The majority of leisure travelers who fly into Bay Area airports head into San Francisco, out to the wine regions, or down the freeway towards Monterey to explore Big Sur. Most skip over San Mateo County, the region in between San Francisco and Monterey. And that's fine for those who do visit. Less crowding makes it easier to enjoy the region's dramatic coastline, its charming small towns like Half Moon Bay and Princeton by the Sea, and its bounty of locally produced vegetables, fruit, and flowers.
"There is so much diversity and so much to do here, especially if you like the outdoors," says lifelong San Mateo resident Barbara Evers. "There are gorgeous long walking beaches along the coast and hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can hike through redwood forests and get spectacular vistas with the Pacific on one side and the Bay on the other."
Half Moon Bay, an upscale but friendly little town, is nearby a number of good beaches. "Cowell Ranch State Beach is my favorite, a sort of hidden place that's a half-mile walk off the highway," says Evers. "My husband and I love to go there in the evening with a bottle of wine and watch the sun set." You can see a spectacle of a different kind on the beach in Año Nuevo State Reserve, where the world's largest mainland population of elephant seals comes to breed. Breeding season occurs in the winter and spring, but seals can be seen year-round.
In the summertime, visitors traveling through this rich horticultural and agricultural region can also shop at numerous farmers' and floral markets, pick their own berries at organic farms, and go on nursery tours. Plus, the county supports area restaurants that use local produce, so foodies who like their meals farm-to-table fresh have lots of choices. "Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero is one of my favorites," says Evers. "I love their cream of artichoke and green chile soups."
Where to stay: San Mateo County has a wide range of accommodations options, many quite affordable. Hostelling International runs an all-ages-welcome hostel with private rooms at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero. Dorm beds start at $19 per night, while private rooms start at $53. You'll find a number of reasonably-priced B&Bs in and around Half Moon Bay, including the Victorian-era San Benito House. Summer rates start at only $65 per night. For outdoor lovers, Evers recommends staying in the tent bungalows at Costanoa, an "eco adventure resort" 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Summer rates start at $115 per night. "They have everything from horseback riding and guided hikes to kids' activities and a spa," says Evers.
Getting there: Half Moon Bay is about a half-hour drive from San Francisco International airport. JetBlue now flies to this airport (not just Oakland and San Jose), and Southwest will begin service in August. To compares fares from your city, use SmarterTravel.com's price-comparison tool.
Online resources: For more information, visit the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau website, Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce website and the California State Parks website.