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A beacon for fans of small-town life

Times Staff Writer

THE 48 miles between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz are largely undeveloped, a glorious pastiche of green farm fields that march in rows down to the sea and wild golden meadows that yield to rock-bound coves and curling beaches.

Here, small farm towns and villages dot the windward side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Although only 50 miles south of San Francisco, this stretch of San Mateo County feels remote and unchanged, particularly this secluded hamlet two miles east of California 1.

Pescadero has one traffic light, one bank, one tavern and one gas station. A white, steepled church that seems lifted from New England anchors one end of its two-block downtown. It’s the type of town that bores its teenage residents but delights urbanites looking for a taste of rural California.

I first visited Pescadero on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-July. I was with five friends on a weekend getaway, and we fanned out and browsed its dozen or so downtown stores within an hour. But it was our short attention span, not the wares, that caused us to give them short shrift. The Made in Pescadero shop held beautifully handcrafted armoires, beds, dressers and tables with prices more suited to the big city to its north. A few doors down, Luna Sea had one-of-a-kind sculptures, paintings and crafts. Across the street, Arcangeli Grocery Co. had just-baked scones, pastries and bread steaming up the display case and artichokes done up in myriad ways -- bread, pesto, salsa.

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The small town’s quirkiness intrigued me, so when a planned sailing trip fell through a few days later, I altered course and returned to Pescadero with my husband, Barry.

There are few choices in lodging along this part of the coast. On my first trip, my group stayed at the Costanoa eco-resort about 10 miles south of Pescadero. It has a 40-room lodge, cabins and tents scattered over 40 acres. Its location is incomparable, across Highway 1 from an untamed stretch of coast. But the service (unbused tables and rubbery eggs) and amenities (uncomfortable bunks in our family bungalow, saunas out of service) weren’t worth the upscale prices. I considered the bargain-priced Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel, which is perched next to a lighthouse on jagged cliffs above the Pacific. Its location alone would fetch triple-digit rates, and when we visited, its rooms were neat and the shared bathrooms clean.

But, wanting a little more comfort, I made reservations at the Pescadero Creek Inn, the town’s only multi-room lodging -- although there are vacation home rentals. I couldn’t resist a place that offers a 10% discount to Deadheads.

The late-19th century farmhouse, which owners Ken and Penny Donnelly renovated into an inn and opened in 2003, has three antiques-filled guest rooms and a cottage surrounded by gardens, which is where we stayed for a night. (The inn was full the second night of our stay, so we moved to a studio apartment.) It sits at the edge of downtown, across the creek from the steeple-topped Pescadero Community Church.

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The Donnellys weren’t home when we arrived, so we dropped our bags in the cottage as instructed in a welcome letter and set off to explore. We strolled past many of the village’s 19th century cottages, admiring manicured gardens guarded by picket fences and zealous dogs. In the cemetery, set on a hill overlooking Pescadero, we sensed the town’s deep roots by reading names on worn gravestones. Generations lay buried side by side. In the distance, a tractor rolled across the fields toward home and dinner in the setting sun.

Delectable food

FOR our own dinner, we followed the people heading into Duarte’s Tavern.

Duarte’s (say Doo-arts, as the Portuguese pronounce it, Ken said) started as a saloon in 1894, around the same time this little farming and fishing center became a stop on the stagecoach line. Everyone in town -- firefighters, shopkeepers, residents -- seems to pass through Duarte’s during the week. It’s a convivial place, loud and crowded on weekends but much tamer on the Thursday we dined there.

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“What’s the population here?” Barry asked as we sipped pre-dinner drinks, and the question rolled down the tavern’s bar, with nearly everyone chiming in. Replies ranged from 50 to 1,400, if you didn’t count the day laborers who congregated outside the gas station and its adjacent well-regarded taqueria. (Answer: There were 920 counted in the 2000 census.)

Duarte’s, like Pescadero, has a worn Rockwellian quaintness that belies a streak of excellence. (It won a James Beard Foundation award in 2003.) Its specialties are artichokes and seafood, and everything I tried on both trips -- the Fanny Bay oysters on the half shell, the green chile and artichoke soup, crab cakes and locally caught petrale sole and sand dabs -- was terrific. I didn’t have room for olallieberry pie, filled with the native berries grown nearby.

As we left the tavern, a tall man in blue jeans held the door for us and asked, “Do you need any chickens? Live ones?” Well ... no. But the encounter pleased me because it meant we must have looked as though we belonged.

On Friday morning, we lingered over peach pancakes at the inn and pondered our options for the day. There were plenty to choose from: picking olallieberries, horseback riding, cycling, hiking or watching the elephant seals snort and grunt at Ano Nuevo State Reserve.

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We started south on California 1 toward the Pigeon Point Light Station. Its lighthouse is a classic coastal landmark, first lighted in 1872 after a clipper called the Carrier Pigeon wrecked offshore. We wandered the grounds but couldn’t go up in the 115-foot tall tower, which has been closed for restoration since late 2001. Then we backtracked north and inland to Butano State Park. No one shared the Butano Creek Trail with us on our hike through the redwoods, but we did meet some park residents: a banana slug and a California newt. Then we drove joyfully on winding farm roads, passing cyclists, on our way back to Pescadero.

At Arcangeli -- the locals call it Norm’s Market -- we picked up a loaf of artichoke bread, cherries and iced tea, and followed the folk-art signs of a goat and a girl pointing the way to Harley Farms goat dairy. No one was working the register at the tiny unlocked shop in the barn. We peeked up wooden stairs to the loft, in the office and the farmyard, where a couple of goats eyed us. It took a few minutes to rouse a young clerk and buy a small log of dill-encrusted chevre to complete our picnic.

At Pescadero State Beach, in the company of three squealing girls playing in the surf and wheeling pelicans and cormorants, we lunched on the splendid local bounty.

Throughout our two-night stay, I heard residents grumble about the state Coastal Commission’s tight rein over development. Then we went north to Half Moon Bay and saw what might happen in the Pescadero area if developers had their way. Just south of Half Moon Bay on Miramontes Point Road, modern mansions crowd almost to the sea. We stopped at the 261-room Ritz-Carlton, on a beautiful bluff, for drinks and appetizers. I gloried in its luxury for a short while but found I preferred the simpler pleasures of Pescadero.

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Before we left on Saturday morning, we stopped again at Duarte’s for breakfast. Firefighters occupied a table by the window. Next to us a couple sat down and the waiter rattled off their usual order. We ordered pancakes, and they came with olallieberry syrup, a tart, not too sweet, flavor I liked.

On the way home, we stopped at the Swanton Berry Farm’s stand. There was no olallieberry jam on display, but a clerk offered to search for a jar. She brought out one and handed it to me with instructions to keep it chilled.

Most mornings, it conjures for me the country flavor of Pescadero.

*

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Begin text of infobox

Pescadero by the sea

GETTING THERE:

Pescadero is about 400 miles north of Los Angeles and about 50 miles south of San Francisco.

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The closest airport is San Jose, about 45 miles east. United, American and Southwest fly nonstop to San Jose from LAX and Orange County airports. Southwest also flies from Burbank. Restricted, round-trip fares start at $119.

WHERE TO STAY:

Pescadero Creek Inn, 393 Stage Road, Pescadero; (888) 307-1898, www.pescaderocreekinn.com. Inn furnished with antiques in a renovated 19th century farmhouse. Four rooms. Doubles $165-$225.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, 210 Pigeon Point Road (California 1), Pescadero; (650) 879-0633, www.norcalhostels.org. A hostel on the grounds of a state park. Amenities include a hot tub. Rates $18-$22 per person; additional $15 per night for private rooms.

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Costanoa, 2001 Rossi Road, Pescadero; (877) 262-7848, www.costanoa.com. The 40 lodge rooms seem the best choice for the price. Doubles, $210-$260.

CONTACT:

Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, 20 Kelly Ave., Half Moon Bay, CA 94019; (650) 726-8380, www.hmbchamber.com.

-- Vani Rangachar

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