Playground on the Pacific
Exploring the good life along Monterey’s craggy, comfortable shore.
By Karen Solomon
There’s a reason people flock to Monterey’s sheltered bay. It’s undeniably one of the most beautiful spots on the coast, home to diving birds, white-capped views, and a rich history. And it’s just a couple hours from San Francisco. Starting with the Monterey Wine Festival, through mid-month’s Monterey Jazz Festival, and topped off with the Big Sur International Marathon, April is prime time down south (www.canneryrow.com/events). But it’s easy to get caught in the net of the tourist trade, with its cut-rate quality and sardine-packed crowds. If you break away from the masses at times and swim solo, you’ll find more art, shopping, culinary coups, and natural beauty than you can shake a plastic squid at.
1 Start with the newsworthy: a trip to Monterey right now isn’t complete without seeing the Hurricane Katrina penguins camping out at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. After the temporary closure of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, these 19 blackfoots and rockhoppers joined the existing group of aquatic birds for a cold bath in the Splash Zone on the second floor. Together, they bop to a calypso loop that, after you stare at them long enough, seems eerily in sync with their flapping wings. These popular birds really ham it up, and if you hang around long enough to claim a spot at the giant observation window, the tuxedoed entertainers make it worth the wait. Hint: stick around for feeding time at 3 p.m., when the birds lose their manners. 886 Cannery Row, 831-648-4888.
2 Follow the fishermen to the unassuming Monterey’s Fish House, where the lack of ocean view is made up for by an impressive menu of fresh fish and housemade pastas, exceedingly affordable local wines, and a zero-pretense crowd half the size of a Wharf restaurant’s. Start with garlic-laced barbecued oysters and New Zealand mussels the size of your fist (you may be used to avoiding oversize mollusks in the States, but that’s the way they make ’em Down Under). Move on to the daily specials—a recent visit offered giant, just-caught Monterey Bay prawns served with their roe in fresh tomato sauce over chewy, hand-cut fettuccini. The place is known for its crème brûlée, but who can resist the three-foot inferno of flames on a Bananas Foster for two? Mind your eyebrows. 2114 Del Monte Ave., 831-373-4647.
3 The whole point of being seaside is the water, and the Monterey Bay Inn promises crashing ocean, foghorns, and seagulls squawking from your own private balcony. A waterfront room on the top floor is optimal–high-powered binoculars are provided by the hotel. When the evening chill moves you inside, nestle into the 310-thread-count sheets, part of the inn’s recent renovations. Rooms are cleanly modern, with cherrywood accents, insanely soft bedding, and more lighting options than you’ll know what to do with. Continental breakfast arrives at your door in the morning, but for a more local and satisfying experience, stroll downtown to the student-packed Plumes for coffee and Danish. Monterey Bay Inn, rooms $209–$409, 242 Cannery Row, 831-373-6242, www.montereybayinn.com; Plumes, 400 Alvarado St., 831-373-4526.
4 When it’s time to work off that vacation eating, a hike trumps a waterfront stroll. OK, it’s not a serious hike–if you want that, drive 30 minutes south to the death-defying cliffs of Big Sur. But if you’d like to immerse yourself in nature for an hour or two, head to Jacks Peak off of Route 68. Just four miles from downtown, the area is named for the controversial landowner for whom Monterey Jack cheese is also named. Featuring the highest point on the peninsula (1,068 feet) and one of the last three groves of Monterey pines, the county park packs in 8.5 miles of easy bay-view hiking trails bursting with wildflowers this time of year. The Earl Moser Trail and Skyline Nature Trail are great walks for the picnic-minded and provide postcard-perfect vistas galore. For group picnic reservations and information, call Monterey County Parks, 831-755-4899.
5 Eschew the turtle magnets and aquatic-theme T-shirts for a real souvenir: a stylish, limited-edition handbag by designer Stella Page. This diva of decoupage creates portable and functional art that has toted the lipstick and keys of many a fashionable woman. A team of five artisans helps her create about 1,000 handbags a year in muted tones with Asian motifs. Page, a fourth-generation Bay Area native who works out of her studio in quaint Moss Landing, currently sells her wares in spa resorts in the Bahamas, Dubai, Cabo San Lucas, and Beverly Hills, and at the Clothing Store in Pacific Grove and Pacific Tweed in Carmel. View the collection at www.stellapage.com. The Clothing Store, 510 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove; Pacific Tweed, 129 Crossroads Blvd., Carmel.