by Robert Kaufman
I can’t smell the ocean but I can definitely see it. Well, not exactly. Thanks to the magic of technology, hanging on the wall just behind the reception counter during at the palatial Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, a big-screen monitor was streaming live, jaw-dropping video of one of the most spectacular finishing golf holes along California’s 1,200 mile coastline, let alone the planet.
“Would you like to see another angle?” asked the hotel receptionist. “If you’d like, I can flip the camera switch to another view.”
“Sure I would. Now that’s the way to be checked in,” I remarked. “If you have the views like that, might as well flaunt them!”
As it turned out, that visual diversion, along with the glass of complimentary wine put in my hand, merely whetted my appetite. Upon opening the door at my hotel quarters, there was no way to avoid the majestic Big Blue vista staring at me inside my coastal view room. Like a surfer induced by waves, I was magnetized to the window where I stood mesmerized with my eyes gazing left to right, right to left along the distant horizon and up and down that same fairway I just observed in HD. Within minutes, my heart rate was on simmer control.
Half Moon Bay, named for the broad arc of the Pacific Ocean lapping its western edge, is enveloped between two worlds. As the seagull flies, the unpretentious, quaint town lies 45 minutes south of the city life in San Francisco and approximately equidistant from Silicon Valley’s high tech landscape, yet, somehow, this beach community has managed to retain its low-tech ambience. Well, except for a small parcel of one-time farming land that was transformed into a “Five-Diamond” oceanfront resort and where many benefactors of the dot.com boom, along with visitors from around the globe landscape, now escape to.
Resting prominently atop a rugged bluff like a storybook castle, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay is reminiscent of the grand lodges of the 19th century featuring Shingle Style architecture along with two championship golf courses – Old Course and Ocean Course – serving as bookends carved along the ocean cliffs. With 36 golf holes and 261 guestrooms along the shelf, the property offers plenty of stories that have garnered much notoriety, including the 2013 North America Golf Resort of the Year from the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.
The majority of the guestrooms offer panoramic ocean views complimented by comfortable window seats, inviting fireplaces, or spacious terraces. I can’t imagine why but should you choose to remain connected to the outside world, each room is equipped with high-tech features including wireless, high-speed Internet access and laptop accommodating safes.
Epitomizing the relaxed elegance of the new generation of Ritz-Carlton properties, the lobby interior includes hardwood floors, large stone fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows highlighting the spectacular ocean vistas to enjoy while dining under a hull-replica ceiling at Navio Restaurant or experiencing the Eno Wine Bar with an international collection of over 5,000 wines along with onsite education by sommeliers.
For local dining experiences, typically, the best move is to check with the concierge. Allow me to spare you that exercise. Drive north on Highway 1, roughly two miles to historic Main St. and grab a table at Pasta Moon, serving contemporary Italian cuisine and a wine selection offering a perfect pairing to whatever meal is selected.
“Our goal is to feel like walking into your mother or grandmother’s house and the first thing you realize is the smell coming from kitchen,” says Owner/Chef Kim Levin.
Levin’s commitment to seasonal fresh, local, homemade food has been the main ingredient for the success of this eatery. Inside tip: hands down, the meal of choice is the butternut squash and mascarpone cheese ravioli topped off with the butterscotch dessert that according to our server, “kind of brings you back to your childhood, but even better.”
Naturally, some activity is recommended to offset the feast of epicurean delicacies and with access to a 16,000-square-foot spa and fitness center furnished with plenty of massage tables and cardio equipment, there is ample opportunity to melt away calories. If crashing waves and ocean scent serve as a motivating force for heart-pumping exercise, take advantage of the coastal jogging and biking – or walk – paths that also provide direct access to the beach. However, at the end of the day, when it comes to this resort’s recreation, golf is king! Literally.
Eighteen years before The Ritz-Carlton was erected, The King, Arnold Palmer (along with Frances Duane), designed one of his own castles consisting of 18 fairways and greens crowned as The Old Course, where, no matter what numbers are recorded for the first 17 holes, the wow factor of the cliff-hanging 18th fairway stretching alongside the Pacific Ocean will sooth any pain.
As host venue for numerous U.S. Open Qualifiers, The Old Course, at 7,001 yards, plays like a traditional parklands-style course with Cypress tree-lined fairways and multiple right-left doglegs as it winds its way through a housing development before opening up for a dramatic, spine-tingling, three-hole finish. Water comes into play on half the holes, with seven on the back nine, including the most dramatic tee to green hazard framing the western edge of the treacherous home hole. Barring any ball sacrifice (do not attempt to retrieve), the next best shots are the cocktails at the 19th hole on the Ritz-Carlton patio, complete with fire pits, only steps away from the final putt.
On the south side of the hotel, The Old Course is complimented by the newer Ocean Course (1997) and, like many brother and sister relationships, the two layouts could not be any more different. That becomes quickly apparent when, after a short cart ride from the clubhouse and past the Ritz-Carlton’s front entrance, you land on the first tee where you will begin to test a links-style layout reminiscent of the iconic Scottish seaside venues.
What was once fertile farmland for harvesting pumpkins and artichokes, architect Arthur Hills took advantage of a rolling canvas butting up against the Pacific Ocean and transformed it into a layout with views playing the leading role from your first tee shot until holing out on 18. With a gradual ascent on the front nine, before making the turn at the furthest point from the hotel to start the descent, golfers will encounter mostly treeless and homeless fairways throughout the 6,849-yard layout.
Like any links design, the wide-open exposure to the winds of Mother Nature plays heavily into the character of the course and, depending on the day – or the hour – can be hazardous to your scorecard. The prevailing coastal breezes and hard, fast turf conditions will encourage players to utilize the contours of the land to run approach shots into the large greens after strategically shaping tee shots onto the fairway. Although water (aside from the Pacific) is found only on the par-3 seventh, both sand and grass bunkering are prevalent on each hole.
In 2009, after playing host to the 2008 LPGA Samsung World Championship Tournament, the Ocean Course underwent a “Links Enhancement” transition that included grasses around bunkers and greens being shaved down, while increasing the presence of fescue grasses to further promote a traditional feel. In addition, five new tee areas were created to provide additional angles and strategic considerations.
“Since we adjusted the Ocean Course from what was really a parkland links-maintained asset to what architect Arthur Hills had originally intended and make it the best it can be in concert with the coast, the player growth has been phenomenal,” says Bill Troyanowski, General Manager of Half Moon Bay Golf Links. “Now, golfers favor playing the Ocean Course over the Old Course by 13-14 percent.”
The three finishing holes on the Ocean Course offer a seaside golf experience worth the price of admission. In fact, after walking this stretch during sunset on opening day and observing shadows being cast by the bunkers and mounding, Hills noted that golfers should be charged more for playing later in the day because of the extra-added beauty.
Regardless of the conditions, the 186-yard, par-3, 17th hole requires a tee shot to carry over a field of native grasses all the way to a postage stamp size green resting a few club lengths from the cliff’s edge. The scorecard claims this as the easiest of the 18 holes, however, as go the winds, so goes that handicap number up the chart. Not to mention that any ball spayed left will be followed by ‘fore’ to the beach fans below.
“The primary consideration is for our guests to feel the connection to the coastal environment,” says Troyanowski. “I would equate our experience like going to Augusta. It’s just simply an intangible. You go to Augusta and you’re awed, no matter what, just because you’re there. Here, our team is really focused on engaging with guests and bringing some of the gold standard that our Ritz-Carlton partner has built their legacy on.”
It is indeed a luxurious playground that will send you home over the moon.
For more information:
Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay: www.ritz-carlton.com
Half Moon Bay Golf Course: www.halfmoonbaygolf.com
Half Moon Bay Region: www.visithalfmoonbay.org