Winter brings a particular charm to the California coast—fewer people, mainly, so you can find a place to park and you’re likely to discover vacancies at small-town inns. In the stretch of coastline just south of San Francisco, winter months bring elephant seals ashore to give birth and mate again, crabs fill the boiling vats in harbors (hopefully!) and cold-weather cloud formations brew gorgeous sunsets. If it’s raining? You won’t melt. Plus it’s all the cozier to snuggle inside a corner cafe with a bowl of clam chowder or inside a Gore-Tex jacket with a hood, galoshes on. Taste the local delicacies—artichokes, olallieberries, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, fresh seafood—and pay the $10 a day to explore the many state parks along your route: Wilder Ranch, Henry Cowell Redwoods and Butano, to name a view where you’ll find great trails. (Note: In this story, we travel our coverage area from south to north, but you can, of course, go any direction you like.)
Eucalyptus perfumes the drive in on Park Avenue, the pretty road leading from Highway 1 to Capitola Beach and Village, where you’ll find most of the action. Depending on your sensibility, maybe too much action. It’s a lively beachfront village dense with beach-kitsch shops and restaurants—with bars that pack ’em in on weekends with loud music, tequila shots and plenty of shouting. Colorful cottages front the water along the channel created by surf pounding into Soquel Creek; facing the beach, eateries’ outdoor patios beckon with views of the wharf, outdoor heaters, plenty of pretty drinks and sometimes live music. Watch the waves crash and the sun dip behind the bluffs. Everything’s within walking distance, and you might feel like you’re in Italy.
Venetian Color—Capitola’s most iconic image—the lineup of pink, turquoise, orange and purple façades that face the creek, beach and village—is actually Capitola Venetian Hotel, a series of condos built in 1925, all suites, now rentable by the night for as little as about $200 a pop.
River Walk—On foot, take the creekside path adjacent to Armida Tasting Room and you’ll find yourself wandering between Soquel Creek and a collection of tiny 1920s homes. Some are vacation rentals; others are occupied by lucky residents who keep canoes and deck chairs at the ready. The train trestle runs overhead. Exit the trail where it dumps out onto Riverview Avenue, walk past a few houses and you’ll have a vantage point to Shadowbrook restaurant across the creek. It’s famous for its beautiful grounds that spill down the hillside and for delivering guests to its dining room by tram. (You can drive to Shadowbrook across Soquel Creek on Wharf Road.)
Beachfront Booze—Pick your poison: Margarita? Order the El Ultimo on the rocks at Margaritaville. Bloody mary? Get a Spicy Mary at Zelda’s. Beer and wine? Paradise Beach Grille has a reasonably priced list and a gorgeous view of the Venetian from the back patio. Walk around town and you’ll spot a few tasting rooms, including Armida (wine) and English Ales (you can guess).
Damn Good Breakfast—Not in the village but well-worth the short drive, Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria has the most extensive pastry and bakery counter we’ve seen, as well as a serious spread of sandwiches, salads, hot dishes . . . and a great take-a-number system run by staffers at a microphone. The only problem? Your number might come up before you can decide between the downtowner muffin with sugar, a ham-and-cheese croissant with egg, or a maple-pecan crocodile.
Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny—In the market for a new swimsuit? Two swimwear shops, Nubia and Xandra, make it easy.
Ride the Waves—Capitola Beach Company not only maintains a storefront packed with beach goods and clothing, but you’ll also find surfboard and paddleboard rentals and can sign up for lessons. They also roll an overflowing trailer beachside for impulse decision makers. Either way, grab a wetsuit and a board and hit the curls.
The main event is Seacliff State Beach, with the famous skeleton of the SS Palo Alto concrete ship parked at the end of the pier; she has been battered and beaten by surf since being mothballed there in 1929. Near the beach entrance, Marianne’s Ice Cream sits on one side of the road, scooping 105 flavors (including 2AM Truffle: vanilla with blackberry and chocolate swirl). Across the street, a venerable Sno-White Drive-In pumps out burgers, fries, shakes and, of course, dipped cones. Walk along Center Avenue’s tiny commercial stretch and stop for $5 tamales at Casa Rossy or a pie at Pizza 1 (great combos with names like Blues Festival and Castroville). Another great beach, Rio del Mar, has poles for volleyball nets and a couple of waterfront eateries, including Pixie Deli, where the mantra is “no shoes, no shirt, no shorts, no problem!” A couple of other worthwhile spots in town include Aptos Center, with upscale boutiques and a vibrant outdoor patio scene outside Pacific Coffee Roasting Company and Zameen Mediterranean, home of big-ass salads and fragrant rice concoctions served in deep, blue-lipped white bowls. Aptos Village, a mixed-use community anchored by New Leaf Community Market, has wine-tasting rooms, a gallery, public house, burgers and barbecue and ice cream and coffee, and a lovely home décor and lifestyle store called Warmth Company tucked way in back.
Not exactly a little town, this city with a population of approximately 65,000 and a University of California campus, but it’s got a vibe and a downtown and several worthy beaches, so we’ve included it. Known for its beachfront Boardwalk amusement park, its skateboard and surfer scene and its healthy respect for marijuana, Santa Cruz maintains its “life’s a beach” image.
Downtown District—Park the car and spend the day shopping and eating your way around downtown (anchored by Pacific Street), where you’ll find little local gems like Stripe (clothing, home goods, body care products—beautifully merchandised), Go Ask Alice (incense, sage sticks, tea, CBD goods) and Paper Visions (calendars, puzzles, posters, journals) among big chains like Forever 21 and Gap. Grab a Verve local roast and a sandwich from Zoccoli’s Italian Deli—or, Friday through Sunday, something fragrant and deliciously different from the Nahna Eritrean food kiosk. (Eritrea is in the Horn of Africa.)
Walk West Cliff—The winter waves out here are glorious, drawing surfers to Steamer Lane and the less-brave to cradle their coffees while they admire the offshore feats by wetsuit-clad daredevils. It’s sobering, though, to come upon the surfer memorials—benches inscribed with names, and memorial signposts just above the stairs that descend the cliff straight to the boulders that line the wild ocean below. The surfers and Surfer Museum at Lighthouse Point are just part of West Cliff Drive’s scenic splendor—it’s a fabulous spot for a long walk, and a highlight of any trip to Santa Cruz.
Dream a Little Dream—Dream Inn Santa Cruz perches above the pounding surf of Cowell Beach; you’ll hear it all night long. A 1960s hotel renovated to mid-mod splendor, it is as beachy as it comes, with views across the water to the wharf and the Boardwalk, a pool and hot tub to enjoy under the stars and room décor in splashy turquoise and orange.
Winter Weekends at the Boardwalk—The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk opens on weekends during the winter. Catch a ride on the Giant Dipper, the Typhoon, the Double Shot and, of course, the Ferris Wheel and the gentle Skyway that sways along over the beach.
Explore the Redwoods
A few miles from Santa Cruz, in Felton, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has an awe-inspiring 40-acre grove of old-growth redwoods. These spectacular giants scrape the sky—the tallest is 277 feet tall. It’s approximately 1,500 years old. In addition to the redwoods, three other habitats exist within the park: grasslands, river and sandhills, and plenty of trails criss-cross the area. Watch for banana slugs, a specialty of the dense Santa Cruz County redwood forests.
The quiet stretch of coastline between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, with its windswept beaches, hatcheted-off cliffs and state parks with trails that lead into the redwoods, has several stops that invite travelers to get out and stretch their legs—maybe even stay awhile.
About 10 miles out of Santa Cruz, just north of the Bonny Doon beach parking lot, there’s a dirt pullout that provides a view of Davenport Beach. Look for the rock offshore that’s shaped like a shark fin. This is Shark Fin Cove, a beautiful little spot to take in the wonders of light and sea. Park and take the path down to the train tracks, then go right to the overlook or left to the steep trail down to the beach.
A few miles further north, the community of Davenport includes a historic jail, an inn, a market and a handful of restaurants. The Davenport Roadhouse provides a quiet night’s sleep in rooms—most with ocean views—above the restaurant, where dishes (including artichoke lasagna and fisherman’s stew) are made from ingredients from nearby organic farms. Whale City Bakery is a popular stop for baked goods (olallieberry croissants!), omelets, burgers and fried local goodies like artichokes and Brussels sprouts. It gets busy on weekends—you’ll meet cyclists working their way up or down this stretch of coastline. Next door, Taqueria La Padrona—relatively new—serves tacos, burritos, quesadillas, huge tortas and the like with house-made salsas. There’s nothing like a massive al pastor burrito or fish tacos by the beach.
This sweet little town sits pretty central within the Slow Coast area. It’s about 50 miles south of San Francisco and 35 miles north of Santa Cruz, a jog inland from Pescadero State Beach past the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. You’ve reached town when you see the Alliance gas station on the left. Stop for a taco or burrito or a plate of enchiladas—it’s a hidden gem, this taqueria with a full menu of Mexican dishes and no discernible restaurant signage outside. It’s also cash only, so come prepared or hit the on-site ATM. Take your haul to the picnic tables out back or slip into a no-nonsense booth inside.
Across the street, Duarte’s Tavern began as a saloon and barber shop in 1894 and today serves snapper and chips, a grass-fed beef burger and fries, spaghetti, and house-made pie, among other treats. Two specialties with a local twist: an olallieberry margarita made with syrup made from organic berries grown in Duarte’s garden, and creamy artichoke soup. Other spots to check out: Made in Pescadero, for beautifully crafted furniture, and Luna Sea, with art and gift items (lotions, soaps, candles, home décor). Downtown Local has espresso drinks and plenty of cool automobile and music memorabilia. Arcangeli Grocery gives you good reasons to stop in—for example, its famous artichoke garlic herb bread with the artichokes baked inside. A Godfather sandwich, stuffed full of salami, mortadella, prosciutto and provolone, will fill you up for the day. You’ll also find local produce, fresh-made pies, pottery and other gift items from local artisans.
Outside of town on North Street, Harley Farms—goats!—is open daily for tours and shopping at the charming shop, where you’ll find felted goat’s milk soap, site-produced cheeses, jams, local honey, olallieberry nectar and other goodies. If you’re lucky, Black Jack the cat will be sunning himself in the window while you’re there. Hint: The best time to visit Harley Farms is in early February through early April—because of baby goats.
For nearby accommodations, Costanoa Resort is a destination on its own, with a restaurant, garden, lodge, cabins, tent bungalows and a KOA campground. Billed as an eco-adventure resort, it’s a jumping-off point for mountain bike rides, hikes, kayaking, horseback riding and stargazing. A mile up north, Highway 1 Brewing Company crafts beer on-site, and its outdoor beer garden welcomes children and dogs.
Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park
Standing sentry over the water, Pigeon Point lighthouse draws visitors to wander the grounds. The lighthouse typically operates as a hostel and vacation rental, but COVID has put some limitations in place. Check out the interpretive signage to learn about the lighthouse and its history, then head out to the lookout bench to admire the charging waves. Benches behind the Fog Signal building provide a fabulous vantage point for spotting whales’ spouts offshore.
Año Nuevo State Park
Now through March is the best time to visit. Elephant seals haul themselves ashore to birth and mate again in this largest mainland pinniped rookery (seal breeding ground). It’s a spectacle, no less, with grunting, chest-bashing males and preoccupied females. Fat babies frolic in the pale winter sunlight. Be ready for a long walk (about 4 miles round trip) and some strong odors, and bring your binocs, but not your dog. To view the seals, you must take a guided walk ($7); they run nearly daily throughout the season and you’ll learn a lot about elephant seals. Make reservations at the ReserveCalifornia website.
Half Moon Bay
This little city about 30 miles south of San Francisco brings in crowds during the fall for pumpkin season—the pumpkin patches are legendary, especially off Highway 92—and in the winter when the Mavericks waves kick up about half a mile off shore, attracting surfers from all around the world. Half Moon Bay encompasses a cute downtown district, with boutiques and eateries and inns; a working harbor where you can purchase fish straight from the boat; an agricultural valley teeming with flowers and vegetables and nurseries; and a waterfront that includes beaches beside a quiet bay—or roaring surf.
It’s the Ritz—You can spot the Ritz-Carlton on Miramontes Road from the highway. It looks like a castle, overlooking the ocean on one side, the golf course on the other. It’s full luxury, with sweeping views from its rooms and restaurants, full spa services, two championship golf courses, oceanfront fire pits and tennis courts.
The Wild Side—For a walk or a sunset viewing, head out to Miramar Beach, where benches line the outside wall of Miramar Beach Restaurant, facing the roiling sea. Out here, the waves pound the rock wall, splashing up onto the road to give you a surprise salty shower—invigorating!
Go Downtown—Half Moon Bay’s Main Street and surrounding streets are home to shops, galleries, tasting rooms and restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. Stay in town at the Half Moon Bay Inn, above It’s Italia restaurant, and you’ll be right among the activity. San Benito House’s Cantina restaurant on the opposite corner has outdoor seating in a greenery-thick courtyard at picnic tables by a margarita bar. At Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel Co., live chicks incubate in a back room—and a pet guinea pig named Carrot lives in a hutch among saddles and sacks of animal feed. Recently opened Jupiter & Main carries high-quality barware, self-care products, jewelry and home goods. Grab a drink at the Café Society and a doughnut at the bakery next door—or a pizza from Moonside Bakery up the street. Check out the sky-blue Zaballa House, circa 1859, the oldest house still standing in Half Moon Bay.
Boiling Crab Pots—By the time you’re reading this, crab vats should steaming up Pillar Point Marina. (Dungeness crab season was delayed this year by an overabundance of whales in the area—whales can get caught up in the crab traps.) Once the crabs come in, Princeton Seafood Company bursts to life, cooking, cleaning and cracking. It’s a wintertime tradition.
Good Eats—At La Costanera, which overlooks the harbor, meats and seafood dominate the menu, with spices and sauces you don’t find every day. Go for the paella—seafood in a saffron tomato base with house-made shrimp broth—or pescado Costanera (wild-caught fish of the day with wild mushrooms, Kalamata olives and chimichurri). A Half Moon Bay hot spot, Sam’s Chowder House, serves the best $30 sandwich anywhere: its famous lobster roll, available “naked” or “dressed” (mixed with lemon aioli). The menu includes a huge selection of other seafood dishes as well. For a juicy grass-fed beef burger on the softest brioche bun, preferably with white cheddar or house-made American cheese, hit up The Barn; for a local craft brew, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company has several on tap, and an ocean-facing patio. A few miles up the road in Moss Beach, tucked into a bluff, Moss Beach Distillery, on the National Register of Historic Places, is rumored to be haunted—and it’s a great spot for some crab cakes and a drink on the deck.
Plants and Goats—On Highway 92 in Half Moon Bay, a stretch of nurseries beckons plant lovers with orchids, lavender, succulents, flowers, carnivorous plants . . . Repetto’s, Pastorino’s, Predatory Plants (eek!) and Half Moon Bay Nursery have a lineup of greenhouses a short drive outside of town. Across the street, Lemos Farm has a petting zoo, train and pony rides and goat yoga—a fun morning on the mat with little fat bleating friends
Mavericks? Where!— About half a mile offshore from Pillar Point beyond Ross’ Cove, some of the biggest surfing waves in the world get stirred up by storm surge during the winter, and the surfers come out to play. Pop into Mavericks Surf Company in Pillar Point Marina and they’ll probably tell you how to find a viewing spot. (There’s some info on Mavericks Surf Company’s website.) The shop is owned by Jeff Clark, one of the most-renowned big-wave surfers in the world, who’s been surfing the Mavericks break off Half Moon Bay for 40-plus years.
Between Half Moon Bay and Pacifica, some of the state’s most magnificent coastline awaits. In the Devil’s Slide area, Gray Whale State Beach—with incredible views—is accessible via a steep trail down. The north end of the beach is known as Edun Beach. Spell that backward to know what you might encounter, even though it’s not actually legal in a state park. Keep your eyes on the water, because it’s gray whale season—they’re making their trek south from Alaska to Baja—and they’re known to hug the shoreline around the Bay Area. At Devil’s Slide, cars have been rerouted through the Tom Lantos Tunnels, while the previous roadway, the most treacherous and knee-weakening stretch with sheer cliffs pitching to rocky, wild surf below, is now open to walkers and cyclists, with built-in lookouts and interpretive signs. You’re on the edge of the world out here—it’s 1.3 miles of pure scenery.
Pacifica State Beach brings out the surfers. Dozens of them fill the parking lots, tailgating in half-peeled wetsuits as they drink coffees from Soul Grind coffeehouse. Grab a burger at Burger Board, with cool surfboard tables, or a snack from High Tide Cafe & Creperie, which has a lengthy menu of crepes, omelets and sandwiches. Humble Sea Brewing, a popular craft beer operation with its original location in Santa Cruz and some of the funniest sea-centric beer names around (Homer Shrimpson, for example, or Defense Against the Shark Arts), opened a taproom here this past summer. Next parking lot over, the most beautiful Taco Bell, a free-standing cantina, serves beer, wine and Twisted Freezes with actual hard liquor. Your choice: tequila, vodka or rum. Indulge in a margarita slushie on the deck over the beach.
Next stop is Rockaway Beach, a little village with a few ocean-view hotels (Inn at Rockaway and Pacifica Lighthouse, for example) and restaurants (Nick’s Seafood and Moonraker), plus other fun spots, including Rock’n Rob’s for a casual lunch or ice cream cone, the (Mostly) Rock ’n’ Roll Gallery and the A Grape in the Fog wine bar.