HALF MOON BAY – The sun, that elusive golden orb that hides from this coastal town nearly 10 months of the year, had shed its fog-cloaked disguise and burned brilliantly in the early October sky.
No way it was going to miss its big chance to shine in the public spotlight. No way was it about to spoil the warmth and neighborliness at the kickoff of prime pumpkin season in California's unofficial "gourd-eous" fall gathering spot south of San Francisco.
It hovered, fat and glowing. Come to think, it looked a lot like a few of the spherical, steroidic, genetically freakish 1,500-plus-pound pumpkins vying for growing supremacy – and a prize of six bucks per pound – in the town's annual weigh-off.
Farmers hitched their pants and tugged on the sweat-stained bills of ball caps in anticipation. Preschoolers, tethered single-file with stretchy rope by their day-care providers, wended their way through the array of round orange wonders. Locals doffed jackets, sipping smoothies instead of steaming java and relishing the mild weather, while on stage local folk singer Jim Stevens set the mood to music:
Sing me a song about pumpkins
Tell me a tale about Half Moon Bay
Coastside traditions are coming together
Midway between San Francisco and San Jose
This place, come October, is all about tradition. Families from throughout the Bay Area, as well as outposts as far northeast as Sacramento and as south as San Luis Obispo, make a pilgrimage for pumpkins. Yes, they will gawk at the obese gourds brought forth every Columbus Day by farmers, but mostly they fan out all month to the bevy of patches and farms that grow and sell more traditional pumpkins, the kind you can cradle in your arms, not hoist via forklift.
While here, people discover anew Half Moon Bay's other charms: the central old-town shopping strip called (naturally) Main Street; the sandy stretch of beaches; the meandering hiking trails; the golf-themed resorts and quiet bed-and-breakfast places; the nearby hideaways of Moss Beach, Montara and San Gregorio.
As Mayor Allan Alifano, removing his black hoodie in the fast-warming morning sun, said, "This really gives us national recognition. It lets people know what our community is all about. There's a lot to do in Half Moon Bay. Tourism is huge."
OK. But, come on, Your Honor, if this is October, it's gotta be all about the pumpkins.
Mary Albrecht, who drove ("over the hill" as locals are wont to say) from Hayward with friend Suzanne Lacey, put it best: "We're doing the whole Charlie Brown thing – looking for the Great Pumpkin."
If they can't find TGP here, then it doesn't exist. Albrecht said she's been making the seasonal trip for 40 years even though, yes, she admits, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable pumpkin patches in Hayward and the East Bay. Nothing, however, matches the spectacle and splendor of Half Moon Bay.
"It's just known as the place to be," she said.
Locals Bob and Suzette Hallett, who rode their bikes from the beach on the Coastal Trail for the weigh-off, say they accept that in October and November their quiet oasis will be overrun with people out of their gourd for a good time. That's the tradeoff for the good life, apparently.
"Pretty wild," Suzette said. "It's definitely not sleepy during October."
But, as Bob added, Half Moon Bay residents are so mellowed by the slow pace the rest of the year that they welcome the buzz of activity, if not the choking traffic on Highway 92.
"We're kind of by ourselves," he said. "It's nice. Half an hour, you're back over the hill into civilization. We like the quiet, but we know this is one of the most beautiful times to be on the coast in terms of weather. And then there's the pumpkins."
Pumpkin passions brought farmer Thad Starr down from Pleasant Hill, Ore., with his wife, daughter and a massive monstrosity filling the bed of his pickup truck. Starr was on a quest not to purchase a pumpkin but to have his Frankensteinian creation weighed and, with luck, feted as the heaviest of the heavy.
"Oregon loves to come down and invade Half Moon Bay," Starr said. "This is the Big Daddy of pumpkin weigh-offs, the Super Bowl. Growers, we're a tight group, and we all want come here every year."
Growers Ron Root of Citrus Heights and Richard Westervelt of Granite Bay had been working since May, planting the Atlantic Giant seeds on their properties, watching them take root and sprout into grand gourds, inflating to near-mythic proportions. But when they arrived in Half Moon Bay come weigh-in morning, their dreams of pumpkin immortality were deflated even before the scales were tipped.
"That guy's pumpkin over there," Root said, pointing to Starr's offering, "it's perfect. Huge and not a flaw on it. It's a thing of beauty."
A thing of beauty that weighed in at 1,775 pounds, to be exact. That was more than a 150 pounds heavier than the closest rival.
The crowd on Main Street gasped, then roared in approval. Stevens, bard of the gourds, burst forth in song once more:
And when the work's all through
You'll have a pumpkin you grew
Driving night and day
Out to Half Moon Bay
For a memory or two
Indeed, driving into town from over the hill in Belmont, the pumpkin parade begins almost immediately along Highway 92. Patches, humble to elaborate, vie for the tourist eye: Pastorino, Lemos, 4 C's, Repetto's, Berta's. Up north on Highway 1: Farmer John's, Andreotti, Pumpkin Depot. To the immediate south: Bob's and Arata.
You'll find all shapes and sizes of pumpkins, hues from burnished orange to ghostly white to a green-orange-white mix. You'll also find elaborate corn mazes and a haunted barn (Arata), pony rides and goat feeding (Pastorino), to every kiddie ride imaginable (Lemos).
Aaron Keesler and his wife, Najwa El-Nachef, with their toddler son Ramsey, seemed overwhelmed by choices at Lemos Farm. They scanned the pony rides and the train chugging by and watched as the nearby hayride loaded passengers.
"We're from Michigan, and they do the same thing there," Keesler said. "But they do it with apples and cider in the fall. When we moved to California, we said, 'We're going to miss this.' But I didn't realize how much is going on down here. We figured we'd come down, buy a few pumpkins, go home (to Burlingame). But there's a lot here."
"And we haven't even wandered by the (pumpkin) patch yet," El-Nachef added.
There appears to be a friendly rivalry among patches, each vying for travelers' attention with big orange banners fluttering above their spots on Highway 92. One year, in the early 2000s, the 4 C's patch upped the ante by bringing in elephants for kids to ride. The pachyderms have long since been packed away, but the rides, menageries and inflatable bounce houses endure.
"To tell you the truth, this is a little overwhelming," said Trina Papini, who brought her two toddlers, Augie and Laurie, to Lemos. "It's almost too much."
"This is like, Disneyland, only it's Pumpkinland," added her husband, Sean Miller.
Lemos and Arata are the largest and most entertainment-intensive patches. But for sheer number of pumpkins, as well as the chance to actually take one directly off the vine, visitors might want to stop at Bob's, about three miles south of town on Highway 1.
Bob Marsh is a throwback. He tells of getting his start in the pumpkin biz in the 1950s as an eighth-grader. "I'd get my dad to load up the rumble seat with pumpkins and we'd stop down the road and sell 'em right there for a nickel, a dime for the big ones," he said. "We've been in this spot since the '60s. I really focus on the pumpkins, not the carnival."
To Bob Lemos, whose family has been running the pumpkin patch and entertainment center on its farm since 1980, it's not about proliferating rides and gimmicks to draw tourists from the other guy.
"We're all friends and neighbors, and there's plenty of (tourist) business to go around, so we're not really competing," Lemos said. "In fact, we go beyond (Halloween). In November, we turn into a Christmas tree (farm) and have the same attractions."
Hard to believe, but for some, the attraction of Half Moon Bay lies well beyond the pumpkin patch.
The opulent Ritz Carlton Hotel, on the beach and with its golf links, accounts for a "major chunk" of Half Moon Bay's revenue. The city also boasts smaller chain hotels and a bevy of bed-and-breakfast spots.
But at the height of the recession, when the flow of tourist dollars dried up, the local economy struggled. More dire, Half Moon Bay lost a $37 million judgment to a developer who said the city created wetlands on his property. The city has issued bonds to pay the judgment, $1.1 million a year through 2040.
As a result, the city slashed its budget, outsourcing law enforcement to the San Mateo County Sheriff and parks and recreation to the city of San Carlos "over the hill." Main Street businesses are struggling, merchants say.
"For the first time in 14 years, I was (at a loss) for July and August, and I'm too depressed to look at September yet," said Judy Brewer, owner of the clothing and gift boutique, Hey Jude. "We're getting the day-trippers now, so that's good. I like October."
Across the street at Tokenz, a beading and crafts boutique, proprietor Sheila Edwards May maintains a sunnier view.
"We've got something a lot of other struggling small towns in California don't have – we're right by the ocean," she said. "That's a built-in draw. We're more than pumpkins, which is the reigning monarch in our town. In fact, we keep our pumpkin items to a minimum. We don't want to be categorized and homogenized for one thing."
The beach, of course, is another draw. Half Moon Bay State Beach lies right in town. To the north is El Granada, Roosevelt, Dunes and Venice beaches; to the south Redondo, Arroyo Canada Verde and Cowell Ranch beaches. The Coastal Trail, both paved and dirt in sections, spans the bluffs and runs nine miles. Surfers tend to flock to El Granada. Roosevelt features dunes and picnic tables, Venice has a group campsite surrounded by cypress trees, and the two-mile-long Half Moon Bay State Beach has white sand, a visitors center and a campground.
Chain-restaurant-averse Half Moon Bay also offers a few high-end dining choices, most notably Cetrella, Pasta Moon and the Flying Fish.
By far the quirkiest dining option is a few miles north on Highway 1 in the faded-yellow hangar of the Half Moon Bay Municipal Airport. It's the 3-Zero Cafe, owned since 1994 by Mark Smith and Joe Gore.
The men transformed a place that had four tables and a counter into an aviation buff's dream, with two dining rooms, model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, Air Force patches, wings and bric-a-brac covering every inch of wall space.
"People just kept bringing stuff in," Smith said. "It started to get a life of its own. All the local pilots eat there, and we get pilots who fly in just to eat breakfast."
On that gloriously sunny early October morning, 3-Zero customer Tom Tuite had driven, not flown, from "over the hill" in Portola Valley to chow down.
"Everybody knows this place," Tuite said. "It's carved out a reputation. You hear, if you go to Half Moon Bay, you've got to eat here."
But, truth be told, Tuite had not come to Half Moon Bay solely to get his omelette fix.
"My friend and I are headed over for the pumpkin weigh-off," he said. "We can't miss that."
HALF MOON BAY
Directions: Take Interstate 80 west to Interstate 880 in Oakland. Veer right onto the San Mateo Bridge (Highway 92). Take Highway 92 past the Highway 101 and Interstate 280 junctions into Half Moon Bay.
Arata Pumpkin Farm: 185 Verde Road; (650) 726-7548
4 C's Pumpkin Patch: 12371 San Mateo Road (Highway 92); (650) 726-9614
Andreotti Family Farm: 329 Kelly Ave.; (650) 726-9151
Bob's Pumpkin Farm: Highway 1, five miles south of Half Moon Bay; (650) 726-4567
Farmer John's Pumpkins: 800 N. Cabrillo Highway; (650) 726-4980
Bert's Pumpkin Patch: 12599 San Mateo Road; (650) 726-4922
Lemos Family Farm: 12320 San Mateo Road (Highway 92); (650) 726-2342
Pastorino Plants: 12391 San Mateo Road; (650) 726-6440
Pumpkin Depot: 2710 N. Cabrillo Highway; (650) 400-0376
Repetto's: 12592 San Mateo Road (Highway 92); (650) 726-6414
Tokenz: 524 Main St.; (650) 712-8457. Beads, gifts,crafts, stained glass.
Hey Jude: 521 Main St.; (650) 726-9646. Purses from Spain and Italy, jewelry from Prague and Africa, sweaters from Peru and Ireland.
Coastside Books: 432 B Main St.; (650) 726-5889. New fiction, nonfiction, childrens.
Barterra Winery: 643 Main St.; (650) 712-1635. Tasting room, olive oils, chocolates. and imported foods.
Cottage Industries of Half Moon Bay: 621 Main St.; (650) 712-8078. Handmade furniture inspired by Shaker, Mission and European traditions.
Cetrella: 845 Main St.; (650) 726-4090. Fine dining. Zagat and Michelin rated.
Flying Fish: 211 San Mateo Road (Highway 92); (650) 712-1125. Seafood, full bar.
Pasta Moon: 315 Main St.; (650) 726-5125. Italian. Michelin rated.
3-Zero Cafe: 9850 N. Cabrillo Highway at Half Moon Bay Airport; (650) 728-1411. Breakfast until 3 p.m.
Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay: One Miramontes Point Road; (650) 712-7000. Resort, spa, two championship golf courses.
San Benito House: 356 Main St.; (650) 726-3425. Historic inn, pub, deli.
Oceano Hotel and Spa: 280 Capistrano Road; (888) 623-2661. 95 suites with balconies at Piller Point Harbor.
Comfort Inn, 2930 N. Cabrillo Highway; (650) 712-1999. Conveniently located near downtown and beaches.
Half Moon Bay State Beach: At Kelly Avenue. (650) 726-8819 for information.
El Granada Beach: Between Mirada Road and East Breakwater. Paid parking lot at East Breakwater.
Venice Beach: Foot of Venice Boulevard.
Roosevelt Beach: Foot of Young Avenue. Part of Half Moon Bay State Beach. (650) 726-8819.
Dunes Beach: Foot of Young Avenue. State beach fees apply.
– Sam McManis