San Francisco: Surf haven gets ritzy by the reef

By Alex Robertson

Half Moon Bay is the land of fresh ocean produce and fine wine, writes Alex Robertson

The swanky Ritz Carlton's restaurants and bars are open to the public, and offer a wine list boasting 1000 choices. Photo / Supplied
The swanky Ritz Carlton's restaurants and bars are open to the public, and offer a wine list boasting 1000 choices. Photo / Supplied

Two harbour porpoises appeared about 10m away, their heads followed by dorsal fins and tails describing perfect arcs through the sea surface.

I was in a kayak just outside the breakwater to Pillar Point Harbour, about an hour's drive south down the coast from San Francisco. This is less than 1km from world-famous surf break Maverick's, where waves of up to 15m can be seen through the winter months as north-Pacific storms build huge swells that crash on to a reef system about 800m from shore.

But this was late summer and the Pacific was living up to its name.

I was with California Canoe and Kayak, which have operated since 1995 from the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club (described by one local as a drinking club with a sailing problem).

A fog horn let us know that another 30 seconds had passed, the only sound apart from the regular slop from my paddle and the lip lap of the ocean against the kayak.

That was until the porpoises came - then there were whoops and excited babble from our group proclaiming a sign of good fortune.

A couple of seals watched lazily as we raced back to land. They knew the big waves weren't coming for a while yet.

The Half Moon Bay waterfront is where you'll find Jeff Clark's Maverick Surf Shop. He's the guy credited with discovering the big waves more than 20 years ago: he named the break after a friend's dog.

It's also where you can buy fresh fish and shellfish straight off the boats, the prize being Dungeness crab during the March to June season. And, if you have the time, you can pick up a boat to go watch the gray whales as they migrate from the Arctic to their breeding grounds in Southern California.

The whole area is known for fresh produce and good food - there's a farmers' market every Saturday - and also for some good bars and restaurants. Half Moon Bay was where you'd go to find a speakeasy back in the dark days of prohibition, and their affinity with the devil's juice still abounds.

The pinnacle for food and wine in this part of the world has to be the Ritz Carlton, a 228-room hotel that sits on the cliff edge between two spectacular golf courses at the southern end of the bay. The wine list boasts 1000 choices including a US$14,000 ($16,700) Chateau Lafitte. The chefs include at least one who earned his stripes at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and they focus on locally produced, fresh seasonal produce, ensuring the highest quality.

I'm not normally known for eating raw oysters and drinking white wine, but I was persuaded by the occasion and, well, it would have been rude not to. The local oysters were a match made in California for the local chardonnay: buttery, smooth, full-bodied and leaving me wanting more of my new-found loves.

Then came the corn soup with crab souffle, introduced by sous chef Kevin Tanaka. Tanaka said he didn't use cream in his creation and the corn was locally produced and organic, this being the height of corn season.

Creamy does not go any way to describe the soft, smooth liquid that caressed my throat; "sweet" barely hints at the nectar that danced across my tongue, and the crab was cloud-like and worthy of another slurp of chardonnay.

I could quite happily have stayed at the Ritz Carlton, where rooms start at US$565 a (double) room in high season. Luckily the restaurants and bars are open to the public, so I didn't have to.

Looking up the coast from the table, toward Pinnacle Harbour and the Maverick's, I couldn't help thinking that those porpoises had been a good omen after all.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to San Francisco six times a week from Auckland, with connections available from all of the Air NZ domestic ports, call 0800 737 000.

Online: calkayak.com, visithalfmoonbay.org

• Alex Robertson flew with Air New Zealand and was a guest of Visit California.

- NZ Herald

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