Hotel Watch: Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay

by Kelly Magyarics

A breathtaking setting right on the rugged Pacific coastline makes this property a can’t-miss Northern California destination.

The Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay sits on a bluff on the Northern California coastline. Photo credit Ritz Carlton.

A half-hour south of San Francisco International Airport, the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay feels a world away. Perched on top of a bluff overlooking the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean, the hotel and resort has a secluded, private, exclusive feel–yet it’s not at all inaccessible from the sights of the area, including wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains wine region, the town of Santa Cruz itself and the huge waves at Mavericks that attract the world’s top surfers for the annual competition. Whether you are looking for something a little bit different from a Northern California stay or are seeking an escape for a few days after a trip to San Francisco, this is the resort you’ll want to book. Here are some tips and highlights from my recent visit:

Many of the accommodations at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay overlook the ragged coastline and pounding surf that’s the resort’s top draw. And since the weather can change on a dime, it’s fun to view it all from your room or suite. My first afternoon there, bright sun quickly changed to dense fog that completely obscured the ocean, and back again to clear skies in time for the sunset, all within the span of an hour and a half. It was pretty incredible. Accommodations are decorated in soothing muted tones with all of the niceties you’d expect from a Ritz Carlton, like feather beds with duvets and 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, Keurig coffeemakers, evening turndown service and luxury bath products. My favorite part was the marble bathroom with its separate shower and oversized soaking tub–complete with bath salts for an evening soak to offset my jet lag. I stayed in a Club Coastal View Room, which gave me full access to the food and beverage of the Club Lounge (more on that later.) Most rooms and suites are located in the Main House, which is close to the lobby, restaurants, spa and Ocean Lawn; a short stroll away, more private Guest Houses give access to other amenities like the indoor pool, golf course and tennis courts; some have their own personal fire pits or gas fireplace in the living room, too.

Sip and Savor:
The Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay offers two main restaurants. Navio is seafood-focused, with a warm and comfortable design that’s awash in dark brown wood paneled walls and ceiling and neutral accents. You can pretty much see the water from any table, so try to time your reservation with the sunset. I started with a local riff on my favorite cocktail; the aromatic and complex Cask Conditioned California Negroni stirs St. George Gin with Grand Poppy Amaro and Vya Sweet Vermouth, aged Solera-style (like sherry) in a used whiskey cask.

Navio Restaurant offers seafood and a view of the water. Photo credit Ritz Carlton.

And since Half Moon Bay is the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World, the orange orb makes it appearance several places on the menu, including the drinks list. The Great Pumpkin Punch is a clarified milk punch with Bourbon, rum, pumpkin and baking spices (think of it as a lighter, boozy, thinner version of pumpkin pie.)

The Great Pumpkin Punch is like a lighter, boozier version of pumpkin pie. Photo credit Kelly Magyarics.

You can do dinner a la carte, or via a five-course tasting menu (with optional wine pairings), all overseen by chef de cuisine Jason Pringle. (The resort’s executive chef, Xavier Salomon, won the prestigious 2017 Maitre Cuîsinier de France for the USA and Canada. A native of France, he’s been with the resort since 2001, and has opened twenty Ritz Carlton Hotels around the world. Quite a pedigree.) If you go the a la carte route, make sure to order anything and everything that has Dungeness crab, whose sweet and succulent flavor and texture is joined by just a touch of earthiness which makes it a variety unlike any other. When I visited, it starred in spaghetti chitarra along with fennel and saffron. Other ocean-to-table can’t miss dishes include Morro Bay King Salmon, Diver scallops and Alaskan halibut. But chef is also adept on land, with dishes like tender, juicy roasted squab, which is topped with chanterelle mushrooms, foie gras and truffles and a jus poured tableside. And save some room for dessert. Though I generally pass by traditional Black Forest Cake, with its artificially-sweetened bright red cherries and fake whipped cream, Navio’s deconstructed version (with chocolate sabayon mousse, candied cherries and chocolate blackout cake) is both creative and stellar.

Next door, The Conservatory focuses exclusively on fresh, organic and community-grown ingredients. (Note this restaurant is closing for renovations from December 6 through mid-January.) You can still get that cask-aged Negroni here (along with a barrel-aged Manhattan), as well as a classic Singapore Sling and other libations. But I’d much rather start with a glass (or bottle) of local Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé and the chilled seafood platter, with West Coast oysters, Ahi and hamachi crudo, jumbo prawns and more of that crab, along with yuzu mignonette and cocktail sauce. You can’t go wrong with any of the main courses (and I tried them all), especially the braised short ribs with broccolini and romanesco, and seared, crispy-skinned Mt. Lassen trout with wheat berry and corn pilaf. Sides are designed for the table: the best of the bunch is a play on elotes, with fire-roasted corn, Oaxaca cheese, creme fraiche and lime.

The Ocean Terrace is a great spot to grab a drink by the fire pit and watch the sun set. Photo credit Ritz Carlton.

If you find yourself outside during the day or evening soaking up the view, grab a Pimm’s Cup, or the lip-tingling Fire Within (Tequila, basil-infused chili syrup and hibiscus) at the Ocean Terrace.

And that aforementioned Club Lounge accessible to club level guests? One of the most well-appointed I’ve seen, serving breakfast, lunch, hors d’oeuvres and desserts throughout the day and evening. It even has a dedicated omelet chef during breakfast (who doled out a big scoop of Dungeness lump crab on top of my scrambled eggs each morning–do you see a pattern here?) Lunchtime sees creative sandwiches, salads, soups, cheese and charcuterie, and you may find chilled prawns or lamb chops during happy hour. All are joined by a variety of beverages all day and evening: a caffeine fix from a high-end espresso maker, an Enomatic machine dispensing pours or glasses of a handful of wines, fresh juices and several different kinds of waters, and a full bar with beer, spirits, mixers and garnishes. The best part? The lounge overlooks the view that I just couldn’t get enough of.

The Club Lounge offers breakfast, lunch, snacks, dessert and drinks throughout the day and evening. Photo credit Kelly Magyarics.

Really, I found that view so restorative that just sitting on an Adirondack chair and listening to the waves was enough. But if you want to take a walk on the beach, it’s a short, picturesque fifteen minute stroll on a path at the resort. (Remember, this is Northern California, so the beach is rocky, rough and never warm enough to swim, but it’s still gorgeous.) If you do want to swim, there is an indoor pool a short walk from the main building. But be sure to return before dusk though; five nights a week, a bagpiper serenades the setting sun–an Instagram-able or Boomerang-able moment for sure. (Come back to the fire pits after dinner to make some ooey gooey s’mores.) And golfers, you can book a tee time at either or both of two championship courses.

Five nights a week, a bagpiper serenades the sunset. Photo credit Ritz Carlton.

Hotel guests have access to the spa even if they don’t book a treatment. I headed there one morning after breakfast, where I was given a locker, robe and slippers and a tour of the facility. The men’s and women’s locker room each have a jacuzzi, sauna and steam room (bathing suits optional) but I preferred the larger communal jacuzzi (bathing suits required, obviously.) A fitness center accessible 24-hours a day with room key features cardio and weight training equipment and free-standing weight machines. Showers are well-appointed with toiletries and hair dryers, and stations throughout the spa offer plain and flavored water and a variety of teas. If you do want to partake in a treatment, signatures including the 80-minute Coastal Lavender Indulgence, with a dry body brush, massage and body wrap, all with the soothing fragrance of lavender, and the Redwood Forest Ritual, an 80-minute treatment inspired by Northern California forests, with a deep poultice massage and scalp massage using indigenous herbs and woods. Enhancements like a back exfoliation, body butter or Moroccan scalp treatment add to the indulgence.

The Coastal Lavender Indulgence is a signature spa treatment. Photo credit Ritz Carlton.

Getting there: United, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines offer direct flights from Dulles and Reagan National to San Francisco International Airport. A cab or Uber from the airport to the resort takes about a half hour. For more information the hotel, check out their website.

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