An October 2003 trip
to Monterey by smmmarti guide
Quote: From historic missions to literary legacies, from chi-chi Carmel residences to the down-home, rural allure of Salinas, this California peninsula resists definition by mere cliques. To call her raging ocean, astonishing mountain vistas, deserts, redwood forests, and gorgeous vineyards "stunning, awesome, beautiful, fabulous" simply fails. Pulchritudinous comes to mind...
After all those years of hype, all the places I've been, I was unconvinced simply hearing about awesome views and outstanding encounters with nature's harmonic convergences. Soul-searching and brilliant scenery I have at home (Maui).
It was the wine that originally drew me to the Monterey Peninsula, but no amount of ballyhoo prepared me for what I actually discovered - heaven on the mainland.
The drive to Big Sur may find you choking back an overwhelming tension - not caused solely by the dizzying heights of the coastal cliffs, but rather the astounding beauty unveiled at every turn. Travel to Carmel to indulge at any of the splendid restaurants that transform the bounty of nature afforded this area into gourmet delights, but more importantly, soak in the coastal air scented with sage, salt, cedar, and soil. Drink in the glorious sunrise and sunset over untamed seas; inhale the fog rising from the ocean mists; hike the Del Monte forest or Point Lobos State Park. Wander inland and never again pine for Tuscany, for Monterey Peninsula satisfies more than a hunger for food and wine; it nourishes the soul with natural inspiration.
Follow Hwy. 1 from Monterey to Carmel after traveling the
famed 17-Mile Drive, a restful route punctuated frequently with vantage points and vistas, we took Hwy 68 as it meanders across the salad valley to Salinas. From there, Los Laureles Grade provides an alternate route to Carmel Valley Road through the rolling farmlands of the area's graceful vineyards.
The drive to Big Sur, notorious, rugged, merely two lanes, winds and twists along sheer cliffs, following the coastal route from Carmel for 60 breathtaking miles. Often swathed in veils of fog, the road delights with hairpin turns and sheer drops into the sea. On one hand, we didn't want the experience to end, but were admittedly relieved to forgo the challenge at Hwy. 46, making our way again across the fertile valleys to Paso Robles and earth-bound Hwy. 101. For the faint-hearted, there is a regional bus. The city of Monterey also operates a local free shuttle during the summer.
Hotel | "Marriott at Monterey"
The hotel has all the amenities of a first-rate conference center with extensive meeting rooms, high-speed, wireless Internet connections, exhibition halls, and a 24-hour business center tucked behind the ubiquitous portrait of J.W. and son, founders of the chain. However, in spite of being part of a triad of hotels that make up the Monterey Conference Center, the hotel has an intriguing past which bubbles under the high-tech facade. In its earlier turn-of-the-century incarnation it was known as the St. Charles, a plush resort destination for visitors to the peninsula.
This splash of romance may surprise conference-goers and please vacationers. But even without this bonus point, staying here put us within walking distance of Fishermans'' Wharf, excellent restaurants, the historic Monterey park, and the city''s many festivals. During the summer months the city''s free bus service, The Wave stops in front of the Marriott, offering yet another incentive to stay centralized.
If you also enjoy
indulging in reasonably priced, luxurious spa treatments, the Escape Spa is a new addition to the hotel where visitors can hide out from the hectic world of business buzzing outside. A variety of services, from massages to seaweed wraps and Ayurvedic Facials, coaxes the facility back toward its early resort origins. A heated pool and whirlpool in the courtyard tempt with yet another remedy for travelers looking more to get away from business and into relaxation.
The Marriott provides catering services for the conference center and has two on-site restaurants and a coffee bar. Characters Sports Bar is aptly named. After passing the late hours here twice, we grew enchanted not
by sports on multiple TV screens as the name implies,
but rather by
a colorful collection of
characters who obviously make karaoke a habit such as the group of multi-talented linguists who had recently attended the
Monterey Institute of International Studies, where they participated in a submersion course in Arabic.
We learned that most of them
shoving off for Baghdad soon. Meanwhile, they sang their hearts out and
glowingly recounted their stay in Monterey
and their nights at Characters.
And why not? The staff is delightful, the facility top-notch, the atmosphere an unlikely combination of serious business and laid-back warmth. The front desk was ever-accommodating, whether to locate Dennis the Menace Park, or
explain the significance of Doc Rickett''s Laboratory.
bougainvillea-draped balconies, whether or not you have a prized ocean-view room,
listening to sea lions barking off Fishermans'' Wharf,
you may want to cover the receiver when you call into corporate headquarters.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 28, 2003
350 Calle Principal
Restaurant | "Montrio"
Take Montrio, for example. Located only steps from the Monterey Marriott, the restaurant has an interior design that could survive critics in Miami or San Francisco. The historic firehouse, complete with gigantic street-side garage doors, has been totally made over using an eclectic styling that plays off its origins yet infuses the place with a spunky-modern romantic sense of now. The warm, low lighting and cool, elegant design elements include exposed brick walls and an alluring curved staircase leading to the former bunkhouse. Overhead, billowy, organic forms suggest clouds, while clever artwork offers surprises at every turn.
The setting was the perfect antidote to sightseeing overload and a splendid opportunity to indulge in the area’s finest ingredients expertly prepared. After being seated by a beautiful, gracious hostess, our waiter took over. Throughout the meal he remained always attentive and never obsequious, making well-advised suggestions that did not disappoint.
Montrio realizes the significance of region’s vine growers and proves it with a wine list featuring local vintners and other top producers and a number of premium choices as half-bottles. Their "backroom bargains" are exclusive bottles too limited to note on the menu but offered at reduced prices. These aren’t oft-neglected vintages either; they include respected wines from Opus One, Chalk Hill and Bernardus.
Grazers can rejoice at Montrio. Small bites, appetizer-sized entrees at $4.50 per plate, are perfect options for creating your own tasting menu; a sort of Cal-Dim Sum. The chef’s British background is evident in the teeny Yorkshire pudding and filet and oatmeal crusted camembert, while his experience at the Rio Grill is revealed in the Ahi Tuna and Pancetta-wrapped Prawns.
I ordered the baby spinach salad served with warm bacon and locally crafted blue cheese that was extraordinary. My companion tried the baby artichoke risotto and loved it so much that we later shipped a batch of the local specialty (artichokes) to ourselves hoping to recreate the dish.
The restaurant emphasizes a commitment to sustainable seafood, organic produce and prime meats. We challenged this claim to make certain they really meant it by also ordering natural pork chops with cheddar cornbread, and a beautifully prepared wild salmon on Yukon gold mashed potatoes, two of our respective favorite dishes. The verdict on both was two thumbs up. Not only were the essential ingredients of the highest calibre, the preparation was outstanding.
Montrio’s motto is "feel good about what you eat." Social conscience aside, we left Montrio feeling very, very good about nearly everything that night.
414 Calle Principal
Monterey, California 93940
Our introduction to the region's offerings began at the Taste of Monterey, next to the Steinbeck Center in Salinas. After only a few sips, we were destined across Laureles Grade through the county's valley and benchlands down Carmel Valley Road to what could be called Vintner's Row. With at least six wineries to choose from, we turned for no particular reason into the gravel lot of Talbott just as a stretch limousine pulled into the adjacent space.
A gaggle of clucking females poured out of the vehicle. Noticing that one wore a white fluff of tulle on her head, we realized we were about to participate in the time-honored tradition of the bachelorette bash. Fortunately, the bachelorettes were secluded in a sun-dappled patio beyond the prying ears of strangers, where vines and bougainvilleas vowed to keep their secrets hush-hush and other guests were sequestered from their inevitable guffaws.
After bellying up to the bar and anteing our $5, which includes a taste of four wines and souvenir goblet, we were seated with a wine rep at a round wooden table in the former breakfast nook of the former rustic ranch house.
We were informed casually about Talbott's best years and pours, starting with the cheery-sounding Kali Hart, named after the winemaker's youngest child, and on to the perfect fall wine, Sleepy Hollow, followed by the more serious and mature Diamond T Audrey, named after the family matriarch. (I pictured Barbara Stanwyck).
While my husband continued to indulge his oenophilic curiosity, I took a stroll down the adjacent lane, where wood-stoked fires had begun to entice with the first suggestions of dinner. The restaurant's al fresco dining in the shade of giant oaks called to mind my days in Austin, Texas. An eclectic antique shop and the most fantastic garden shop this side of Nuevo Laredo with an overwhelming display of diverse Mexican imports added even further to the wild West claim.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
My husband continued to hold court, having coaxed samples of private reserves and aged port from the congenial hosts. I was allowed back in the recently locked doors and joined the relaxed crew lingering contentedly past closing, amused with easy chatter about wine, interstate shipping restrictions, and Mr. Talbott's passion - not cattle roping - bicycle racing.
In this mellow glow, I noticed my husband slipping a receipt into his pocket, but I didn't bother to ask for details. I hoped while I was out strolling the country lane he'd been dealt a winning hand or two, expecting that in Carmel Valley, debts are paid in cases of Cuvee.
One can only hope.
Talbott Tasting Room
53 East Carmel Valley Road
Monterey, California 93924
Write What You Know
Many of Steinbeck''s best-known books centered on the life and struggles his fellow citizens on the Monterey Peninsula. Steinbeck''s perspicacious depiction of local characters aroused outrage in earlier days. "Of Mice and Men" and "East of Eden" both scored berths on "most frequently banned books" lists and for their "language and vulgarity" were burned in the public square across from the center that currently pays him homage.
However, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and subsequently the Nobel Prize for Literature changed the local populace''s perception of his work. Today, a grand facility dedicated to his honor stands at the end of a newly revitalized Main Street in downtown Salinas, his birth city.
The building itself is an impressive edifice constructed of glass and steel. Once inside, visitors are invited to follow through interactive stations including a number of dioramas and theater screens where clips of the many movies produced from Steinbeck''s work can be viewed. Here you can stroll through Steinbeck''s early years via examples of his creative works, notes, and journals, which are incorporated into recreated scenes of his life and his fiction. Many lesser-known characteristics are revealed; for instance, Steinbeck''s love of the King Arthur legends and the secret language he shared with his sister, Mary, inspired by his favorite childhood text.
Exploring this tribute to the area''s native son, even visitors who are informed Steinbeck fans will be surprised to find such extensive evidence of his prolific career and varied interests all in one place. The actual trailer that carried Steinbeck and his dog, Charlie, across America is on display along with paraphernalia and memorabilia from the writer''s journey to the Baja with biologist Doc Ricketts.
But the center also seeks to expand upon the author''s primary themes of man''s connection to his environment by building visitor and community awareness of how that connection shapes and inspires life. The museum serves as a cultural and community center for the town and a exhibition center for the arts as much as for a repository for extensive archives of the author''s writings.
The center just finished a recent expansion that houses a new exhibit hall focused on the agricultural heritage of Monterey County - an obvious tie-in to Steinbeck''s legacy. Following a timeline of the valley''s development, the exhibit spotlights the people and processes that have brought the area''s bounty to the world''s tables.
Steinbeck immortalized his home through his writing. How fitting that his gifts are now acknowledged with a center dedicated to his contributions.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 28, 2003
National Steinbeck Center
1 Main Street
Salinas, California 93901
Attraction | "Cannery Row's Intriguing Character"
In the 1850s, a group of Chinese pioneer families settled at the appropriately referenced "China Point," where for over 50 years they lived in relative isolation in a thriving community supported by the area's abundant marine resources. In 1896, Otosaburo Noda, a Japanese entrepreneur who had been working in local farms, contacted the Japanese government, reporting on the huge population of abalone in the area's waters. This began a historical export opportunity. In 1902, Noda established a rudimentary canning operation on the coastline that would soon come be to known as "The Sardine Capital of the World." Portuguese and Italian fisherman followed to cash in on the ocean's silver mines, drawing an almost unprecedented bounty of sardines from the prosperous seas.
Following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the formerly peaceful little China Point village was flooded with refugees from the city's devastation. It wasn't long before a fire of "suspicious origins" leveled the community, forcing the Chinese from the commerce of fishing. Most retreated to other areas of the county or San Francisco.
The old, familiar sight of Chinese pitch-wood fires dotting the bay as the fishermen pulled in squid were soon replaced by the picture of Sicilian lampara nets hauling in a billion sardines per season (August-February) in preparation for either French frying or to be ground into meal. The thriving business soon lured workers from the Philippines, Mexico, and Spain, while fortunes were made at their hands.
This mix of international cultures and seafaring men created quite a colorful community in Monterey. Soon enough, all sorts of intriguing, curious people were attracted to the place, including Ed "Doc" Ricketts, a larger-than-life character who was John Steinbeck's best friend and constant inspiration.
Hailing from Chicago, Ricketts came to Pacific Grove to set up a biological supply business, fueled by an inspirational association with the brilliant ecologist, W.C. Allee, of the University of Chicago. "Doc" didn't have a formal biology degree, yet worked incessantly at his laboratory in Monterey. He and Steinbeck took a notorious trip to the Baja to study marine biology. Steinbeck's description of Doc reveals his affection toward the unique fellow, which is easy to understand after the reading.
Just as Doc had warned, the sardines eventually died out, aided by over-fishing and, ironically, the flourishing of the voracious sea otters after a float of 60 thought-to-be-extinct creatures were found in 1930. In 1972, the last cannery was closed forever.
A touristy stroll through Cannery Row is highly entertaining, but realizing the history revealed in buildings that currently house enticing restaurants, unique shops, and the fabulous Monterey Aquarium makes it that much more significant.
Cannery Row District
This sort of carefree exploration is the essence of a visit to Carmel. It starts out being so beautiful you don't mind if it also turns out to be a mindless indulgence. But soon enough, you inevitably begin to question and examine the very elements that create the overall attraction. In other words, Carmel's beauty is far deeper than its gorgeous skin, but you'd accept her even if it weren't so.
The legacy of Carmel began when the area's bounty attracted many visionaries and great thinkers who were resolute in their determination to protect the area. It's true that residents of this magical place are beyond wealthy; they are mega-rich. Against some criticism, they have historically not been content to rely on governmental agencies to handle this environment and, encouraged by their wealth, managed to create their own organizations to "protect and preserve."
Which is why visitors must pay a fee to travel the famed 17-Mile Drive. This is one of the few private toll roads in the country, owned and maintained by the Pebble Beach corporation. There are three separate tollgates guarding entrances to the loop, which takes visitors through the vast Del Monte Forest along a stunning coastal route that runs just south of Pacific Grove and through Carmel.
Moving from the secluded Spanish Bay to the treacherous Point Joe, where underwater colliding currents promise a vigorous ocean show, visitors are drawn to the amazing vistas along the route. At famed Bird Rock, observe huge colonies of cormorants, seals, and sea lions that roost and cavort. Over 150 species of birds call these woods home, allowing even casual bird-watchers to catch sight of many of them.
The visitor's map shows 21 Points of Interest, the most famous being the Lone Cypress. A testament to endurance and tenacity, the 200-year-old tree clings precariously to a cliff, taking whatever wind, salt, and storm the ocean dishes out. The tree is being aided currently in the hopes this symbol of Pebble Beach (it is copyrighted) will endure another century.
Just beyond the turn at Pescadero Point rests Stillwater Cove, where the multicolored pebbles first attracted visitors to the region over 100 years ago. During that era, horse-drawn carriages took picnicking pleasure seekers along this very route.
Leaving the 17-Mile Drive at the Carmel Gate, following along Scenic Road reveals multi-million-dollar "cottages" fronting the roadway leading to the mouth of the Carmel River and the deliciously beautiful River Beach State Park. With the exception of excellent diving options, the Beach is too treacherous for water sports. The main attraction here is the bird sanctuary and lagoon that is literally howling with aviary arias and teeming with fowl activities. (I haven't seen that much fluttering, flitting, and preening since I visited South Beach.) It is a stupendous site for bird lovers, artists, and anyone who loves nature and canvas-worthy settings.
Loop back around to Carmel Point, arriving ideally just before sunset. Take a stroll through the sugary sand as lovers spoon, dogs leap for frisbees, and photographers salivate at the coming attraction.
Like a precise, solid drive off the tee that results in a hole in one, ending your day of touring with sunset in Carmel is an occasion that may inspire you to buy everyone on the beach a drink. As with the golfer who suddenly hits his mark, you've likely spent years in misguided strivings, searching for perfection in all the wrong places, muscling through intensive attempts at improvement, seeking the keys to life's true meaning via better equipment, when the great paradox arrives.
In one fleeting, profound, and miraculous moment when you weren't even trying, you are suddenly face to face with the pure, unadulterated excellence you've searched for so long. It arrives effortlessly in a harmonic convergence of the laws of motion, a relaxed state of mind in elusive flow, and a brilliant dash of good fortune.
The sun sets. Pink, gold, purple swirls paint across the horizon. Life is so beautiful, its purpose so clear and unfettered. You are swimming in joy. In times such as this, eternal happiness seems assured.
Savor the experience. Take a picture. Moments like this do last a lifetime.