PACIFICA — I stood on the broad terrace of McCloskey Castle and took in the bird’s-eye view of this charming town nestled on the Pacific shoreline.
And yes, the idea of a castle about 20 minutes south of downtown San Francisco may seem a bit odd, but it’s no more unusual than finding a town like this so close to urban America and yet so far away from all the noise and grittiness of a big city.
“From my house to AT&T Park in San Francisco is only four stop lights,” said Mike O’Neill, a member of the Pacifica City Council who joined me on the terrace late one afternoon as the sun began to set over the water.
“Sixty percent of our space is open space. ...We have swimming, surfing, the Pacifica Municipal Pier, Sharp Park Golf Course, an Alister MacKenzie-designed course.”
All of this is a good example of what makes Pacifica, population a little more than 37,000, so appealing as a weekend escape.
And as far as escapes go, what better way to begin than at a castle?
From all appearances, you might say that McCloskey Castle, rather modest in size as far as castles go, resembles a castle that you might see on a visit to the Scottish countryside.
And no wonder: McCloskey Castle was built in 1907 by Henry Harrison McCloskey, an attorney in San Francisco, for his wife as a replica of one of her childhood homes in Scotland.
The castle was later purchased by San Franciscan Sam Mazza, who filled it with all sorts of Hollywood movie memorabilia he collected, including items once owned by movie stars like Clark Gable and William Holden.
Now a part of the Sam Mazza Foundation, the castle — better known to locals as “Sam’s Castle” — is open for twice-yearly tours hosted by the Pacifica Historical Society.
O’Neill filled me in on Sam Mazza and his connection to moviedom.
“Mazza was a painting contractor by profession,” he said, “but he also used to work in Fox theaters, and that’s where he got his connections with Hollywood.”
There are other interesting historical tidbits worth noting about McCloskey Castle: It was once used as a government outpost to watch for Japanese naval craft after the invasion of Pearl Harbor and, during Prohibition, it doubled as a speakeasy — to which I can say, wow, what a great place for a drink.
From the castle terrace, there is a wonderful view of Pacifica Municipal Pier, where, according to Mark Glisson of New Coastside Bait and Tackle in Pacifica, you can fish for salmon, halibut, striped bass and Dungeness crab.
And when you’re done angling from the pier, you can do what a lot of visitors and locals do, and that’s take a walk or a hike to enjoy Pacifica’s open spaces.
One sunny morning, my wife and I joined friends for a walk out to Mori Point.
We found the walk rather easygoing, which for us was a good thing since we’re not hikers. There was only one slight incline as we reached the summit. But for the most part, it was a simple walk.
We started off along a beachside trail bordered by colorful wildflowers and crashing waves on one side and a peaceful meadow — part of a 32-acre wetland park — on the other.
Of course, we weren’t alone, since a lot of locals were out, too, some walking their dogs.
There were times when I had a hard time keeping up with our group because I kept stopping to take advantage of all the dramatic ocean shots with my camera.
Mori Point, all 110 acres of it, is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and once you reach the top, you realize how it really was worth the effort, because you’re able to see all the way from Point Reyes to Pedro Point.
High above the ocean we also discovered a rather interesting piece of movie history: the very spot where the famous drive-the-car-off-the-cliff scene was shot for the 1971 cult film “Harold and Maude.”
Not too far from where Harold’s car goes careening into the ocean, there’s a piece of history of a different sort: the watery location where ships used to brave the waves and anchor off the coast to unload their deliveries of liquor destined for Depression-era speakeasies, like the one at Sam’s Castle, or for that matter at the historic Sanchez Adobe, which is also well worth a visit.
On a lower level of our walk, closer to the wetlands and within easy sight of local neighborhood homes, we stopped on a wooden bridge to peer down at California’s red-legged frog, which we had to strain to see in the water because of all the thick green growth.
This frog, by the way, is most likely the one made famous by Mark Twain in his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
Courtney Conlon, executive director of the Pacifica Chamber of Commerce, joined us on the hike and pretty much summed up what it felt like to walk up to Mori Point.
With its “trails that hug the coastline,” she said, “Mori Point [is a place where] ... you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
Of course, when you’re ready to come down, there’s a lot to look forward to in town.
For starters, you can visit the Oceana Art Gallery in Eureka Square and view the works of local artists, and then you can enjoy some wonderful eateries — all within walking distance of each other near Rockaway Beach.
There’s Nick’s, a rousing place that has been in town since 1927, where in the evening we enjoyed live music, drinks and monster ice cream desserts.
Nick’s is also where we returned for breakfast to have the Farmhouse Scramble — a hearty mix of eggs, zucchini, spinach, red bell peppers, onions, goat cheese and potatoes.
Across the street from Nick’s, it was dinner at Moonraker Restaurant within the Best Western Plus Lighthouse Hotel.
Inspired by the 1979 James Bond movie, Moonraker is a spacious place with picture-window views of dramatic, crashing waves.
Executive chef Jason Yeafoli oversees what Moonraker calls its “classic seafood cuisine,” like our tasty local King Salmon Pinwheel, served with beluga lentils, braised greens, lemon thyme sauce and spicy aioli.
By the time dinner was over, the night was still young, so we wandered around the block to an intimate place called A Grape in the Fog, crowded with guests enjoying wine-tasting and live music by a singer-guitarist and a drummer.
A Grape in the Fog is the brainchild of Beth Lemke. She drew inspiration to open a wine bar from her great aunt, who ran Mona’s Club 440 in San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1940s.
Lemke offers a nice selection of wines, including vintages from California, France, Portugal, Italy and Argentina, plus artisanal cheeses, salami and prosciutto, olives and black-truffle-and-white-cheddar popcorn.
During happy hour, wines are $5 a glass, and Lemke also offers sparkling wine cocktails, like one imaginative drink meant to capture the spirit of Pacifica called “Pacificaaahhh,” made with sparkling wine and raspberry rhubarb syrup.
Lemke calls this drink a “tribute to the gorgeous sunset vistas of Pacifica.”
The next day, we drove over to Surf Spot, where chef-owner Derek Burns was hosting a series of bands on an outdoor stage and serving up an imaginative array of dishes, including pizzas, small plates like Ahi Poke with macadamia nuts, avocado, ponzu, srirach aioli and taro chips, plus entrees like Bouillabaisse, Rigatoni Bolognese and the Surf Spot Burger with onion marmalade, Humboldt Fog goat cheese and garlic aioli on a grilled brioche bun.
For a small town, there’s definitely a lot to do here. But to quote Conlon again, I keep coming back to the one overarching quality of Pacifica: It’s a place, in her words, to “decompress, feel the beauty of nature around you … rekindle, refresh and reconnect.”