Yes, you will wait for the bathroom. And yes, you will smell burnt food from the kitchen. And yes, chances are good you will have to listen to an Italian backpacker shouting at his laptop screen to someone back home right at lights-out time. But for about $100, you will also get this:
The Point Montara Youth Hostel is a perfect base for a family weekend in Half Moon Bay, California, hardly 30 minutes down the coast from San Francisco. For not too much more money than camping, you get a million-dollar, breakfast-table view and you barely have to pack a thing.
Our family booked out a four-bunk dorm room with a shared bathroom down the hall. The hostel provides sheets, blankets and towels. Two full kitchens offer lots of room to cook. The snack-selection-plus-coffee-bar means you don’t even have to pack breakfast. There is a large living room and plenty of dining tables. And depending on your feelings about family games, the hostel’s game closet is either heaven or hell.
The hostel sits just north of Half Moon Bay in Montara. The site began as a fog signal station in 1881 and became a lighthouse in 1900. The current thirty-foot light originally stood on Cape Cod, Mass. which makes the Point Montara light the only one to have guarded two oceans.
There are several walks and hikes from the property. Young families will be happy scrambling down the bluff to the small beach at the foot of the property or just lazing about in the front yard.
We walked out the door and headed south for an easy one-hour slow walk along the ice plant-covered headlands and through a neighborhood of quaint and/or cool California coastal homes to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Low tide reveals hours of tide pool exploring.
When I was planning the weekend, I thought we’d trip up and down the coast, to Duarte’s Tavern and Butano State Park or to the Devil’s Slide Trail. But there is so much to do near Half Moon Bay, we filled a whole weekend without driving more than 10 minutes from the hostel.
If the weather is good, there are plenty of nearby kid-friendly food options with outdoor seating – and most have heaters and blankets if it’s not. We had a seafood feast at Sam’s Chowder House on the night we arrived and snacked on top-shelf nachos in the sun at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company the next day.
Half Moon Bay has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. The Ritz-Carlton opened in 2001. And the entire harbor area has received a facelift with new outdoor restaurants and shops. But old standards remain: the annual Art and Pumpkin Festival makes headlines every October and a fun main street with local shops still thrives.
The popularity of big wave surfing at Mavericks off the south end of Pillar Point Harbor has attracted world-wide attention. I was adamant about making a pilgrimage to see some surfing – and the gorgeous day gave many others the same idea (see “Good to Know” below). The surf at Mavericks was “only” 15-feet on the day we visited but through binoculars, you could see the surfers fighting it out.
It is a good twenty-minute walk along the harbor’s edge to the Mavericks beach. Dozens and dozens of dogs and their owners bound along the trail and in the sand. And there was a couple making amazingly giant bubbles to the delight of the kids – and the adults.
Conserving cash by staying at the hostel enables families to take part in some of the fantastic outdoor activities Half Moon Bay offers. Sport fishing, kayaking, hiking, biking, whale watching, crabbing and beach combing. We succumbed to our daughter’s pleas and took a horseback ride at Sea Horse Ranch. Even our horse-neutral son had to admit, it was pretty awesome.
The beach rides head back from the highway, south along the fields and homes that border the state beach parking areas, down a ravine to the sand and back. The horses seem very well cared for and the whole operation is very safety-oriented.
Before heading home, be sure to stop at Pillar Point Harbor. Fishing boats line the docks selling Dungeness crab (in season) and other seafood from nearby waters and as far away as Alaska. The prices weren’t the best but everything was very fresh. Near the parking lot, Princeton Seafood Company offers more fish to-go and a café with all manner of fried snacks to appeal to youngsters. Stop at Jeff Clark’s Mavericks Surf Shop for the requisite souvenir shirt or sticker.
The Point Montara Hostel provided a warm and friendly spot to end each day. There were other local families and international backpackers to chat with – and the sunsets weren’t bad either.
The Roam Report : Half Moon Bay
Travelers – Maryann, Don, West (13) and Pearl (11) Thompson
Date: November 2014
Itinerary – Weekend at the Point Montara Youth Hostel (Friday night to Sunday midday)
Budget – Oceanfront lodging ran $105 per night for our family (3 “adults” and 1 child, plus hostel fee). Meals varied from less than $20 for breakfast to $80 for a big seafood dinner. Activities fit all budgets, from free beach time and hiking, to boat trips or horseback riding at $50-$100 per person.
The Good Stuff
- A Family-Friendly Hostel Just 25 miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1, the Point Montara Lighthouse Youth Hostel costs $27 per dorm bed and kids age 12 and under are half price with a parent or guardian. Call the hostel at (650) 728-7177 to book family accommodations because depending on the number of family members, it is possible to either book out a dorm room (with four beds), book a family room with bath included (need to pay for five or six beds), or book one or two private rooms on the bluff with fabulous views (each room sleeps 2-3 and costs $78-$101). Be aware, however, that the rooms were built for a lighthouse – not a resort – so the windows are somewhat small. And if your hostel days are behind you, there are plenty of other lodging options nearby – from the Comfort Inn at $129 per night to the Ritz at $495.
- Foooooooood You will not go hungry in Half Moon Bay. Between the massive seaside fields of vegetables and and the ocean full of delicacies, local restaurants deliver. However touristy, we enjoyed eating outdoors at Sam’s Chowder House and Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. The old-standard Moss Beach Distillery still insists it has a ghost (though Ghost Hunters found otherwise) and still gets you a blanket if you can are lucky enough to find a spot on their patio for some basic snacks and drinks. Check Yelp for recommendations for great taquerias, BBQ and other local spots.
- See Mavericks If the surf is up, walk out past Pillar Point to the beach and watch the big waves featured in the movies “Riding Giants” and “Chasing Mavericks”. We went on a 15’ day and there were plenty of surfers to see but you must bring binoculars or you really won’t see anything at all. From the beginning of the harbor trail, you can walk up the road to watch from the top of the bluff, or head out along the harbor to watch from the beach. (The bluff is very steep and high so if you’ve got crazy kids, go the beach route.) When you get to the point, head right (north) to the very end of the beach, look out past the rocks, and you will see the surf break coming south at a diagonal to the beach. (See “Finding Mavericks” in “Good to Know” for where to park.) Don’t even attempt to visit during the surf contest or during any kind of extreme tides or unsettled weather.
- Horseback Riding on the Beach – We liked Sea Horse Ranch’s “Early Bird Special” at 8am. Only about 20-30 minutes of the two-hour ride was actually on the sand but the whole ride was very pleasant. No phones or cameras allowed on the horses but they have a Segway cowboy who finds the riders along the way and gets some great shots (for a fee, of course.) Get there early to avoid the registration lines.
The Not So Good
- Fog??? Whether the weather will cooperate with your itinerary is the big question when visiting the coast in Northern California. Summer will most likely be the foggiest – but you never know. We had lucky weather over Thanksgiving weekend 2015.
- Hostel Life – Don’t forget the fun of staying in the hostel. Waiting for the bathroom (which admittedly only happened to us once first thing in the morning but it was literally a 20-minute wait because both bathrooms were occupied with people taking showers). Also they close the doors for a few hours in the afternoon to clean the common rooms. This wasn’t a problem for us but if you had a baby that needed to nap, it could be an issue. However the hostel staff was very friendly and accommodating and suggested that the cleaning closure might be a bit flexible, at this property anyway.
Good for Next Time
- Get Out! There is a ridiculously amazing array of fun outdoor stuff to do in Half Moon Bay, including biking the coastside trail, hiking to Mount Montara, kayaking, whale watching trips, sportfishing boats, crabbing and fishing from the harbor, and trekking into nearby redwoods. Check Yelp or review this list for more information.
- Whale Watching from Shore – From March to May you can see the gray whale mothers and new babies traveling very near to the coast on their northern migration. The Point Montara Lighthouse is a perfect spot to watch for whales. Even if you’re not staying here, you can park on the property, bring a picnic and binoculars, get a coffee, and stroll the cliffs watching for spouts.
- Beach Time Gray Whale Cove State Beach is a little slice of the Lost Coast right in San Mateo County. Ringed by steep cliffs and dotted with massive boulders, it is a beach-wanderer’s dream (though swimming can be dangerous due to a strong undertow.) Be aware that nude sunbathers often hang out at the northern end of the beach (in case you’re not in the mood to answer too many questions from the kids.) If that’s the case, Montara State Beach offers a more straightforward spot for a sunny beach day.
Good to Know
- Book Ahead Whether you want a family room at the hostel, a horseback ride or a whale watching spot, it pays to book a bit in advance. The best hostel rooms always go quickly but you can book a year in advance and typically cancel within 48 hours.
- Watch the Tides Unfortunately we missed low tide at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve because it happened super early the morning we visited. If you love tidepools and are flexible about when to visit, planning a trip during a negative tide would be the best time to come.
- Bring Binoculars – Whether you’re at Mavericks watching surfers or Point Montara watching whales, you’ll want a pair or two of binoculars to see what’s what.
- Finding Mavericks – This ain’t easy for some reason. I’m not sure if they don’t want tourists taking parking spots from the surfers or if it is just a super tight spot but I don’t remember seeing any “Mavericks” signs at all so here are detailed directions: Turn into the Pillar Point Harbor area on Capistrano Road. Follow the road to the right and pass the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. Then make a left on Prospect Way, a quick right on California and a quick left on Harvard Ave. Follow Harvard a few blocks until it ends at West Point Ave. Then make a right and a quick left to stay on West Point. There is a parking lot on the right just behind the first buildings on West Point, and then there is another lot closer to the beginning of the harbor-side trail a few hundred meters down the road. If it is a crowded day, the lots will likely be full and it will be easiest to park near somewhere along West Point near Harvard, walk out to the sand and walk to the right, across the beach, to the beginning of the harbor trail. From this spot, you can walk up the hill and watch the surfers from the bluff or head out along the harbor to the beach. Police were ticketing cars parked along the side of West Point Avenue and in other illegal spots so don’t be tempted.
Good Family Trip?
If you’re looking for a quick and easy Bay Area getaway with something for everyone, don’t miss Half Moon Bay. And if you can stay at Point Montara Hostel, it’ll be affordable as well.
Maryann Jones Thompson, February 2015
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Keywords: family travel, family vacation, Half Moon Bay with the family, Half Moon Bay with the kids, family vacation hostel travel with the family