PESCADERO, Calif. — The rain, glints of silver in a starless night, drummed a frenzied beat on top of our rental car. Then, just ahead, we saw our lodging like a beacon in the night. No, wait, it was a beacon in the night.
My friend Shellee and I were driving to Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. Because both of us missed out on the backpacking-through-Europe phase in our 20s, we didn't quite know what to expect of a place where you had to bring your own sleeping bag.
But we were inspired by a chance to sleep, for $16 per person per night, beneath a lighthouse on a stretch of undeveloped coastline.
"Do you suppose it will be one cavernous room like in 'Oliver Twist'?" Shellee asked.
After picking up a car Friday at Oakland's airport, we cut across San Francisco Bay on California 92 until it joined California 1 at the seaside hamlet of Half Moon Bay.
Feeling smug about how much money we were going to save on our oceanfront lodging, we splurged on dinner at San Benito House in Half Moon Bay, 20 miles north of the hostel. The first course alone, roasted butternut squash soup, thick and fragrant with dollops of fontina cheese and fried sage, won me over long before my entree of Chilean sea bass with a green olive sauce.
We were pleasantly surprised when we saw the hostel's white cottages, which originally housed Coast Guard employees. Our room contained a bathroom with a spotless shower. Three sets of bunk beds, lavender dolphins painted on the walls and the room's girls-only policy made me feel as though I was at a third-graders' slumber party. Our bunk was next to a window. Next door, men with guitars lounged on bunks in the boys' room, and down the hall a family willing to spend $12 more for it had a room to themselves. All of us shared a kitchen and dining room, with a vase of fresh flowers on the table, and a homey living room. The hostel, operated by Hostelling International, can accommodate up to 52 people. (HI members get a $3 break on rates.)
We said hello to our roommates: a Canadian hiker, her engaging 9-year-old daughter and a flushed coed who, despite the storm, had just returned from a soak with her beau in the hostel's hot tub, which is perched on a cliff over the ocean. The hot tub is open only to hostel guests, who have to sign up for half-hour soaks. The next time slot was open, but the cautious Shellee's response was, "Hello, bronchitis." So we turned in.
Late that night the rain eased, and I looked out the window at the lighthouse's sweeping beams and the white smudge of Venus. Snuggling into my sleeping bag, I thought it would be hard for a fancy hotel to top this location.
Saturday morning, we breakfasted on exceptional buttermilk pancakes at Duarte's restaurant, run by the same family for four generations in nearby Pescadero. We planned on eating dinner at Duarte's too--the only other choices in town were a deli and a taco shop. It was a good choice, seconded by recommendations from local residents we had met at San Benito's turn-of-the-century bar the night before.
After breakfast we returned to the hostel to do morning chores (vacuuming is part of hostel etiquette) and to stow our gear in the car; the hostel is closed and locked from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Jana Freston, Pigeon Point's laid-back hostess, gave us directions to her favorite hiking trail, from Bean Hollow just north of the hostel to Pebble Beach (not the one of golf fame but a hidden cove carpeted with colorful stones). We walked through tide pools and up ocean bluffs where calla lilies grew wild; just as the sun appeared, we came to a beach with pebbles buffed to a shine by the surf.
By dusk we were back at Duarte's, dining on steamed artichokes and fresh halibut. When our waiter discovered we were staying at the lighthouse, he asked if we had tried the hot tub yet.
"You have to get the last appointment so there's no time limit," he said. "The fog rolls in. It's pitch black, but when the lighthouse beams sweep by, you see waves crashing, sending up sea spray like fireworks."
It sounded as though he was recalling a well-etched encounter.
Saving the hot tub for another visit, we opted instead for the restaurant's signature dessert: warm olallieberry pie a la mode.
Sunday morning, a flier on the hostel bulletin board touted breakfast at the Cash Store in tiny Davenport, 18 miles south. We expected a diner but walked into a brick room of antique furniture, ethnic textiles and carved masks.
Surrounded by art, we began to waffle about taking a guided walk at An~o Nuevo State Reserve, just south of the hostel, to see elephant seals during breeding season. As hostel guests, we had first dibs on reservations for the popular hike.
In the end, we forced ourselves to rush through a breakfast of huevos rancheros with black beans and fresh avocado and arrived at the reserve in time for the tour.