Magazine article Sunset

The Coast Is Clear

Magazine article Sunset

The Coast Is Clear

Article excerpt

Just south of San Francisco, San Mateo County's Coastside is one of the West's most magnificent, least-known shores

* Along the coast 30 miles south of San Francisco, a thin haze drifting in from offshore softens the jagged seam of continent and ocean. A squadron of pelicans scuds toward the distant white lighthouse. Something flashes in the water, vanishes, then flashes again. From a blufftop trail, I realize it's a pair of dolphins, tracing a sine curve across the surface of Half Moon Bay.

I'm less than an hour's drive from Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and I wonder: How can this be? This lovely coastline--called coastside by locals--is so close to the Bay Area's 6.5 million residents, it's astonishing to find it so little touched by development. And the question swirling over the shore is this one: can coastside remain an island of peace in an urbanizing world?

Within coastside's coves and in its frigid water are harbor seals, humpback whales, America's largest mainland northern elephant seal rookery, and hundreds of seabirds, including black oystercatchers, turnstones, and marbled murrelets. Onshore, clusters of beach houses are punctuated by long stretches of rolling dunes, artichoke fields, and pumpkin patches--the orange globes ripening in time for Half Moon Bay's signature gourd festival this month.

Supervising Ranger Gary Strachan, who has been looking after Coastside's state parks for 15 years, says, "There's no place like this in the world."

No, there isn't. Which is a good reason to appreciate San Mateo County's coastline and--even better--to explore it.

A coast of dreams, forgotten and fulfilled

What residents call Coastside stretches along the Pacific for about 50 miles, from Devil's Slide in the north to Ano Nuevo Point near the Santa Cruz County line. In between, as you wind along State Highway 1, are high humpbacked cliffs and scalloped coves, long loping coastal plains that rise up to the redwood-shaded Coast Range, and a series of small towns: Montara, Princeton, El Granada, Miramar, Half Moon Bay (with 12,600 residents, Coastside's metropolis), San Gregorio, and Pescadero.

It's a coastline that has long lured people with dreams of riches or escape. In 1858, when James Johnston built his saltbox house in Half Moon Bay for an extravagant $10,000, settlers were poised for explosive urban growth. The Ocean Shore Railroad would connect resorts from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Oil deposits near Purissima Creek were going to make a fortune.

None of these plans panned out, although Johnston's home south of town still stands, marked with a plaque. Through the next century, Coastside remained bucolic. In place of oil wells and resorts, cool-weather crops such as artichokes, pumpkins, and brussels sprouts flourished in the climate of mild temperatures and summer fog.

Now the coast is experiencing pressure and possibilities undreamed of by James Johnston. In December, a 261-room Ritz-Carlton with two 18-hole golf courses is opening in Half Moon Bay. Last year the hip hotel chain Joie de Vivre Hospitality launched Costanoa, a luxury camping resort near Ano Nuevo State Reserve. There, for about $70 a night, guests can doze off to the ocean's murmur in an "ecotent bungalow"--a tarp-covered cabin frame with platform bed and electric light. At the general store, they can purchase white truffle-infused oil or $135 satin pajamas.

Luxury amid coastal wilderness is beguiling but concerns locals, who fear too many sybarites will spoil the coast. Half Moon Bay's population has grown 42 percent in the last 10 years. "The joke around town used to be that someday we'd be like Carmel," says Sandy Obester, who has owned Obester Winery in Half Moon Bay with her husband, Paul, for 23 years. "But now, I don't know..."

Holding back the tide?

Still, there is evidence that San Mateo County will be able to withstand the pressure. …

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