Half Moon Bay, Calif. — "DON'T paddle outside of the harbor," the goateed worker at the kayak rental shop tells me as I pull on my blue splash jacket and grab a paddle. The waves outside Pillar Point Harbor can be unpredictable and dangerous.
Sure, I say. But I don't tell him that the waves are exactly what I came to see. I planned to kayak past the breakers off the shores of Half Moon Bay to get a closer look at Maverick's, a point break feared and admired by surfers around the world. I've heard that only the most insane ride these steamrollers, which, in winter, rise up to 50 feet high and break on a cluster of bulldozer-sized boulders about half a mile from shore.
I slide a bright red sea kayak into the choppy harbor waters and paddle hard toward open sea. Cold gusts keep shoving my kayak toward shore, and my arms and legs are already burning from a two-hour mountain bike ride in a nearby redwood forest earlier that day. What's more, I had hoped to finish my kayaking trip in time to visit a much-touted tide pool up the coast.
I eventually decide to heed the advice of goatee dude. After an hour of paddling, I head for shore, vowing to return another day to Maverick's.
During Prohibition, bootleggers slipped shallow-hulled boats past Half Moon's giant boulders under cover of night and fog. But today the bay has outgrown its slippery reputation as a port of entry for rumrunners. Now it's all about harbor-side seafood joints, antiques shops, cozy B&Bs and an annual pumpkin festival -- an ideal weekend getaway for Starbucks-loving urbanites from the Bay Area.
But as I discovered, this coastal town 28 miles south of San Francisco, at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is also a great outdoors playground. I set aside six days and packed a bike, a backpack, hiking boots, wading sandals and binoculars. In the end, I fell short on time and gear.
ROADS TO GLORY
The lush Santa Cruz Mountains cradle Half Moon Bay against the sea. One way to get here is to take on the Devil's Slide, a crumbling promontory that has been the bane of the state Department of Transportation. When the road is intact, Highway 1 from San Francisco snakes along steep cliffs, over boulder-strewn shores, dropping into Half Moon Bay from the north.
But Devil's Slide has been a hellish neighbor, shutting down Highway 1 nine times in the last 70 years with rockslides, mudslides and roadway fissures. The last Devil's Slide closure -- in April 2006 -- lasted four months and cost Caltrans $9 million to repair.
During one visit, I checked into a historic bed-and-breakfast called the Goose & Turrets. During afternoon tea, the proprietor served a plate of freshly made chocolate chip cookies, which he dubbed "Devil's Slide." They're just like the cliff, he said, moist and fragile.
The alternate route into Half Moon Bay is California 92, a winding, two-lane road that runs east-west from San Mateo. But when Devil's Slide closes Highway 1, California 92 is a gridlocked mess and the region's tourism business -- a $16-million annual industry -- falters.
So why isn't everyone cheering the news that Caltrans is boring two freeway tunnels to bypass Devil's Slide and that it plans to widen California 92? Well, some residents fear that safer, more reliable access into Half Moon Bay will invite more growth and development, and that means a mini Monterey: commercial and crowded.
But there is still time to catch the unspoiled Half Moon Bay. The tunnels won't open until 2011.
SLUGS AND SEALS
I'm on a mountain bike, streaking down a shady canyon trail at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about 25 minutes east of Half Moon Bay. It's cool and moist here. Overhead, a canopy of old-growth redwoods, Douglas firs and tanoaks blots out the sun. Furry green moss covers tangles of branches and trunks that border Purisima Creek.
The air is dewy sweet, and the trails are carpeted in pine needles and oak leaves. As I speed down the trail, my eye catches a repeated flash of bright yellow: Banana slugs the size of double corona cigars litter the leafy path. The blazing downhill trails earn high praise from Bay Area mountain bikers. But on this weekday morning, I ride for two hours without seeing another soul.
I arrive at the preserve along a writhing two-lane road that shimmies past horse farms and flower ranches. The entrance -- a small dirt parking lot marked by a small wooden sign -- was so inconspicuous I nearly drove past it.
The same thing happened later that day when I drove about a mile north of Maverick's to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, dubbed by one longtime Half Moon Bay resident as the best tide pool in the state. The entrance was a small, sandy parking lot in the shade of a cypress grove, hidden behind a residential neighborhood. Drive to a tide pool like this in Monterey, San Pedro or San Diego, and you'll find a big, crowded parking lot, staffed by attendants demanding a steep hourly rate.