who want to laze away the afternoon. No designated driver? There are some great harbor and ocean view hotels and inns here as well within easy walking distance of the local restaurants.
It’s eclectic. Zoning is haphazard, with boatyards next to fish wholesalers next to Elegant Cheesecakes next to a new distillery, next to Twice as Nice odd lots, next to boat launches, next to the American Legion Hall. You get the picture, and it’s what I love about this area in a time where picturesque communities are becoming more and more like downtown Disney.
It’s got history! There are native burial sites, shipwrecks, and a legacy of shady dealings including a shootout between federal agents and bootleggers during the Prohibition. History is a palpable presence here, especially in the shadow of the historic, crumbling Romeo Pier jutting out into the harbor.
It’s a marine mammal and seabird watchers’ dream location. There’s a protected salt marsh right along the shore, plovers skittering at the peaceful water’s edge, sea lions claiming abandoned docks, and pelicans enjoying their catch of the day. Occasionally we get a run of anchovies which brings in birds by the thousands. And it's a launch point for whale watching. Prime time is November through March, when California gray whales are cruising close to shore and the whale watching cruises abound. But there are whales year-round, with viewing access via charter boats.
Did I mention shopping? There are hidden gems for pottery, did I mention cheesecake?, surf accessories, vodka, odd lot goods, antiques, and of course fresh fish. The retail business is volatile, with businesses moving in and out constantly but there’s an undercurrent of wholesale and artisan purveyors making this area a fabulous area for adventurous shoppers.
Mary Corcoran | Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours