Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay resort: A golf splurge on the Pacific in northern California

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. -- My brain tells me I'm on the Pacific Ocean. My senses trick me into believing otherwise. The celebrated Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay resort could easily be perched on the rugged west coast cliffs overlooking the Atlantic in Scotland or Ireland.

My eyes can't see much beyond a foggy marine layer that hovers overhead, a scene right out of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The cool, salty fresh air I can smell and taste is reminiscent of the day I wandered the secluded beach at the Lodge at Doonbeg, now the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland. The seaside cliffs I've ridden bikes along and hit golf shots over all weekend appear to be mini-versions of those at Old Head Golf Links or the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

In a few short hours, a bagpiper will begin playing outside the hotel, throwing me another curve. This place can't possibly be an hour's drive from Silicon Valley and San Francisco, can it? It seems worlds away.

The sun doesn't always shine in Half Moon Bay's micro-climate, created by the ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Resort guests end up going home with a sunny disposition anyway. They get spoiled with fresh seafood, exotic menus, a chic vibe, ocean vistas and impeccable personal service of a luxury resort as good as any on the West Coast.

Half Moon Bay: The resort

I've stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Georgia and the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island in Florida in the past, so I've come to expect big things from a Ritz-Carlton property. Half Moon Bay's mammoth tan-colored seaside mansion -- consisting of 261 rooms -- quickly became my favorite. It opened in the spring of 2001 and has earned the prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award for the sixth consecutive year.

We lived comfortably in a coastal-view room overlooking the famous 18th hole on the Old Course at Half Moon Bay, although we were a bit jealous of the ground-level rooms with terrace fire pits. If you can, book one of them.

The setting is simply spectacular. My wife, two children and I spent time searching for starfish at the rocky tide pools down by the beach. One afternoon after a swim in the indoor pool a short walk from the main hotel, we borrowed four resort bikes to ride the trails along the cliffs. We discovered incredible natural scenery -- open meadows that mirror Scottish moors and a haunting tunnel of dead trees. On the drive home, we stopped to hike a mountainous trail within the beautiful Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve. Guests can find other adventures including ocean kayaking, surfing and horseback riding.

Unwinding after a busy day seems easy. A visit to the spa might be in order, depending on how hard you played. The outdoor fire pits are a popular spot at dusk when the bagpiper starts playing, or for roasting s'mores, so make sure to arrive early enough for a seat. The ENO Wine Bar can prepare you for dinner or serve as a nightcap. Dining at Navio is a must. The entrees, prepared in an open kitchen, are excellent, easily matching the ocean views.

Love how the #Ritz #HalfMoonBay lights up every night. #partyafterdark #bonfire #smores

A photo posted by Jason Scott Deegan (@jasondeegangolfadvisor) on

Half Moon Bay Golf Links

Normally, I tend to favor courses with the most ocean frontage. Not at the 36-hole Half Moon Bay Golf Links. My winner is the Old Course, an Arnold-Palmer classic dating to 1973. A neighborhood of colorful homes surrounds the routing most of the day before the grand finale -- two finishing holes highlighted by off-the-charts ocean scenery.

Once golfers survive the canyon of the tough, par-4 16th hole, they turn left toward the coast. The views from the 167-yard 17th hole tease what's in store at no. 18. The 405-yard finishing hole follows the beachfront cliffs in mesmerizing fashion. It rivals the historic finishing hole at Pebble Beach for sheer beauty.

This one hole trumps anything the Ocean Course offers on the other side of the hotel. This Arthur Hills course, which opened in 1997, is really good, featuring five par 5s and five par 3s. The pseudo links sprawls out across an open expanse, offering ocean views from almost anywhere. Thick fescue defines the fairways. Heavily contoured elevated greens can be a headache to hit and to putt.

All the big events are held on this side of the property to take advantage of the scenery and open space. Paula Creamer won the LPGA Samsung Golf Championship here in 2008. Sir Nick Faldo, Billy Horschel, Ian Poulter, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Louis Oosthuizen, Victor Dubuisson and Bud Cauley all played the Ocean Course in a corporate function for a sponsor in 2015.

If you've only got time for one round, choosing which course to play might be the hardest part of your stay.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay resort: A golf splurge on the Pacific in northern California