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Home » California Travel, Culinary Adventures, San Francisco & Wine Country

The Moss Beach coastal stroll — Highway 1’s best kept secret?

Submitted by on June 2, 2009 – 12:38 pm
A breathtaking beach walk; a scenic cliff-top hike; a chance to see harbor seals up-close-and-personal; and if you keep your eyes peeled, perhaps a whale to two breaching and blowing or, at this time of year, flocks of pelicans heading north.

Story and photos by Wanda Hennig

The pathway to the Fitzgerals Marine Reserve.

The pathway to the Fitzgerals Marine Reserve.

Then there are the rock pools to explore; sand for the kids to dig in if you take them along; and an incidental visit to one of the world’s most famous surfing spots, which just happens to be a marker on the trail.

And if you’re hungry or thirsty, about three-quarters of the way through your ambling, rambling or power-walking jaunt, and whether you’ve had a picnic en route or not, there is the opportunity to stop for brunch or lunch — or dinner if you choose to drive back later — at a historic restaurant and former speakeasy with a resident ghost.

If it takes your fancy you might ask at the restaurant (the Moss Beach Distillery, which also has a very inviting bar) — if they’ve reintroduced their oyster shooters. They were once famous for these — the succulent mollusks served in a shot glass with vodka if my memory serves me correctly, and a dash of horseradish mixed with ketchup.

Families come to snap shots of harbor seals at FMR.

Families come to snap shots of harbor seals at FMR.

They stopped offering them a couple of years back but rumor has it the exotic treats are about to make their return.

About this Moss Beach adventure

One of my favorite things to do in Northern California, not just along Highway 1 by anywhere in Nor Cal, is this walking adventure that takes you from the entrance of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve at Moss Beach, south along a three mile stretch of beach that disappears, in parts, when the tide comes in, to the sandy shore at Mavericks.

The beach trail ends at Mavericks.

The beach trail ends at Mavericks.

This can take less than an hour — or a couple of hours — depending on how often you stop to scan the rock pools, paddle in the chilly Pacific or watch the harbor seals reclining on the rocks and taking dips in the water. When they’re close to shore, they seem to watch you back as intently as you’re watching them.

The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, a county park and nature preserve owned by the State of California and managed by San Mateo County, has tidal pool, erosive bluffs and — way

Distillery steamers (clams).

Distillery steamers (clams).

up above — a cliff-top trail with sweeping views and cypress and eucalyptus forests. You reach this trail for your return jaunt by scrambling up a steep path from the beach that looks out toward the famed big-wave surfing spot (that didn’t happen this year), Mavericks.

At the top of the path that leads from the beach, you get a view across to the harbor town of Princeton. It is from this lofty spot that you head back, north, along the winding cliff path with its magical views. The path leads you to a stretch of road that continues past the famed Moss Beach Distillery Restaurant before taking you along a bluff trail that cuts through a swatch of cypress and eucalyptus forest and leads you back to your car.

The cliff walk is an any-weather walk, if you’re prepared to be dashed by strong and chilly winds when the weather is bad. The beach walk is only possible at low tide. Weekdays, especially out of season or in inclement weather, you’re likely to have the whole stretch in both directions pretty much to yourselves.

The historic haunted restaurant.

The historic haunted restaurant.

The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is about 20 miles south of San Francisco. If you turn off Highway 1 at Cypress Avenue and head toward the ocean, you can stop in at the Cypress Flower Farm where Sharon Dardenelle and her assistant, Jason Fuller, will invite you to take a stroll through their nursery that has about half California natives and half drought-tolerant hardy Mediterranean plants that do will in coastal climes plus a few gorgeous rose bushes. Stock up on edible herbs to take home for your garden. Then continue to the official Fitzgerald parking lot and visitor’s center, where seven days a week, you can see a small exhibition of marine fossils.

The Moss Beach Distillery Restaurant is open for brunch on Sundays, when they serve what they call a bottomless glass of champagne. But don’t get too excited. It’s really California sparkling and most people drink it with orange juice. Blankets are offered for those who want to look out over the sea from the viewing deck with its fire pits, also there to keep you warm on foggy days.

Keeping warm on the restaurant's viewing deck.

Keeping warm on the restaurant's viewing deck.

Frank’s Place and “the ghost”

If you click here, you can read the full history of the restaurant. In brief, during Prohibition, the San Mateo coast was a favorite spot for rum running and bootlegging. One of the most successful speakeasies of the time was “Frank’s Place,” built in 1927 on the cliffs above a secluded beach — a perfect location for the clandestine activities of Canadian rum-runners who, under cover of darkness and fog, brought illegal whiskey to shore and dragged it up a steep cliff to waiting vehicles. What was then Franks — now the Moss Beach Distillery Restaurant — benefitted from the illegal trade, becoming a popular nightspot for silent film stars, politicians and mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. A former Frank’s customers still frequents the place — the resident ghost, “The Blue Lady.” She is said to be trying to recapture the romance and excitement of Frank’s speakeasy years. Her story, documented in the television program “Unsolved Mysteries,” remains a crowd-puller.

The restaurant puts an emphasis on fresh and local where they can, like any eatery worth its salt in San Mateo County these days. Executive chef Brian Barisione conjures up seasonal specials to augment restaurant favorites such as the distillery steamers (clams stewed in chardonnay, garlic, fresh tomatoes, butter and cilantro) served with toasted ciabatta for dipping. This comes as a starter or an entree.

Beach views from the cliff.

Beach views from the cliff.

Other menu standards include “Frank’s colossal prawns” (grilled and herb marinated) served with herb mashed potatoes, baby green beans and apricot sauce; and on the meatier side, a grilled half-rack of lamb chops and the New York strip steak that comes, at this time of year, with asparagus, hand-cut fried potatoes and herb garlic butter. It’s what I think of as good old familiar comfort food. Think of the beach walk as priming the appetite. For ideas on where to stay, see the Half Moon Bay chamber site.

So, is this Moss Beach adventure Highway 1’s best kept secret? Perhaps not anymore. I was, in fact, loath to share it. But I have in the past with friends. And if you haven’t found it for yourself — and let’s face it, I’m just a gal from good old South Africa and neither a California native nor a San Mateo resident and I found it — you probably will never go. If you do, it’s unlikely you’ll become a regular. But — who knows? Let me know if you go!

© Wanda Hennig, 2009

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