HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — The glossy elephant seal pup reached around its stuffed sausage of a body and, given its girth, made an improbable move. Scratching its head with a flipper, it sighed, then gazed lazily at me as if to say, "What are you doing hiking here when there's so much lolling about to be done?"
The pup had a point. It was Friday, and relaxation should have been the mode. But there I was a few weeks ago, standing atop a dune at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, 55 miles south of San Francisco. A naturalist and a gaggle of us tourists had hiked a mile or more out to these fog-laden shores.
Our mission: to see these creatures at their largest mainland breeding ground in the world. Afterward my husband, Jay, and I planned to explore the shops and galleries in the town of Half Moon Bay, about 20 miles north.
Part 1 of our mission had gone well: The beach was covered with velvety northern elephant seal pups, many shaped like small blimps. Nearby were their mothers, who had come ashore in December to give birth, nurse and mate again. Their pups grow from a birth weight of 75 pounds to an average of 300 pounds in less than a month. Understandably, the moms looked tired.
And the males? Those 21/2-ton, Buick-size masses of blubber with the bulbous schnozzles? By late March they had left on a 3,000-mile journey to feed on high-protein fish near Alaska.
We were slightly disappointed to have missed the guys, but as our knowledgeable guide, Earle Jones, explained, for the male elephant seal it's veni, vidi, vici. If you want to see their bloody battles for chief stud rights or the beachside show that marks mating season, you have to visit the reserve December through March, when reservations are required. It's a tough ticket; in an effort not to disturb the animals, the park limits admission, and weekends book up quickly.
In April the beach is reopened for unrestricted access as it converts from nursery to molting grounds for females and juveniles and, in summer, for older males. (Free permits, available at the park entrance station 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, are required.) Naturalists remain on the beach to answer questions and make sure visitors don't get too close to the animals.
With so much going on at the reserve year-round, I asked Jones when he thought was the best time to visit Ano Nuevo.
"Any time," Jones said. "This place is so rich in history, wildlife and natural beauty, you'll never be disappointed."
As we found out, the same goes for Half Moon Bay.
Once a sleepy little town of farmers who prize the rich coastal soil and surfers who covet the legendary waves at a spot called Mavericks, Half Moon Bay also has become home to great restaurants, galleries and a swinging jazz bar.
The opening of a Ritz-Carlton last year and the inevitable creep of Silicon Valley suburbia haven't tinged Half Moon Bay's charm. When we strolled Main Street, the backward - baseball - cap - versus -battered-cowboy-hat count was about even. Sure, plenty of clothing stores in town sell $200 walking shoes and $45 scented candles, but there's also Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel, where you can purchase Bag Balm, baby chicks and all manner of rakes, shovels and brooms.
Though downtown is picture-book cute, we chose to stay at the Cypress Inn, about five minutes up the coast at Miramar Beach. As long as we had come all this way, Jay and I wanted to fall asleep to the sound of the surf.
We needed the rest, and we weren't disappointed. Our room, La Luna, was small. But at $215 a night plus tax, it was the least expensive, and the door and windows that opened to a deck overlooking the beach made it feel more spacious. (Weekend rates at the inn run $215 to $365 per night.) True to its name, La Luna was painted a silvery blue and, like the rest of the inn, was decorated with a Southwestern touch.
After our Ano Nuevo hike on Friday, we relaxed at the inn with hors d'oeuvres and wine, included in the rate, and the innkeeper gave us directions to Cafe Gibraltar, our dinner destination.
If a friend hadn't strongly recommended Cafe Gibraltar, we might have overlooked this treasure in nearby Montara. Run by chef Jose Luis Ugalde and wife Liam Durkee, the restaurant is unpretentious, and the food, which tends toward Mediterranean, is spectacular.
While Jay enjoyed grilled petrale sole with a blood-orange sauce, I had artichoke hearts stuffed with red onions, sage and feta cheese, baked and served over pearl couscous. Both entrees were delicious, as were our salads. The food was as beautifully presented as it was tasty, and we loved the easy atmosphere of the place. Families with children dined nearby, and at about 9 o'clock, the whole place began to wind down--a delightful contrast of big-city cuisine with a small-town setting.