Early morning, and the sea crashes behind a veil of fog so thick the coastline can only be sensed, not seen. Walkers and joggers move like apparitions along the California Coastal Trail, a paved path that wanders for miles atop 100-foot bluffs, dropping here and there to a pocket beach or a broad strand where surfers bob in the lineup, waiting to catch a wave.
By 7 a.m. the sun is burning through the mist and the gabled roofline of The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay—otherwise known as the “castle on the coast”—comes into view, framed by luminous wisps of fog that look like special effects ordered up from Hollywood. In another hour, the morning exercisers will have showered, changed, breakfasted and taken their places in conference rooms, some of which overlook those buff-colored bluffs, the emerald golf courses and the cobalt sea that are emblematic of Coastside scenery.
As one dripping jogger is overheard to remark to his companion as they huff through the elevator lobby: “Wow, I didn’t know how bad I needed to get out of the office! This place is a mind wash.”
As the economy improves, expectations have risen when it comes to psyche-cleansing experiences and destination amenities. Quality counts, as does local culture and the availability of opportunities for dining, team-building and recreation. But convenience counts, too. And that’s why Coastside, a stretch of the San Mateo coast starting 20 miles south of San Francisco at Montara and stretching 25 miles south to Pescadero at the Santa Cruz County line, has morphed over the past couple of decades from primarily a weekend leisure destination to one whose hotels and meeting spaces are filled during the week with corporate groups trading the congestion of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley for a change of scenery, a sharpening of focus and a big, gulping dose of fresh air.
“The Apples, the Twitters, the Facebooks have all fallen in love with Half Moon Bay,” says Melanie Hubbert, director of events for Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, a popular restaurant and private-dining venue overlooking sailboat-specked Pillar Point Harbor. It’s easy to see why.
Still largely rural and protected from overdevelopment by strict environmental laws, Coastside boasts dramatic scenery similar to that along the more isolated Big Sur coast. The offerings include group-welcoming farms, redwood forests, sophisticated lodging, and restaurants and activities to suit every interest. At the region’s heart is Half Moon Bay, a town of 12,000 founded in the mid-1800s as a commercial fishing port and agricultural center on an idyllic, crescent-shaped bay. Fishing, especially for Dungeness crab, and agriculture are still thriving industries, but tourism, meetings and events are playing an increasingly critical role in the local economy.
“We’re within 45 minutes of any place in San Francisco and most places in the Silicon Valley,” notes Charise McHugh, president and CEO of the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau. “People love coming here; we’re just ‘over the hill’ but a million miles away. It’s still quaint, even with 60 restaurants and 22 hotels.”
Those 22 hotels range from the imposing 261-room Ritz, with its soft color palate, warren of conference rooms and oceanfront setting, to comfy bed-and-breakfasts like Seal Cove Inn, a 10-room, Tudor-style charmer that is often booked for board meetings and retreats. In between are a spectrum of fullservice, medium-sized properties with meeting facilities, in-house catering, ocean views and quick proximity to off-site dining and team-building venues. In the low-rise downtown there are alluring restaurants and shops, while all is mellow in the countryside, with working farms that offer meeting space and opportunities to learn a thing or three about how our food is produced. Proximity to nature is a constant, with the sea visible if not audible from almost everywhere.
Here’s a look at some of the options for lodging, dining, meetings and team-building that planners will find in and around Half Moon Bay.
Hotels with Meeting Facilities
When an executive group finds a place that works for an annual conference or retreat, they tend to stick with it. And with 13 meeting rooms (the largest a 7,100-square-foot ballroom), two event lawns, two championship golf courses, a spa, pool, tennis facilities and a location right on the continent’s edge, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay attracts a luxury clientele that returns year after year.
“We’ve been holding our annual partner retreat here for 13 years,” says Holly Saydah, recruiting manager for a San Francisco law firm that brings about 40 lawyers plus a contingent of family members to the property each January for a weekend stay. “The geographical distance works for us: It’s not too far, yet it lets everyone feel like they’re really getting away. Of course, being a Ritz-Carlton property, it has top luxury standards. And from a meeting planner perspective, it’s a very easy property to work with.”
One thing that stands out for Saydah’s needs is the hotel’s Ritz Kids program, which is made available during Saturday’s all-day meeting, freeing spouses to do their own thing and kids to bond with the children of their parents’ colleagues. There’s also a kids’ option for dinner. “We need golf, spa, something for the kids and other activities nearby, and for all these needs, the Ritz has the most well-rounded offerings in the greater Bay Area,” Saydah says.
The property has also proved a hit with the 30 to 35 Nokia employees who come “from all over the globe” for an annual leadership conference that was held at the Ritz last March for the third year in a row. “We wanted something different where people could get out and not be surrounded by the city,” says planner Debra Quarton-Pryce. “What our people really like is the natural light and views and the fact that there are windows in the conference rooms we use. We have a lot of exercise buffs, so they’re out walking or running, and the hotel has even set up bocce ball courts for them. It’s a great atmosphere to foster health and critical thinking. And working with the staff is a dream … they make a planner’s job easy.”
While the Ritz is situated a few miles south of Half Moon Bay’s Main Street, other waterfront hotels with meeting facilities are strung along the coast in and nearer to town. Among them is the 84-room Oceano Hotel & Spa overlooking the bustling harbor. The hotel’s whitewashed, nautically themed décor is reminiscent of Nantucket, and the ocean-view guest rooms are a big selling point. “All guest rooms are suites with balconies or patios, fireplaces and wet bars, and all are arranged lengthwise so they all get the same views,” says Jennifer Pickart, the hotel’s event coordinator. The Oceano’s existing 8,000 square feet of meeting space, spread over five function rooms accommodating 10 to 350, is being expanded this year. The new Gatehouse reception complex is a separate, 4,000-square-foot hall with a “rustic barn feel” and a dramatic fireplace patio for outdoor receptions.
Nearby, the Beach House Hotel is a boutique, 54-room property with 1,800 square feet of function space split among four rooms, all with natural light, accommodating 10 to 40 for sit-downs. A pool, spa and direct access to the Coastal Trail for walks to town or to the beach add to its appeal. Because all rooms have a fireplace and a patio or balcony—many with ocean views—the property tends to attract groups that stay for more than just a day or two.
“Last year we had several groups come for a whole week, including a pharmaceutical group from Switzerland that was in town for a training program,” says Valerie Kenway, the property’s sales manager. The hotel also does pop-up day meetings, Kenway adds, pointing out that the hotel’s four function rooms are laid out around an ocean-view patio where lunch can be served to several groups at once. “It’s a stunning location with unobstructed views and it creates a loyal following,” she says. “A lot of people end their corporate meeting on a Friday and have their family join them for the weekend.”
Michele King, program manager for Stanford University’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, found Half Moon Bay an ideal spot for the group of about 30 doctors she brought here in March. “It’s a lovely destination in itself, with lots to see and experience,” she says. “Our researchers are doctors and have very busy schedules so if they can get away and have a beautiful view from their conference, they’re not so tempted to run back to the operating room.”
King says her group elected to meet and stay at the Beach House because “it’s a small hotel, not overwhelming, and the conference room overlooking the ocean is magical. It promotes research in that the environment very much helps people think through problems and facilitate. The food was excellent, as was the staff. For our size and type of meeting, it was perfect.”
Also scoring high with groups is the Mission-style Half Moon Bay Lodge. Overlooking the Arnold Palmer-designed Half Moon Bay Golf Links, the 80-room property offers oversized guest rooms, 3,600 square feet of event space and a big pool and hot tub area that make it a hit with families.
Groups seeking the coziness of a bed and breakfast won’t be disappointed by the charming Seal Cove Inn, which was built in the early 1990s and run until 2008 by renowned guide-book author Karen Brown. Tucked into a private English garden setting, with a path to its namesake cove, the inn can accommodate small meetings for up to 14 in its common area and is often booked for board gatherings and executive retreats.
About 10 miles south of the town of Pescadero, Costanoa is an “eco-adventure resort” with a restaurant, store and extensive recreational programs. Lodging options range from tent sites and an RV park to cabins, safari-style tent bungalows and a 39-room lodge. “Almost all our meeting groups opt for the lodge,” says General Manager Trevor Bridge. “Companies out of Silicon Valley will make a program for R&D, sales initiatives, kickoffs. We also get a lot of corporate meetings, awards dinners and special events.”
Indoor and outdoor meeting space in several configurations are available at the resort, along with farm-to-table catering menus highlighting local produce and sustainable seafood form the California coast. Activities ranging from naturalist-led hikes to organized scavenger hunts, mountain biking and kayak adventures can be customized for groups, and three state parks and beaches are nearby.
While Half Moon Bay is an expensive destination, nonprofits and other groups on a budget (and willing to abide by a no-alcohol policy) don’t have to be locked out. The Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, part of the American Youth Hostels network, offers dorm-style lodging and a few private rooms in three former lighthouse-keeper houses, plus a self-service kitchen, espresso bar, free Wi-Fi, path to the beach and ample meeting space for groups of 8 to 40.
Event Centers and Farms
Groups from nearby destinations convening for just a day, or those who prefer to trade hotel conference rooms for a change of scenery, have multiple options in Half Moon Bay, among them Mavericks Event Center, which occupies a converted boathouse overlooking Pillar Point Harbor. It’s a flexible venue that can accommodate groups of up to 150 with an indoor large room, an upstairs meeting room, a 1,200-square-foot deck with fire pit and a lawn that can be tented. “From the deck you can often see pelicans and sea lions,” says Hubbert, who, in addition to her duties at Half Moon Bay Brewing is also director of events here. “People love that. For me, the most fun thing is seeing how much people relax and their bonding skills improve once they get away from their sterile cubicles. And out here there are so many things to enjoy.”
Mavericks Event Center is adjacent to the six-room Inn at Mavericks, an ocean-view B&B that often houses conference attendees (the properties take their name from a famous surf break about a half mile off shore). Both are under the same management and ownership as the nearby Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, a popular craft brewery and meetand-eat venue offering three private dining rooms for 20 to 40 as well as a beer garden that can accommodate receptions or sit-downs for up to 60. Besides meals, HMB Brewing offers beer pairings, beer-making classes, cooking instruction and other team-building activities.
Given its proximity to Silicon Valley, Half Moon Bay regularly attracts high-profile executive groups that demand privacy in a secluded setting. Miramar Farms, an 11-acre leadership development and executive retreat center on a small family farm run by Jayne and Mark Battey, was designed to meet that need. “Our focus is on giving leaders a place to be inspired and to do difficult work in private,” says Jayne, who comes from a corporate and leadership consultant background.
“We get lots of Silicon Valley clients, plus biotech and San Francisco companies. We’re also popular with the philanthropic set and do a pro bono program for nonprofits. If companies want to team-build, we do that, too with activities like planting apple trees. Our goal is to get people outdoors and not duplicate anything else being done on the coast.”
Indoor meetings at Miramar take place in a handsomely restored barn that’s outfitted with state-of-the-art A/V equipment but is still heated with a wood stove. Outdoors are gardens and a large pasture set about with benches and shade structures designed to facilitate walk-and-talk brainstorming.
One returning client is American Leadership Forum, a nonprofit focused on the development of leaders for the common good, which has been holding orientation classes at Miramar for several years. “We always meet in circles, and there’s plenty of room for that in the barn, says Jenny Niklaus, vice president innovation networks for ALF. “We also have smaller breakout sessions at beautiful places all over the property. And we’re fed incredibly well the entire time, fabulous meals, all farm fresh.”
Farther south, near Pescadero, Harley Farms Goat Dairy provides another idyllic slice of country life. The farm, which maintains a herd of 180 milking goats and is regionally famous for its cheeses, is run by Dee Harley, originally from Yorkshire, England, and Tim Duarte of Duarte’s Tavern, a popular roadhouse restaurant in town. “About 25 years ago they learned to milk and make cheese, and since then they’ve responded to what people have interest in,” says Event Coordinator Stacy Lesueur, referring to the farm-to-fork movement that has swept California in recent years.
“Groups come in and are greeted with cheese in the edibles garden, then get a farm tour and where they learn about the cheese making process."
The main venue is a dramatic hayloft space in a 130-year-old barn. Diners are seated at a long, rustic table that's surrounded by highbacked folk-art chairs and set with pewter chargers and goblets. A second barn within walking distance is outfitted with worktables and functions as a conference room. “Corporate teams work a couple of hours in the barn, take a tour, and break for lunch,” Lesueur says. “Facebook, Instagram, PayPal, Square—all those people from ‘over the hill’ come for day programs or rent the farm out for special nights.”
Few guests leave without visiting the rustic farm shop and taking home a selection of artfully displayed cheeses, soaps, honey and infused olive oils.
Are your meeting attendees ready to party? Book a private space, indoors or out, at Sam’s Chowder House, one of the liveliest and bestknown eateries on this part of the coast. The restaurant, housed in a rambling building with spectacular ocean views, is a warren of rooms large and small that open onto terraces and patios that can be cordoned off for private groups. The ambiance is clapboard nautical with a surfer vibe. New England-style clambakes are a specialty for groups of up to 150. The location comes with some notable extras. “We have gorgeous views and get a lot of whale action—feeding and breaching—right outside,” says Kelsey Currier, events director. In addition, the property’s Beachfront Lawn can seat 120 (tented) or up to 150 (no tent or dance floor). Sam’s also operates three “chow - der mobiles” and a lobster clambake truck that can travel to other locations.
Another of HMB’s top-rated restaurants is Pasta Moon, an elegant venue on shoplined Main Street. Seasonal Italian cuisine is the focus with freshly made desserts that are almost too pretty to eat. Groups of up to 80 can be seated in the Music Box Lounge, while the smaller Quorum room, used mostly for luncheons and rehearsal dinners, seats 20. The airy Garden Room can accommodate 35 and overlooks an outdoor space that plays host to receptions and wine tastings for up to 200.
Pasta Moon diners who arrive a bit early should make time to explore nearby shops like Gourmet Appliance Home & Kitchen Emporium, which sells high-end cookware, operates a test kitchen for home cooks and hosts private cooking parties for groups.
A Twist on Team-Building
Winery visits are always a hit with groups— but only at Half Moon Bay’s La Nebbia Winery is human foosball part of the mix. The super - sized bar game is played six-on-six with players manipulating foam-covered metal bars to move a ball down the 24-foot-long-by-16-footwide foot court. If that’s not fun enough, Half Moon Bay Art Glass, housed in an old barn on the winery premises, hosts glass-blowing classes for groups, with each person making and taking home a piece of glass art.
Another popular HMB activity: horseback riding on the beach. Sea Horse Ranch, in business for decades, boasts a staff that is expert with first-time riders. Whether you’re experienced on horseback or a novice, it’s hard to imagine anything lovelier on a clear sunny day than riding through powder-soft sand at the edge of a lapping sea.