Pescadero harbors a quiet paradise of mild climate, great views and memorable food

01/22/2012 12:00 AM

08/04/2012 7:20 PM

PESCADERO – On a crisp, crystalline winter morning, the kind of glorious day when you can understand why fog-accustomed folks here say that winter is their summer, three men of a certain age were chatting volubly in the back booth at Duarte's Tavern.

"We're talking about going to the Azores," said Terry Shade, polishing off a crab-and-goat-cheese omelette.

Why hanker for the homeland? Don't these Pescaderans realize they already live in a paradise, an oasis of calm and camaraderie along the San Mateo coast that makes it seem as if the constant buzz and hum of Silicon Valley is not 20, but 2,000 miles away?

Truly, that volcanically formed archipelago off Portugal, ancestral home to many residents here, has nothing on tiny Pescadero – Portuguese for "fishing town," but really so much more packed into a four-square-mile space with 643 residents, not counting goats, chickens, turkeys, peacocks and, especially in the summer months, tourists fleeing fast-paced lives.

The ocean?

Check.

Redwood forests?

Check.

Whale and elephant-seal watching?

Check.

Fine dining, Portuguese-inspired?

Check.

Thriving artisan colony?

Check.

Temperate, subtropical climate?

OK, there is that difference.

Pescaderans do, indeed, know what a jewel they inhabit, and why day-trippers make the 15-mile drive south from Half Moon Bay or the winding, 20-mile trek from Palo Alto in (mostly) fog-shrouded summers or (relatively) mild, wet winters for a taste, literally and metaphorically, of a world both simpler and more substantial than their own.

One-stoplight towns often are called "quaint," a compliment always tinged with condescension, but that would be selling this place short.

Pescadero is a place where four generations of an enterprising Portuguese family, the Duartes, can carve out a restaurant business as solid and lasting as their burnished wooden bar, where you can get the same spicy crab cioppino and whiskey as they served in 1894, where everyone from NPR's Susan Stamberg to the Food Network's Guy Fieri have made pilgrimages to check out the James Beard Award-winning cuisine.

Pescadero is a place where a wanderlust-driven English lass from the moors around Yorkshire can settle down and cultivate a goat farm and dairy that produces sublime chèvre and fromage blanc cheeses that have won international World Cheese Show medals.

Pescadero is a place where a local woodworker and some buddies can take a flooded former hardware store and turn it into a haven for artisans who craft custom handmade furniture, using mostly deciduous wood, that draws buyers from San Francisco and beyond.

Pescadero is a place where a New Yorker and Chicagoan, weary of city life, can chuck it all, pack up the family and restore a dilapidated farmhouse for a gorgeous bed-and-breakfast that gives a 10 percent discount to Deadheads.

Pescadero is a place where a free-spirited woman who could've stepped out of a Frances Mayes book returns from a skiing trip and, on a whim, opens a boutique for local artists that becomes wildly successful, judging by all the Yelping taking place online.

And Pescadero is, most assuredly, a place where visitors can take a Zenlike contemplative walk in hip-high foliage out on the 600-acre Marsh Natural Preserve, study owls perched on driftwood and blue herons skimming over the saltwater tule, and seriously consider simply not leaving until the inevitable gravitational pulls of real-life responsibilities intrude.

Yet, not to worry: That ribbon of highway overlooking Pescadero's coves and beaches is the way back into this paradise reached on a single tank of gas.

"Every summer, we see the same people," said Janice Keen, owner of Luna Sea, the boutique. "Actually, we see a lot of people from Sacramento. We knew your summer was milder last year because we didn't get as many tourists. We want your (Sacramento) summers to be blazing hot."

In less than three hours (in good traffic) on a summer day, travelers can experience a temperature drop of 30 degrees from our inland sweat lodge. Bless the fog, nature's air conditioning. And, conversely, on a late-December visit, brilliant sunshine and light wind turned Pescadero 12 degrees warmer than the Central Valley.

Climate matters here because, except for that wondrous stretch of downtown, Pescadero is most fully experienced out-of-doors.

Early morning found Beau Gill, a Half Moon Bay landscape photographer, clicking his tripod into place on a bluff at Pescadero State Beach. He peered through the lens, lifted his head and stared out at the spray-splashing whitecaps crashing down on the cove, then focused on the scalloped edges of the cliffs.

"See how that hillside cascading down there is sculpted?" he says. "On a really nasty, foggy day, it's just a wonderful sight."

One must learn to embrace the oceanfront chill here. It is, after all, a constant companion, but nothing that swaddling yourself in a jacket can't mitigate.

Though not as obvious in its natural beauty as the ocean across the highway, the marsh has more than its share of charms. As you walk on a loop of wetlands trail, small migratory shore birds flit in and out of the 200 species of plants that provide habitat. The complexity of life, from insects to turtles to egrets and beavers, span the brackish tidal waters to freshwater creeks near the dunes and eucalyptus groves.

The other side of Highway 1 features a series of beaches, the most noteworthy being Bean Hollow State Beach (a mile south) and Año Nuevo State Reserve (eight miles south).

Año Nuevo is the more popular destination, especially in January and February, because of the mammalian show put on by those cute, blubbery elephant seals. The pregnant females arrive in December and give birth to pups, while the "mature" (to quote from the clinically worded literature at the Marine Education Center at the park) males "establish dominance" and do what males are genetically inclined to do.

Guided tours, at a modest distance, of the elephant seal population are popular in the winter months, but you must reserve a spot by using the state parks website. Another way to get a glimpse – and certainly hear the playful grunts and barks – is to traverse the sandy, flat 1.6-mile Año Nuevo Point Trail to the cliffs.

Bean Hollow, meanwhile, features Pebble Beach, which, as its name implies, is spread not with fine-grained sand but smooth, rounded, somewhat translucent pebbles.

Back in the late 1800s, when fishermen, hunters and hikers discovered the amber-, jade- and rose-hued pebbles on the shoreline, it sparked a spike of tourist interest in Pescadero, according to local historians. Three stagecoach lines made stops in the 1880s, depositing "pebble hunters" at its shores. Jewelry made from these semi-precious gems became popular, until the craze ebbed in the early 1900s.

Today, the Pebble Beach is marked with a small informational sign, which few bother to read on their rocky way down to the shore.

Another stop, between Pebble Beach and Año Nuevo, is the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, constructed in 1872 but closed to the public since 2001 because of "deteriorating structural rust and corrosion, and the loss of a piece of critical iron belt course that holds the tower together." (The nongovernmental, nonprofit California State Parks Foundation is working to raise funds to rebuild.)

Farther inland, about four miles southeast of Pescadero, you can have a startlingly different outdoor experience hiking amid redwoods at Butano State Park (see details in Great Treks, Page H3.

Once your outdoors proclivities are sated, downtown Pescadero awaits. It's a two-mile drive inland off Highway 1, past artichoke and brussels sprouts fields. Its main drag (Stage Road) at first seems almost plopped down in the ag fields like a movie set.

And when you turn left into town, you must make an immediate right into a parking lot for Duarte's Tavern. Whatever else you might see or skip in Pescadero, Duarte's (pronounced "Do-Arts," by the way) is a required stop.

From its retro russet neon sign to the vegetable garden out back beyond the kitchen door, Duarte's sets the tone and gives context to the rest of the town.

In 1894, Frank Duarte emigrated from Portugal and paid $12 in gold for the corner building. He constructed a sturdy wooden bar, went to Santa Cruz and bought a barrel of whiskey, trying to lure the fishermen. At 10 cents a shot, Frank cleaned up. He and his son, Frank Jr., also sought to clean up the fishermen, offering haircuts and shaves. Then Frank the younger's wife, Emma, started making pies, then their son, Ron, took over and offered weekly crab cioppino feeds, augmented with artichoke soup, that drew folks from San Jose to San Francisco and beyond.

Today, Duarte's thrives as a must-stop for gastronomes of both high- and low-brow sensibilities (hence, NPR's "Morning Edition" and the Food Networks "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives"). As the current general manager, Tim Duarte, writes on the tavern's website, "We have experienced the restaurant flooding, septic back-ups, the dot-com frenzy, drunken cooks, lean winters and bar fights."

But Tim, as the fourth-generation proprietor, is making sure the restaurant doesn't sit on its laurels.

"We pride ourselves in having our own vegetable garden," he said. "Recently, we've had a rebirth of small farmers in the area. For a long time, it was just big agriculture. But we try to buy local. Any fish that has local next to it sells so much better than others."

Cheeses for Duarte's dishes come from the goats at nearby Harley Farms, run by Dee Harley, the Yorkshire transplant who fell in love with Pescadero more than two decades ago, then fell in love and married Tim Duarte (see, small town) and then started getting goats and making cheese.

"What we've created is an experience," she said. "This is a real farm. It's not a fake farm, not a petting zoo. We've got a couple hundred goats, and only sell cheese from milk we produce. To supplement the farm staying small, we do tours. We start in February, when babies are born."

Agri-tourism has blossomed in Pescadero. Down the road is Phipps Ranch, a roadside attraction since 1957. In late spring and summer, there are you-pick olallieberrries and strawberries to be had. An array of designer dried beans are in barrels and, out back, a menagerie of barnyard animals and a few exotic birds.

Here's how Pescadero's tightly woven interdependence is played out: Duarte's uses olallieberries from Phipps, goat cheese from Harley Farms and artichokes from local farmers. The same holds true for the afternoon wine and cheese ritual at the Pescadero Creek Inn bed-and-breakfast, run by Ken and Penny Donnelly, the two big-city refugees.

And the monthly, cheese-infused seasonal dinners at Harley Farms are served on a long wooden table crafted by local artisan Three Fingers Bill – whose furniture is on the display and for sale at the Made in Pescadero shop – and with pewter goblets made by local artist Dan Geraci – whose metal sculptures are on sale at the Luna Sea boutique.

Made in Pescadero, the handmade furniture establishment started in 1998 by Dan Periat, is housed in a drafty, industrial, sheet-metal structure. Inside, though, the warm, rich texture of desks, tables and dressers is made from redwood, California walnut, bay laurel and sycamore.

"We get people who come in the summer, then call us up and custom-order a desk or bed in the winter," said Marcus Jones, one of four woodworkers who toil for the clientele. "But some people come in and treat this place like a museum rather than a business. I tell them this isn't plywood, just solid, handmade stuff that'll last for generations. They understand."

Pescaderans, too, understand the delicate dance they must make between being a small town and harboring big ambition, between being tourist-driven without the attendant touristy tackiness.

They have found this balance, this repose, and they don't intend to change any time soon – occasional Azorean escape fantasies notwithstanding.

"The people here," said Penny Donnelly, "are just grounded."

Pescadero

Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 south over the Carquinez Bridge to I-580 to Highway 92, crossing the San Mateo Bridge. Take Highway 92 until it ends. Turn left onto Highway 1. Travel south 15 miles. Turn left at Pescadero Road. Travel two miles to downtown Pescadero.

OUTDOORS

Pescadero State Beach and Marsh Natural Preserve (www.parks.ca.gov). Sandy beach, rocky cove, great for photography. Across the highway, 200 species.

Bean Hollow State Beach (www.parks.ca.gov). Take a short trail down to Pebble Beach.

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park (www.parks.ca.gov). Beautiful views, history but no tours due to renovation.

Año Nuevo State Reserve (www.parks.ca.gov). Elephant seal spotting, but reservations for tours required.

Butano State Park (www.parks.ca.gov) Hike among the redwoods.

FARMS

Harley Farms Goat Dairy (www.harleyfarms.com), 205 North St. Watch cheese made. Tours, gift shop, seasonal dinners.

Phipps Country Store and Farm (www.phippscountry.com), 2700 Pescadero Road. U-pick berries in season, dried beans, fruit and vegetable stand, wildlife menagerie.

DINING

Duarte's Tavern (www.duartestavern.com), 202 Stage Road. James Beard Award winner. Try the artichoke soup.

SHOPPING

Made in Pescadero (www.madeinpescadero.com), 216 Stage Road. Gorgeous handmade wooden furniture

Luna Sea, 250 Stage Road. Call (650) 879-1207. Sustainably made art pieces and boutique.

Country Roads, 320 Stage Road. Call (650) 532-8163. Collectibles and rarities from the town's history.

LODGING

Pescadero Creek Inn (www.pescaderocreekinn. com), 393 Stage Road. The only true bed-and-breakfast in the area.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel (pigeonpointhostel.org), 210 Pigeon Point Road. Forty-one dorm beds on grounds of the state park.

Costanoa (www.costanoa.com), 2001 Rossi Road. Forty lodge rooms, camping, massages and high-end amenities.

Pescadero Creekside Barn (www.pescaderolodging. com), 248 Stage Road. Loft for two with a claw-footed tub.

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