Pacifica, Calif. — About 20 minutes south of San Francisco is a stretch of the California coastline filled with charming little towns far removed from the fast-paced urban life.
Pacifica, with a population slightly over 37,000, is one of these lovely towns, with everything from good food and a pier to surfing and hiking.
And if you happen to be looking for Jewish life, well, there’s that, too, in the form of the Coastside Jewish Community, a non-affiliated group of about 75 families that has been a fixture of this area — including the small towns of Pacifica, El Granada, Moss Beach, Princeton-by-the-Sea and Montara and a sprinkling of people from up the peninsula and the East Bay — for 23 years.
“One of our strong values,” says Cathy Hauer, president of the board of Coastside, “is that we are inclusive and welcoming, and we embrace the diversity of people from different Jewish backgrounds.
“Some of us came from Reform, some from Orthodox, some from completely non-practicing [backgrounds]. Some of us had Jewish educations, some of us didn’t, but we all find sort of common ground in just being together as Jews in all the different ways that can be described.”
The group uses a Reconstructionist prayer book, but it is “not locked into that,” says Hauer, a practicing psychotherapist. The CJC, notes Hauer, is a member of the Bay Area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations and has created a community “where members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community can feel welcome and just at ease.”
Friday night services on the second Friday of the month are held at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Half Moon Bay. “We call it our Holy Family shul,” says Hauer, who points out that the group’s ark resides in the church. Gatherings also take place in members’ homes.
And what can you do in Pacifica if you’re a visiting tourist, perhaps spending the day from San Francisco?
Well, there are Pacifica’s beautiful open spaces, including a hike to Mori Point, which includes a beachside trail bordered by colorful wildflowers and crashing waves.
All 110 acres of Mori Point are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and when you reach the top, you can see all the way from Point Reyes to Pedro Point — an incredible, breathtaking California vista.
High above the ocean on my own hike, I discovered the very spot where the famous drive-the-car-off-the-cliff scene was shot for the 1971 film, “Harold and Maude.”
And not too far from where Harold’s car goes careening into the ocean there’s a piece of history of a different sort: the watery location where ships once braved the waves to unload liquor destined for Depression-era speakeasies, like the one at Sam’s Castle (read on) or another one that was housed in the historic Sanchez Adobe, an important example of Mexican-era California architecture worth visiting.
Close to nearby wetlands on my hike, I stopped on a wooden bridge to peer down at California’s very own red-legged frog — most likely the one made famous in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
McCloskey Castle, a rather modest affair as far as castles go, but a castle nevertheless with a panoramic view of the bay. Open for tours, the castle was built in 1907 by Henry Harrison McCloskey, an attorney in San Francisco who wanted to remind his wife of her childhood home in Scotland.
The castle was purchased by the late San Franciscan, Sam Mazza, who filled it with Hollywood movie memorabilia he had collected; thus, the place came to be known as “Sam’s Castle.”
Other historical tidbits worth noting about the castle: it was once used to watch for Japanese naval craft after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, and it even doubled as a speakeasy during Prohibition.
After hiking and castle-going, there’s a lot to do in town. For starters, you can visit the Oceana Art Gallery in Eureka Square to view works by local artists, and then you can enjoy the eateries near Rockaway Beach.
Nick’s, a rousing place since 1927, is where I went in the evening to enjoy live music, drinks and a monster ice cream dessert.
Across the street from Nick’s it was dinner at Moonraker Restaurant, located within the Best Western Plus Lighthouse Hotel; the local King Salmon Pinwheel was served with beluga lentils, braised greens, lemon thyme sauce, and spicy aioli.
Around the block there’s an intimate place called A Grape in the Fog, where guests enjoy wine tasting and live music. During happy hour, there were sparkling wine cocktails, like one imaginative drink, meant to capture the spirit of Pacifica, called “Pacificaaahhh.” This memorable drink was made with sparkling wine and raspberry rhubarb syrup — a nod to Pacifica’s memorable sunsets.
Beyond Pacifica, one town I like a lot is Half Moon Bay, where the Ritz-Carlton overlooks the Pacific. Thirty-five miles south of Half Moon Bay, you’ll find Ano Nuevo State Park, where elephant seals give birth to their pups between December and January.
If, by chance, you go in for ghost stories, you can always visit Moss Beach Distillery for drinks or a meal and learn about a mysterious ghost called “The Blue Lady,” who is always dressed in blue.
Legend has it that this sorrowful ghost, forever searching for her lover, has been involved in all kinds of mischief at the restaurant.
It’s a legend that only adds to the charm of the coastline so close to San Francisco. ✦
More information at: www.coastsidejewishcommunity.org, www.pacificachamber.com, www.visitcalifornia.com, www.parks.ca.gov.