San Mateo County, California: Come for the Tech, Stay for the Fun
By Max Hartshorne
You definitely know where San Mateo county is. You might not know you know, but think Silicon Valley, the peninsula that leads up to San Francisco.
Now you’re in San Mateo County, but there is a whole lot more to see and do here than gawk at the millionaires riding their Google-cycles, or the never-ending buildings that comprise today’s Facebook in Palo Alto.
My recent visit to the big county gave me a chance to see gorgeous beaches, meet friendly goats, taste delicious local foods and go back in time at a giant computer museum.
I also learned quite a bit about how to judge and taste wine at a wine sommelier school in South San Francisco!
Serving Pacifica’s Surfers
When Juan Camero, who heads up the press relations for the local tourism board, picked me up in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, I wasn’t sure where we were headed, but I knew we’d go south.
We drove down along the coast to the surfing town of Pacifica, where a former pro surfer named Julie Cox has built a place designed to serve the local surfers, called Travelers.
Julie has created a place where local surfers can store their dry clothes, get a hot shower, buy maps and guides about the local waves, and shop for wax, boards and anything else having to do with the sport. Right down the coast and about a half mile out are some of the world’s largest waves, at a beach known as Mavericks. Every year the surfing world gathers to gawk at the bold surfers who take on waves that can get up to 40 feet.
This is a great place for anyone who wants to pick up trail maps, or guides to surfing, or a surfboard.
We headed south from Pacifica to our next stop, a small former fishing village of just 650 souls, called Pescadero. On Route 1, we approached a tunnel, which Juan said was relatively new, and was built after many landslides had blocked the coastal route.
Today, Devil’s Slide Trail is the result of the state building a tunnel that bypasses a big chunk of the coast, and what is now the trail was once a 1.3-mile section of Route 1.
There’s only a small little downtown in this village, dominated by a famous bar and restaurant that’s been a fixture on the coast since 1894, called Duarte’s.
I had been to Duartes in the early 1990s, and blessed be–nothing had changed. They still have their many seafood offerings, like the delicious calamari steak, and their signature Cioppino, clam, and seafood stew.
Across a meadow from Duartes is another Pescadero institution, this one is Harley Farms.
Dee Harley has raised around 150 goats for decades here, and her annual farm dinners that take place in a converted hayloft on the property are guaranteed sell-outs every time.
The farm offers tourists a chance to take a tour, and learn all about how they make their award-winning goat cheese, as well as a chance to snuggle with one-day-old baby goats. Almost as great as having them jump on you when you’re doing yoga! www.harleyfarms.com
Half Moon Bay
Along this stretch of coast are more San Mateo towns to visit. Half Moon Bay is primarily a farm town and in the town, there are blocks and blocks of low-cost housing for farm workers and their families.
Juan said that in October one of the big crops here are pumpkins–thousands of them lined up along Route 1, and the annual Pumpkin festival attracts many thousands of visitors.
One of the nicest hotels around is the world famous Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, located right on the coast, which is bisected by the coastal trail, that’s is open to hikers all up and down the coast. Guests can enjoy golfing the seaside links which are also open to the public.
There are also attractive firepits and seating with ocean views that is also open to all.
Lobster Rolls at Sam’s
Sam’s Chowder House is an institution in Half Moon Bay, famous for big crowds and truly delectable lobster rolls. On a rainy evening, we made a pilgrimage to this place and did not leave disappointed. Paul and Julie Shankman have run the busy eatery for 11 years.
Customers rave about their oysters Rockefeller, Ahi tuna poke and of course, the clam chowder. A rainy night is one of the few times you won’t have to wait for a table, but it’s worth it! www.samschowderhouse.com
In Half Moon Bay, if the Ritz is too dear, you’ll find a comfortable place to sleep at the Half Moon Bay Lodge, located on Route 1. This comfortable hotel has a pool and is around $200 per night, when available, though it sells out quickly.
We had a lot of San Mateo left to explore, as we rose early and headed east or, ‘over the hill’ the Santa Cruz Mountains, as the route is known.
Filoli Historic Estate
We were leaving the ocean and heading inland, to a historic 650-acre estate, Filoli, in Woodside. What a gorgeous place!
The mansion was once owned by a pair of rich families and today has been preserved with its original English Gardens that require a massive 1000 strong team of volunteers to keep looking beautiful.
The house tour takes you back to a more gentile era, of servants, ballrooms, and kitchens built to serve large house parties. www.filoli.org
Thomas Fogarty Winery
Also in the tony town of Woodside, we traveled further to taste some local wine from grapes grown at Thomas Fogarty Winery.
Located on the Skyline Boulevard, the winding road that lies like a ribbon atop the mountains here, this winery has been making wine since 1978, and as their tasting host said, “we live, breathe and sleep wine.”
The stunning view from their winery, which is very busy with weddings and events, takes in the Stanford campus down in Palo Alto, and the San Francisco Bay. Tastings are held Weds-Sunday between 11 am and 5 pm.
San Mateo County’s capital is the Redwood City, also home to Oracle, Electronic Arts, and Box. There is a nice walkable center here, and a 20-screen new movie theater right downtown.
We popped into the San Mateo history museum which is located in the ornate former city hall and contains artifacts and information about some of the famous sports stars and history of the county.
Computer History Museum
One attraction I’d definitely recommend visiting is the Computer Museum in nearby Mountain View. This comprehensive and physically HUGE museum covers the entire history of computing, from the abacus all the way to what we might be working with in the future.
You learn about the early icons like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the ENIAC and ENIGMA machines, punch cards, floppy disks and the first working prototype for the Apple 1, back in 1976. There is lots and lots to see here, and you should allow a few more hours than in any other museum because there is so much to learn. www.computerhistory.org
San Francisco Wine School
We had one last stop on my whirlwind tour of San Mateo County. That was the San Francisco Wine School, located in South City, or South San Francisco. This city of around 65,000 is a refuge from the famously crazy rents and house prices of San Francisco–and it’s only 10 minutes down the highway.
David Glancy said he moved his wine school here to be closer to the airport, in addition to the rent, and today he offers a full range of classes on wine tasting and how to be a sommelier.
An easy-going man, with a good sense of humor, Glancy belies the reputation of the stodgy wine snob–he’s one of only 12 people on earth who have his unique credentials as a Certified Wine Educator and Master Sommelier.
You can take courses here and become very well-versed in the nuances of wine tasting. He offers the classes to restaurant and hotel servers, bartenders and other professionals plus consumers at all levels who are interested in wine. www.sfwineschool.com
Where to Stay
I stayed in the very comfortable and recently refurbished Pullman San Francisco Bay in Redwood City, where my room overlooked a pond and the hulking green towers of the Oracle campus, right down the street.
The restaurant is top notch, as is the conversation at the bar with so many interesting people visiting the local tech firms.
I would also recommend the AC Hotel South San Francisco at Oyster Point, a new property with stunning views of the water and 1o minutes from San Francisco Airport. Very comfortable with a tasty menu of small plates.
Over breakfast at the Pullman, I saw groups of people meeting, and I kept thinking that I might be witnessing the birth of another Google….or MySpace. Who knows? This part of the country always makes me think people are hatching brilliant new companies…it’s part of what I love about Silicon Valley.
Find out more about San Mateo at their tourism website.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.