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Stay in San Mateo, Play in San Francisco-Part 1

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Story and photos by Bobby L. Hickman

If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, chances are you’ve already been to San Mateo County, the scenic fifty-mile peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The San Francisco Airport is in the northern portion of San Mateo County, while its southern boundary is the northern portion of Silicon Valley.

San Mateo combines rugged ocean beaches, cosmopolitan cities, wineries and rural farms to create a uniquely diverse environment just a few miles from the better known metropolis of San Francisco.

Head south on Highway 101 and you’ll find the bustling cities of San Mateo, Burlingame, Redwood City, Palo Alto and South San Francisco. The bayside cities provide the cuisine, culture and shopping opportunities one expects in a major metropolitan area. However, follow Highway 1 along the Pacific coast for quiet getaways like Half Moon Bay, where the world’s best surfers meet each year for the Mavericks Surf Contest.

Think “California cuisine” and you’re likely contemplating fresh seafood and Asian dishes. That tradition lives at such restaurants as The Red Lantern in Redwood City, which serves home-style Southeast Asian foods from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition to made-from-scratch dishes, the setting features a stunning collection of artifacts that includes 1,500-year-old granite soldiers from China’s Tang Dynasty.

And if you like the Straits restaurant in downtown Atlanta, check out their location in Burlingame. Straits provides eclectic Singaporean cuisine served family style in a similarly impressive Asian setting. The menu ranges from spare ribs through lobster and shrimp pad Thai to spicy basil chicken.

On the Pacific coast, Half Moon Brewing sits on Pillar Point Harbor in Princeton-by-the-Sea. Their signature product is Maverick Ale, named for the surfing contest held a few hundred yards away. Half Moon Brewing offers more than the standard pub fare. Executive chef Mark Hamilton prides himself on creating California coastal cuisine with a broad array of cultural influences and local seafood and vegetables.

Farm-to-table is also important at Pasta Moon in nearby Half Moon Bay. Pasta Moon is consistently ranked among the top Italian restaurants in the San Francisco area. They combine fresh seafood, hand-made pasta, a wood-burning oven, an extensive wine list and luscious desserts to create an enjoyable lunch or dinner experience.

The “slow foods” movement is widely popular in San Mateo, due in part to easy access to bountiful farms and seafood markets. Agritourism is a major draw, including visits to working venues like Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay (the “Pumpkin Capital of the World”). Visit Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero, where your kids can pet animal “kids” while the staff handcrafts tasty flavored cheeses.

The western half of San Mateo County also contains some of California’s most picturesque (and uncrowded) beaches. Follow Highway 1 from Gray Whale Cove State Beach south through San Gregorio, Pescadero and Beach Hollow beaches. San Mateo provides a string of public beaches with opportunities for swimming, surfing, sunbathing, fishing and picnicking along the sandy shorelines.

Seals frolicking in the harbor.Seals frolicking in the harbor.
Pigeon Point LighthousePigeon Point Lighthouse
An early, foggy morning on the bay.An early, foggy morning on the bay.

The 115-foot Pigeon Point Lighthouse is one of the tallest in the Americas. The lighthouse — perched atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific — is a prime point along the coast for observing migrating seals and whales. For an up-close encounter with wildlife, visit Ano Nuevo State Reserve, the breeding and birthing ground for up to 3,000 seals. To see the seashore from the sea itself, take a guided outing with California Canoes and Kayaks at Pillar Point Harbor.

Hiking opportunities also abound throughout the area. In addition to beachside parks, the Pearson Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto covers 622 acres spanning three distinct plant communities. There are several trails ranging from half a mile to 2.5 miles that offer views of grassland savanna, oak woodland and other environments. The Sawyer Camp Trail in the Crystal Springs watershed near San Bruno is among the most popular with bikers, joggers and hikers. You can also stroll through redwood forests at such sites as Sam McDonald Park, Memorial Park and Heritage Grove, all located off Highway 1. Butano State Park, covering 3,200 acres, has 20 miles of scenic trails where mountain bikers and hikers share sweeping views of the Pacific.

If you prefer a quieter experience, visit the Japanese Tea Garden in the city of San Mateo’s Central Park. Often ranked as one of the finest tea gardens in California, the area was designed by Nagao Sakurai, the landscape architect for the Imperial Palace of Tokyo. The enormous koi pond is surrounded by a granite pagoda, bamboo groves, rare plants, lanterns, picturesque bridges and winding paths. Even with children present, the gardens are quiet and peaceful, and you’ll soon forget you are only a few steps away from the downtown buildings.

The Japanese Tea Garden in the city of San Mateo's Central Park.The Japanese Tea Garden in the city of San Mateo’s Central Park.
Pulgas Water TemplePulgas Water Temple

One of the most popular attractions in the county is the Filoli Estate, located near Crystal Lake and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Filoli is an impeccably preserved country estate dating back to the early 20th century, with 16 acres of formal gardens and a mansion covering 36,000 square feet. Filoli — one of many San Mateo sites that frequently appear in movies and television series – is most recognized from the opening credits of Dynasty. It can also be seen in films ranging from Heaven Can Wait to Starman to Dying Young.

Not far from Filoli is the Pulgas Water Temple in Woodside, which served as a “stand-in” for the Hollywood Bowl during filming of Oliver Stone’s The Doors. The namesake stone structure was inspired by Greek and Roman water temples. The temple — set in a grassy opening facing a tree-lined reflecting pool – is a popular spot for weddings. It was built in 1934 by the San Francisco Water Department to commemorate the completion of the 24-year Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct project, which carried water 160 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Bay area.

For a totally one-of-a-kind experience, check out the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia. More than 550 unique PEZ dispensers have been produced since 1950, and Gary Doss’ museum has the only complete collection in the world. (Tip for Atlantans: the Chick-Fil-A dispenser that came out in 2008 is one of the hardest for collectors to find, since they were only distributed regionally. Doss advises folks who have that dispenser to hang on to it – it’s worth more than you paid!) The store also has a wide variety of other collectible toys, including original Color-Forms, Mr. Potato Head and Tinker Toys.

Inside the PEZ MuseumInside the PEZ Museum

After visiting attractions, shopping or enjoying nature, you’ll also find plenty of accommodations choices in San Mateo County. A few miles from the airport is the Sofitel San Francisco Bay in Redwood City, with upscale quarters for corporate and leisure travelers alike overlooking a lagoon. The 421 spacious rooms and suites combine modern conveniences unique French touches like mineral water, fresh flowers and luxury bath accessories.

If you prefer staying on the Pacific Coast, the newly opened Oceano Hotel and Spa on Half Moon Bay Harbor offers expansive views of the marina at Pillar Point and the nearby mountains. All 95 suites feature private balconies for watching the sun set into the ocean along with fireplaces and spacious rooms – set amidst seaport architecture. Spa services are available in your room or at the Oceano Day Spa. The hotel is convenient to boutiques and stores in the surrounding area, as well as providing several shops on the property.

So, next time you visit San Francisco, don’t just stay north of the airport — explore the rest of San Mateo County!

If You Go


Hotel Sofitel
223 Twin Dolphin Drive
Redwood City, California 94065

Oceano Hotel & Spa
280 Capistrano Road
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019
650.726.5400 or 888.623.2661


Half Moon Bay Brewing Co.
390 Capistrano Rd.
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

Pasta Moon Bar & Ristorante
315 Main Street
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

Red Lantern
808 Winslow St.
Redwood City, CA 94063

1100 Burlingame Avenue
Burlingame, CA 94010


California Canoe & Kayak in Half Moon Bay
(Next to the HMB Yacht Club)
214 Princeton Avenue
Princeton, CA 94019
For Reservations 800.366.9804
On weekends, call: 650.728.1803

Central Park Japanese Tea Garden
50 East 5th Avenue
San Mateo, CA 94401

Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm
850 North Cabrillo Highway
Half Moon Bay, CA

Filoli Mansion
86 Cañada Road
Woodside, CA 94062

Harley Farms Goat Dairy
Tour Contact:
Sharina Fortino

Mavericks Surf Contest

Pearson Arastradero Preserve
1530 Arastradero Road
Palo Alto, CA

PEZ Museum
214 California Drive
Burlingame, CA 94010

Pigeon Point Light Station
210 Pigeon Point Road
Highway 1
Pescadero, CA 94060


San Mateo County Convention & Visitors Bureau

First photo at top: Statue at Straits Restaurant in Burlingame.

Bobby L. Hickman is an Atlanta area freelance writer who specializes in travel and business journalism. He regularly contributes to several local magazines, an international news service and various Web sites. To contact him, visit www.blhickmaninc.com.

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