A swell place, even if you miss the breaks

Mavericks isn't "on" today. Even without laying eyes on one of the USA's most infamous surf breaks, you'll know when it's on. The big-wave surfers will suddenly start pouring into town from all over California, from all over the US, from all over the world. When Mavericks is on, it's serious business.

This break isn't for chumps. The waves are either unusably slight, or skyscraper tall – we're talking up to 20 metres high. Today it's the former. Not that we'd be going out there anyway.

Kenny Howell, a local kayaking guide, takes us around the corner of the bay to have a look at it anyway, leading us on a walk over sand and rocks to point out the famous break. “Have you ever ridden it?” we ask. Kenny shakes his head. “Nah dude, too big for me. I like paddling.”

And so that's what we get back to doing: paddling. Today we're taking a gentle little splash in our kayaks around Half Moon Bay, the Californian beach town that's within arm's reach of San Francisco, but a world away.

It's quiet here, and charming. But what makes it – according to me at least – one of the USA's best little towns? And why would you want to go here instead of the big city up the coast?

Half Moon Bay has the perfect balance for a Californian coastal village. It's not glitzy enough to have Hollywood celebrities and their giant beach houses and attendant paparazzi. It's not popular enough to have high-rise resorts and infinity pools. It's just a relaxed little hamlet, where guys with sun-bleached hair stroll barefoot down by the beach, and where locals nod hello to each other on the way into town.

A kayaking trip is a nice way to get to know the best part of town. The eponymous bay here is always calm, always dotted with fishing boats and trawlers and pleasure craft docked at the marina. The flat water is broken every now and then by the head of a seal surveying the scenery, checking things out. The shore is lined with little wooden holiday homes in bright colours.

With Kenny we do a short tour of the bay, stopping to check out Mavericks, but otherwise just gliding around, taking it all in.

So, you can go kayaking at Half Moon Bay. What else? What can you do, for example, after a journey on the water like that?

Same thing everyone else in town seems to do: you go to Half Moon Bay Brewing Company and drink beer. The town's only micro-brewery has a beer garden, which today is packed with punters tasting the full range of local brews and feasting on the huge plates of food. It's a favourite meeting spot, and when the sun is out you can see why.

But there's more to the town than beer and kayaks. If you want to surf, you don't have to tackle Mavericks. Just down the road from Half Moon Bay, on the way to the Ano Nuevo elephant seal colony, there are beaches with the sort of gentle waves that beginners like your writer require.

But be warned: the water is not warm. This place requires full-length wetsuits, as cold currents come in from the north year-round. However, if you're just trying to find your feet in the surfing world, this is not a bad place to get some practice. Once you get better you can go down the coast to the surfing mecca of Santa Cruz. Once you get much better you might even think about Mavericks.

That seal colony is just a short drive along the coast south of Half Moon Bay. Called Ano Nuevo, it's home to thousands of honking, sun-bathing elephant seals, these huge cylindrical forms that crowd the windswept beaches of the national park. From December to March, when the female seals give birth to their young, demand is high and access is with a guide only.

On the drive back towards town plenty of people stop off in Pescadero, a tiny little rural town out in the countryside. There's a goat farm here that produces award-winning cheeses. The town itself is known for its locally farmed cherries, and for its artichoke bread, which can be bought hot and fresh from the county store. Not a bad way to fill yourself up after an afternoon of surfing and seal viewing.

Back in town? Well, you could play golf on the rugged cliffs above the sea, finishing up at the Ritz-Carlton for sunset drinks, which is a pretty luxurious way to play the 19th hole. Or you could just wander down Main Street, Half Moon Bay, calling in at the bookshop, or the bakery, or the little “mom and pop” corner stores.

Maybe you'll even go back over to Mavericks for one more look. It might be on by now. Just watch for the crowds.