On the wildflower-speckled bluffs of Northern California, north of Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay ornaments a wild and cinematic stretch of shoreline high above the Pacific’s barreling tide. Beneath a moody sky, parents are sipping vino fireside, while children, laughing and layered, roast one marshmallow after another. Gliding along the seaside cliffs, a flock of brown pelicans cruises coastal winds over The Old Course’s postcard 18th hole, slowly fading into the vast green landscape.
It’s a cool April evening at the 261-room luxury retreat and it feels like I’m anywhere but The Golden State. Maybe not anywhere, somewhere quite specific to be exact: Scotland. A case for Ireland could equally be made, but my original instinct, punctuated by the temperature, the fast-moving fog, and the hotel’s castle-esque perch in the hilly, unspoiled terrain has Scotland on my mind. And this was before Lynne the Bagpiper, and the ever-nearing sound of his woodwind instrument, entered stage left, stamping a big Gaelic glow on my heart.
Clad in full-on Highland dress—tartan-patterned kilt, sporran, and all—the white-mustachioed musician looks as if he’d just left a Scottish wedding in Inverness, or Dornoch even. His arrival is part of a nightly ceremony at The Ritz-Carlton, timed with the sun falling into the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, the marine layer has been thicker than a Celtic fortress since I arrived, but Lynne spots a gap in the distant horizon. Just before his final song, he leans into me and says, “We might get a green flash.”
Having lived near the Southern California shore for a couple of years in my 20s plus annual vacations to Florida’s Emerald Coast since I was a boy, I’ve witnessed many a memorable beachfront sunset in my 37 years on this glorious planet. A green flash, though? That was new vernacular to me and what sounded like a Marvel movie hero. Two minutes to sundown and no time to elaborate, Lynne the Bagpiper takes a big breath and kicks off his finale.
Sure enough, the sun drops from the clouds into a clean ribbon of now-orange sky. Not knowing what I “might” see, I stare with conviction as “Amazing Grace” saturates the scene, the irony of singing the lyrics “was blind but now I see” while gazing at a giant ball of hot plasma not lost on me. As the sun’s crown fades from the horizon, a green star—as I would describe it—winks at me as if to say, “Goodnight.” The green flash!
Outwardly, I grin from ear to ear. Inwardly, I let the spectacle I just so happened to walk into, an optical phenomenon caused by light refracting in the atmosphere, wash over me. The uncommon meteorological event lasts one to two seconds… tops. Had Lynne the Bagpiper not tipped me off, I wouldn’t have recognized it.
“Did you see it?” he asks me excitedly as soon as his last note dissolved into the sea. Wide-eyed and at a loss for words, I nod my head silently. Smiling too, Lynne the Bagpiper understands. “That was a good one!” he says. I don’t want to correct the man of the moment, but I have to because I disagree. “No,” I say. “That was magical.”
Bagpipes and sunset ceremonies aren’t the only reason to book a stay at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, which opened in 2001 and seamlessly blends into the weathered California coastline. The scenery will certainly lure you westward, but the food, spa, trails, beaches, and golf will keep you there. From recreation to relaxation, there is a little bit of something for everyone. For adults, that starts with a complimentary glass of wine when you check-in.
Each of my three mornings began at The Conservatory, one of three on-site restaurants, where I sipped coffee windowside so as to overlook the Big Blue Pacific Ocean. If you’re wondering, yes, as a matter of fact, I am that guy who brought binoculars to an indoor breakfast at a five-star hotel. Lo and behold, my naked eye spots the spout of a migratory whale in between bites of my Coastal Egg Benedict. Monique, my waitress, hasn’t seen one this season, but she did see a porpoise fly out the water yesterday. My binos do help me zoom in on Mavericks, however, home to some of the world’s heaviest waves on the north end of Half Moon Bay.
For lunch, there’s never a dull moment at the Ocean Terrace, a casual spot to grab a local microbrew or some Napa Valley bubbles and indulge al-fresco from the raw oyster bar and grill on the Ocean Lawn. For an elevated dinner, a reservation at Navio, The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay’s acclaimed restaurant, is a certified must-book. There, I poached another table with a view, a throne if you will, while dining like a king: kaluga caviar, Mount Lassen trout, and wild black cod in a Champagne beurre blanc sauce. Horace, my world-class waiter and a golfer himself, informs me that the winds on The Ocean Course post-three o’clock can be unforgiving. “When are you teeing it up?” he asks.
“2:30,” I reply—and together we smile.
With a Sunday matinee tee time, a sign I interpret as having played my way into the final group, I take full advantage of The Ritz-Carlton’s amenities, inside and outside, prior to my round. To get the blood flowing, I walk the paved Coastal Trail alongside bundled-up couples and parents with strollers. Running parallel with the Ocean Course’s final few holes, the path’s crisp ocean air provides a preview of my back-nine conditions to come and a front-row seat to a mustard seed field in bloom.
Then, it’s time for my executive workout in the hotel’s 16,000-sq. ft. spa. For the next 90 minutes, I shuffle between sauna and steam room, steam room, and sauna to loosen up my back and golfer’s elbow and hit the 41-degree cold-plunge pool to stave off inflammation. Bookmarked for a future visit: the Redwood Forest Ritual, an 80-minute massage named after the giant evergreen.
By the time I reach the inward nine on The Ocean Course, one of two championship tracks at Half Moon Bay Links, the sky has parted, a birdie has been carded (at the 7th hole), and a male Anna’s hummingbird, with its rose-pink throat and crown, has put on an aerial performance to remember, repeatedly dive-bombing some native shrubbery as I teed off on the par-5 8th hole, which I can only assume was an homage to the 20-footer I’d just rattled home. What else, my playing partner, Jeff, on his first visit to California, has already declared The Ocean Course the best golf course he’s ever played. I smirk, knowing we haven’t even reached the Pacific yet.
If Hollywood needs B-roll footage for an upcoming Scottish film, The Ocean Course’s 16th tee box would make for an apt stateside stand-in. Adjacent to the Coastal Trail, it offers a look I’ve yet to see on a U.S. golf course. It’s also the best shot of The Ritz-Carlton, which glistens like a shingled Hogwarts one hundred feet above Half Moon Bay. Jeff’s in awe, so I snap a couple of action photos of him to text his girlfriend.
As we tee off on the 17th hole, a blufftop par-3 likened by some to Pebble Beach’s famed 7th, Jeff’s amazement graduates to disbelief when, moments before he tees off, I spot a breaching whale in the choppy whitecaps nearly a mile out to sea. “I’ve definitely never had a whale in my backswing, I can tell you that,” he says.
Me? I have Horace the World-Class Waiter on my mind, whose windy afternoon forecast was more than spot-on. From 147-yards out and with gusts exceeding 30 mph, I jump on a 9-iron and miss the green short, before managing to save par. I should’ve trusted it was a two-club wind.
Heading for the uphill 18th hole, the sun is waning, and I’m giddy with Scottish vibes; Jeff, he’s bypassed cloud nine. Like the two holes before it, the monstrous finishing hole has a swirling upwind. On this links-style layout, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Removing our hats to shake hands, a vague sound emerges from afar. Jeff looks my way.
“The bagpipes are coming,” I say.