Not too far south of San Francisco on the Coast Highway, you come to Pacifica. A sleepy little town of 38,000 (well, it seems sleepy to big-city dwellers), it has three main beaches along its 2-1/4 mile coastline. If you start at the Pacifica Pier, you can walk south along Sharp Park Beach (bordering Sharp Park golf course), to the site of Mori Point Inn, built by Stefano Mori, an Italian immigrant farmer in the 1870s. The roadhouse was taken over by his son Jack, who turned it into a speakeasy during Prohibition of the ’20s, smuggling in boot-legged Canadian whiskey from offshore. The feds caught up with Jack in 1923, confiscating 24,000 cases of liquor and closing down the establishment.
A steep flight of wooden stairs (now known as Bootlegger’s Steps) leads directly up to a high bluff overlooking the ocean, where you can walk along the coast toward Half Moon Bay. The uninterrupted view of the Pacific is breathtaking.
If you don’t climb the steps, and instead turn left at Mori Point, you can walk along a restored wetland area at the end of the lake (Laguna Salada) that is the habitiat of the endangered California red-legged frog. I had ventured here a few times, but never saw a frog until I met some locals, who told me exactly where to look. The walk also encounters crows, gulls, unabashed squirrels, lizards, and lots of other wildlife.
Heading south from San Francisco toward Half Moon Bay, a worthwhile stop is Princeton-by-the-Sea, a small fishing community with a great collection of seafood restaurants on a wharf overlooking Pillar Point, the site of the (mostly) annual Mavericks surf competition. In the winter, a unique combination of factors makes for monster waves that attract hard-core surfers to the invitation-only event. The rest of the year, fishermen moor their boats here and fish for salmon, Dungeness crab, and other fresh seafood in season, which they sell directly off of the pier. A reliably good place to eat is Ketch Joanne, serving great seafood dinners, as well as traditional breakfasts, sandwiches, and burgers. Their Dungeness crab Louie or cocktail is not to be missed.
Kayak rentals are available by the hour on Princeton’s harbor, which is protected from the ocean by a series of breakwaters.
Walking along the rocky jetty at Pillar Point on a breezy May afternoon, I found a bird skull (maybe from a seagull) and vertebra, as well as a lot of crab pincers and some seashells. You never know what you’re going to find at Pillar Point!