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(Northern) California Dreamin' on a Winter's Day

December 27, 2013 By Byron Beck

San Francisco and Monterey, California are only 110 miles apart. Hardly much of a drive, a little under two hours is all. But you could keep busy for days in this region with activities galore and places to explore. Winter months are some of the best for venturing up and down this stretch of the California coastline. Here are just a few events and places you might want to check out when you find yourself visiting San Francisco attractions or in the smaller hamlets of Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Point Reyes and Santa Cruz.


The City by the Bay is a great place to stay and play year round. During the winter, it's an even better place to grab a bite and a sparkling light show.

Dine About Town
Dine About Town is San Francisco's "restaurant week." This city of foodies actually serves up two restaurant weeks: one in the summer, June 1-15, and another during the winter, Jan. 15-31. Over 100 San Francisco restaurants offer a 2-or 3- course lunch option for $18.95 or a 3-course dinner option for $36.95, plus 10-25% off regularly priced items. Please check the restaurants' websites for dates and times as participation may vary. Dine About Town menus are priced per person. The hot spots fill up fast, so be sure to make a reservation.

Illuminate SF
While the city has already been aglow for the holidays, San Francisco continuously celebrates light as art with truly brilliant, eco-friendly exhibits. Illuminate SF consists of six installations. One such installation is called The Bay Lights. It's the world's largest LED light sculpture: 1.8 miles long and 500 feet tall. Inspired by the Bay Bridge's 75th Anniversary, artist Leo Villareal programmed 25,000 white LED lights to create a never-repeating, dazzling display across the Bay Bridge's west span. Views of this Bay Bridge light sculpture are best witnessed along the Embarcadero/waterfront.

Another cool light installation, Firefly, was created by celebrated environmental artist Ned Kahn. Firefly is a 12-story kinetic sculpture that was authorized by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's new state-of-the-art headquarters. Kahn's Firefly is a lattice of tens of thousands of 5-inch-square, clear-polycarbonate panels hinged to allow them to move freely in the wind.

During the day, the ever-changing wind pressure profile on the building appears as undulating waves. At night, this movement is converted into light. As the wind presses the hinged panels inward, a small and embedded magnet connected to an electrical reed switch triggers the flickering of tiny LED lights. The lights are colored to mimic fireflies, which are a threatened species due to their dependence on riparian ecosystems. The entire sculpture requires less energy than a 75-watt light bulb.

Three Gems
Best known for his visionary work with light, James Turrell's Three Gems is a subterranean installation commissioned specifically for the de Young sculpture garden. It features a view of the sky altered by LED lighting effects, highlighted by changing light and weather conditions outside. Although Turrell has created other "skyspaces," his project for the de Young was his first skyspace to adopt the stupa form. Experience Three Gems by walking through a short tunnel that's cut into the hill, and enter into a cylindrical space that's carved out of the hill. The retaining walls of this cylindrical space are white concrete, and the floor is red stone. Once inside the stupa, sit on a stone bench lining the walls, and view the sky through an oculus cut in the roof of the chamber. Viewers' perceptions of the sky color will be subtly altered by an LED lighting system inside the chamber and by changing light and weather conditions outside the chamber. Admission to this permanent installation is included in San Francisco CityPASS® tickets.


Pacifica, a beachfront community just 10 minutes south of San Francisco, is one of this coastline's most charming towns. It's also a recreational playground and a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts. With so many activities for every type of individual and skill level, here are just a few to get you started.

Pacifica Pier is the only place in the Bay Area where the public can crab for free. During the winter, Dungeness crab, which are not available elsewhere in the Bay Area, are abundant off the pier. In the spring, catch perch at Linda Mar Bay. And in the fall, go rock fishing off Pedro Point.

Pacifica is known in the bike community for its network of trails that overlook the Pacific Ocean. Whether pedaling a road or mountain bike, Pacifica features everything from leisurely rides along the paved coastal trail to long climbs up the flanks of Montara Mountain, which tower 2000 feet above Pacifica.

Surfing & Scuba Diving
Pacifica is home to some of Northern California's best surfing beaches, including Linda Mar State Beach, Rockaway Beach and Sharp Park Beach. If you want to go below the surface of the sea, Linda Mar Beach is an entry point for an intermediate-to-advanced scuba-dive site with diverse aquatic life, such as seals, fish and rays. In May and June, when the halibut come into Linda Mar Bay, many divers can be found spearfishing for this prize fish. At Pedro Point, two wrecks lie on the ocean's bottom in approximately 30 to 40 feet of water.

Segway Tours
The many well-maintained and level trails along Pacifica's beautiful beaches lend themselves to Segway rides. Begin your ride at Rockaway Beach, and wind through a rock quarry to climb up 12 scenic switchbacks over Pacifica's Strawberry Hill to Linda Mar Beach and beyond.


Located 28 miles south of San Francisco, this beautiful, little coastal community offers a variety of attractions for everyone from surf lovers to history buffs. Here are just two outlets that attract visitors from far and wide.

James Johnston House Tours
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, east of Route 1 and just south of Half Moon Bay, the James Johnston House has survived 150 years of weather, abandonment, vandalism and high winds. This classic New England saltbox is now open to visitors for free tours on the third Saturday of the month from January to September. Built by '49er pioneer James Johnston from 1853-1855, for his bride, this architectural gem is one of the rarest historic homes on the California Coast.

Mavericks Surf Invitational
During the winter, some of the best waves in the world are surfed in Half Moon Bay at Mavericks Beach. It's no surprise that this is also when the Mavericks Surf Invitational occurs. The northern Pacific Ocean waves routinely reach over 25 feet and top out at over five stories, but there is no way to determine if the perfect conditions will materialize during the contest window, which falls between now and March 31. When - or if - it does happen, competitors are given as little as 24 hours notice to arrive on the San Mateo County coast to test their skill and vie for the title of Champion of the Mavericks Invitational. During the contest, nearby beaches and coastal bluffs closest to the break are closed to the public. Anyone who wants to see the event can purchase tickets to the Mavericks Viewing Festival, which is held at the Oceano Hotel & Spa in Princeton-by-the-Sea.


The beachy community of Santa Cruz is known for its moderate climate, socially liberal leanings, redwood forests and natural beauty of coastline. Funky and fun are just two words to describe Santa Cruz's most unusual winter offerings.

40th Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair
Fungi is fabulous in Santa Cruz. At the fungus fair, view over 200 species of mushrooms, or bring in yours for identification. Fungi-filled festivities include cooking demos, speaker presentations, art viewing and vendor offerings. There's even a kids' play room. This year's event is on Jan. 10-12 at the Louden Nelson Center. On the first night, enjoy a wine and mushroom dinner with live music from 7-10 p.m.

Tours of the Monarch Butterfly Grove
Through mid January, join a docent naturalist at Natural Bridges State Beach, and see the legendary monarch butterflies wintering in Santa Cruz. Monarch migration can be variable, so make sure to check for current updates.

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