It was late summer, when beaches in Northern California shed their foggy coats and step into the sunshine. I was on a mission to savor every last moment before the rumored (and desperately needed) El Niño drenches our state. The masses flock to nearby Santa Cruz and Monterey, so my family and I chose instead affable Half Moon Bay, a beach hamlet about half an hour south of San Francisco. Weekenders breeze through bookstores and galleries, antiques shops and cafes. But with kids in tow, we soon realized we needed innovative ways to entertain them. That's how we stumbled on an interactive treasure hunt that led us to tide pools teeming with sea life, and a lively beach bar and grill tailored for families. The tab: $280 for two nights at the Half Moon Bay Inn; dinner and drinks at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., $80; treasure hunt kit at Oddyssea, $39.
In the heart of the main drag, the Half Moon Bay Inn (401 Main St.;  726-1177, www.halfmoonbayinn.com) offers a dash of panache with unpretentious, pet-friendly rooms with pillow-topped beds, thick duvets, handsome furnishings and marble baths. Some rooms have kitchens; others feature balconies. Walls are thin, so restaurant and neighbor noise might trouble light sleepers.
Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. (390 Capistrano Road;  728-2739, www.hmbbrewingco.com) is an institution in this coastal community. A large ocean-view patio lures surfers, families with dogs and sailors swapping tales around fire pits. Live music, seasonal pumpkin brews, just-caught fish tacos and Portuguese stew, punctuated with heaps of garlic, celebrate the seaside community's international influences.
Friends told us that Oddyssea (617 Main St.;  440-4555, www.oddyssea.com) was the spot they wished they had experienced as a kid, and once we arrived with our clan, I heartily agreed. It's basically an interactive garden shop with a terrarium "buffet," a massive marble run and make-your-own messages in a bottle. We bought the Coastal Adventure Kit — a collection of objects that led us on a treasure hunt-like tour of Half Moon Bay's natural gems, including Fitzgerald Marine Reserve's tide pools, Mavericks (site of the annual big wave surf competition) and Purisima Creek Redwoods.
The population swells dramatically during the Pumpkin Festival (Oct. 17 and 18), but a pre-Halloween trek to this beach town is worth it. Sample pumpkin bread at Half Moon Bay Bakery (514 Main St.;  726-4841); pick up jack-o'-lanterns to be at Farmer John's (850 N. Cabrillo Highway;  726-4980, www.farmerjohnspumpkins.com, opens Sept. 12); and splurge on a pumpkin facial at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (1 Miramontes Point Road; -712-7000, www.ritzcarlton.com). A weekend in this hideaway proves that Cinderella's fairy godmother isn't the only one who can do magical transformations with pumpkins.