Monterey: natural and celebrity attractions

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Barbara Ruben

Carmel-by-the-Sea is home to more than 20 cottages that would look at home in a book of fairytales. Some are residences, and others house businesses, such as the Soiled Doves Bath House, which sells soap and other bath products.
Photo courtesy of carmelcalifornia.com

On a crescent of rock-strewn coast that juts from central California, John Steinbeck set one of his most acclaimed novels, Clint Eastwood was once mayor, Doris Day owns a hotel where dogs are revered guests, and actors like Bill Murray and Ray Romano tee off at a world-renowned gold course.

While the Monterey Peninsula has a celebrity pedigree, it is also famed for some of the state’s more spectacular coastline and home to some non-human icons as well, including back-paddling sea otters, barking sea lions, and cypress trees that thrive on moisture from coastal fog during the area’s long dry spells.

Located 120 miles south of San Francisco and 345 miles north of Los Angeles, the Monterey Peninsula includes four primary towns: Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove and Monterey, each with their own personalities and attractions.

Cozy Carmel-by-the-Sea

Located at the southern end of the peninsula, the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea looks as if it sprang to life from a book of fairy tales. Cottages with peaked thatched roofs, curving eaves, rounded doors and asymmetrical stone chimneys designed by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s dot the town. The first two cottages, fittingly, were named Hansel and Gretel.

While some are private residences, others house stores and restaurants, like Tuck Box, a tiny stucco restaurant with flower boxes and a red and white striped awning that serves lunch and afternoon tea.  The Lilliputian House of Sweets, with stucco walls and a mossy roof, sells homemade fudge and licorice imported from Australia, Holland, Finland and many other countries.

Clint Eastwood served as mayor of the 3,800-resident town from 1986 to 1988. However, he wasn’t the one who enacted some of its idiosyncratic laws.

For instance, wearing high heels over two inches requires a permit. While the local police do not cite those in violation of the ordinance, this peculiar law was authored by the city attorney in the 1920s to defend the city from lawsuits resulting from wearers of high-heeled shoes tripping over irregular pavement distorted by tree roots. No chain restaurants or stores are permitted within town limits.

Early leaders wanted the village to avoid becoming “citified,” so there are no house numbers or streetlights. Those seeking directions receive hints like “fifth house on the east side of Torres Street, green trim, with a driftwood fence.” (The city of Carmel starts at the borders of Carmel-by-the-Sea and does not have the same restrictions).

Canine residents are king in Carmel. They can run leash-free on the beach at the end of Ocean Avenue, which slopes steeply out of the business district down to the sea. They are welcome at some of the town’s 60 restaurants (by law they can’t be in the main dining area, but can hang out with their owners when they dine outside, in the lobby and lounges).

Many business owners keep water bowls outside for thirsty pooches. More than 500 poodles from across the country descend on Carmel each October for a poodle parade, in which many dogs are dressed to the nines, from sunglasses to feather boas.

Animal lover Doris Day, who started a foundation devoted to all creatures great and small, has co-owned the Spanish revival style Cypress Inn in Carmel-by-the-Sea for the last 30 years. Movies, such as Pillow Talk and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, play on the TV in the bar.

“We firmly believe that pets are an integral part of the family,” the home page of the inn’s website states. “Pets may join their humans throughout the hotel, in the cozy living room for afternoon tea, or in our charming courtyard for breakfast or evening appetizers,” it continues.

Home to writers and artists

Carmel has also been a haven for artists and writers for the last century. Poet Robinson Jeffers built a house on Scenic Drive, which curves along the windswept edge of the ocean, using granite boulders from the shore of Carmel Bay. It was here he wrote most of his major works, and today, 65 years after Jeffers’ death, Tor House is open for tours.

Writer Jack London also lived in Carmel for a time, as did singer John Denver, who died here in 1997 when his single-engine plane nosedived into the ocean after takeoff from the Monterey Regional Airport.

The craggy coast also drew landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who moved to Carmel Highlands a few miles south of town and lived there for 20 years, until his death in 1982.

Renowned early-20th century photographer Edwin Westin extensively photographed Point Lobos, now a state reserve just south of Carmel, with gasp-worthy views of crashing waves, sun-bathing sea otters, twisted, flat-topped cypress trees and hiking trails.

The work of both photographers is on view and for sale at the Weston Gallery, one of more than 90 galleries in town. There’s even a gallery devoted exclusively to the art of Dr. Seuss.

Golf courses with a view


That’s some water hazard at the Pebble Beach Golf Links! The course — one of three that overlook the Pacific Ocean in the area of Monterey, Calif. — has hosted five U.S. Opens and will host the next in 2019. It was ranked number one on Golf Digest’s list of America’s Greatest Public Courses this year.
Photo © seemonterey.com

Just north of Carmel, the unincorporated community of Pebble Beach is best known for its three golf courses that overlook the Pacific Ocean: Spyglass, Poppy Hills and Pebble Beach Golf Links. They are consistently ranked among the top ten courses in the nation. In 1919, green fees at Pebble Beach were $2 for men and $1.50 for women. Rates now range from $350 to $400 per 18-hole round.

The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am each February draws a host of celebrities for its last day of play. Last year, singers Michael Bolton and Huey Lewis took park, along with actors Craig T. Nelson, Bill Murray and Chris O’Donnell, not to mention former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Pebble Beach is also at one end of 17-Mile Drive, which hugs the shoreline and is considered by some to be one of the most scenic drives in the world.

It is also one of only nine private toll roads in the country, and the only one west of the Mississippi. It’s worth it to pony up the $10 per car to drive a slow arc along the road, which ends in Pacific Grove. Between the views, which seem to get more spectacular around each bend, and the tourists (especially in the summer), be prepared to spend well over an hour on the drive.

The often photographed Lone Cypress tree, located near the Pebble Beach end of the drive, is nearly 300 years old. The Monterey Cypress is a species native only to this region, and can live up to 4,000 years.

Aquatic life

Monterey dates back more than 400 years. Spanish merchant Sebastian Vizcaino was the first European to set foot on the Monterey Peninsula in 1602, and christened Monterey after the viceroy of New Spain, Count de Monte Rey.

After changing hands a few times, the city of Monterey eventually served as the original capital of California when the state constitution was signed here in 1849.

The city’s biggest draw is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which attracts nearly 2 million visitors each year to view the 300,000 marine plants and animals to be found there. One wing has a million gallon tank that depicts the open ocean. A three-story “kelp forest and deep seas” display features creatures never before brought to the surface.

Outside, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary covers 5,312 square miles — one and a half times the size of the largest national park in the continental U.S. At its center is an underwater canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

It was in Monterey that native son John Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row. The novel is set in Monterey during the Depression, on a street lined with sardine canneries. In reality, nearly 250,000 tons of sardines were processed here in 1945, the year Cannery Row was published.

Preserved one-room cabins where the workers lived can be visited near the aquarium. The National Steinbeck Center, a 37,000 square-foot facility, is believed to be the largest facility devoted to a single American author.

Other cultural attractions include the widely acclaimed Monterey Jazz Festival, which takes place each September and is the longest continuously running jazz festival in the world.

Butterfly City USA

Laid-back Pacific Grove lacks the glitterati of Carmel and Pebble Beach, as well as the busy streets of Monterey around its world-famous aquarium.

But here, you can visit the beach on a summer afternoon and only have to share it with maybe a dozen others.

Also, there are many hotels just a few blocks from the ocean (updated from their 1950s motel origins) that are much less expensive than ones in surrounding towns.  And the center of town boasts numerous Victorian homes, some of which are bed-and-breakfasts.

Each October, the population of the city’s non-human inhabitants swells by tens of thousands as monarch butterflies cluster in pine and eucalyptus trees to spend the winter at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. The sanctuary is run by volunteers and open to the public. It was created after residents voted on a butterfly tax to fund its upkeep, earning Pacific Grove the nickname Butterfly Town USA.

If you go

Palm Springs is 425 miles from Monterey.

Flights to the tiny Monterey Regional Airport (within a half-hour drive of all four towns) start at around $275 roundtrip on United from Palm Springs in mid-January.

Or visitors can fly into San Francisco and drive two hours along the Pacific Coast Highway to the Monterey Peninsula. The least-expensive flights start at about $125 roundtrip on United.

There is an abundance of lodging throughout this tourist destination.

In Carmel-by-the Sea, Tradewinds Carmel has Asian-accented d├ęcor, including antique and custom designed furniture from Bali and China, fresh orchids and bamboo fountains. Some rooms have fireplaces and partial ocean views. The hotel has been featured in Architectural Digest. Rooms start at $259 a night. See www.tradewindscarmel.com or call (831) 624-2776.

The building that houses the Casanova restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea once belonged to a cook for Charlie Chaplin. Diners can eat in a warren of dining rooms, or in a central indoor-outdoor room with a tree growing through the ceiling. The most intriguing room holds just one table — dined at by Vincent Van Gogh in his final days and imported from France.

The restaurant serves Italian specialties, such as a melt-in-your-mouth spinach gnocchi enveloped in parmesan cream sauce, and fettuccine with lobster, clams, mussels, prawns and white wine. Dinner entrees are $22 to $53.

 For more down-to-Earth prices, try one of the many hotels in Pacific Grove. Sunset Lodge (www.gosunsetinn.com, 831-375-3529) is just a block from the beach and starts at $99 a night, while ocean-front Lover’s Point Inn (www.loverspointinnpg.com, 831-373-4771) starts at $119.

The107-acre  Asilomar Conference Ground (www.visitasilomar.com, 888-635-5310) overlooking Monterrey Bay includes both modern and historic Arts & Crafts style lodging built between 1913 and 1928. Rates start at $159 a night.

While the hotel choices are abundant in Pacific Grove, restaurants are not. Head a few miles up the coast to Monterey for a variety of food in a range of prices. Hula’s Island Grill is a throwback to the tiki restaurants and bars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, popular with locals and tourists alike. Try the blackened ahi tuna steak sandwich with sundried tomato pesto aioli for $17. To learn more, see www.hulastiki.com or call (831) 655-4852.

Additional travel information is available from the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.seemonterey.com or 1-888-221-1010.

Also see the tourism website for Carmel-by-the-Sea at www.carmelcalifornia.com or call 1-800-550-4333.