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California Dreaming: California's Monterey Peninsula and the Central Coast
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California Dreaming: California's Monterey Peninsula and the Central Coast

by E. Joyce Glasgow - SGN A&E Writer

Monterey
The Monterey area is such a beautiful and accessible place to be during Indian summer, and the annual Monterey Jazz Festival (www.montereyjazzfestival.org) is a perfect reason to visit this gorgeous stretch of thrilling California coastline and enjoy some really great music. The festival will be marking its 53rd year in September of 2010. I've begun to make a regular yearly trip to enjoy the invigorating sunshine, fresh air, ocean vistas and distinctive marine animals and birds during September and October.

Getting to Monterey is fairly inexpensive and easy. I recommend flying into San Jose or San Francisco and then taking economical public transportation, combining easy light rail and a two-hour bus ride to Monterey. Virgin America Airlines has recently started offering fares as low as $49, one way, from Seattle to San Francisco, a fare that can't be beat. You can save literally hundreds of dollars by not flying direct to Monterey and making the little extra effort in taking the public ground transportation, and if you are flying back to Seattle from San Francisco, you can conveniently enjoy a few days in the city before returning home.

Finding an economical place to stay is another matter, however, as this desirable destination for domestic and foreign travelers alike keeps the costs of accommodations at a sometimes ridiculously high premium. Much of the time, in the high season, one also needs reservations a good deal of time in advance, especially around Monterey Jazz Festival time.

However, there are sometimes availabilities at the last minute and you may even be able to negotiate a better deal on a short-term vacation rental. If you don't mind being a bit more financially extravagant and are traveling with one or more other people, it actually is more economical, exciting, and memorable to rent a condo or house for a week or two, considering the high cost of hotel rooms here. Many of these vacation properties have beautiful and dramatic views of the ocean, are fully furnished and well maintained, with complete kitchens, comfortable queen-sized beds, cable television, wireless internet, telephone, DVD player, stereo, washer/dryer, and off-street parking, which I recommend, since it is difficult to find parking on the street and there are strictly enforced time limits. One reputable rental company with a variety of choices is Monterey Bay Property Management (www.montereyrentals.com). Speak with Jan Leasure and tell her you read about it in the SGN. Rentals can range from one-bedroom condos to eight-bedroom mansions. I stayed in one of their lovely condos, upstairs from their cottage-like office, with a balcony overlooking Cannery Row (of John Steinbeck fame) and Monterey Bay, and it was a delightful experience, comfortable and conveniently right in the heart of Monterey. I loved hearing the sea lions barking at night in the distance! I was within walking distance of the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium and numerous restaurants, bars with live music, art galleries, shops, Fisherman's Wharf, Lovers' Point Park and historical sites. The immediate Monterey area (Monterey/Pacific Grove/Carmel/Carmel Valley) is also a great central location to stay as an easy origin point for day trips up and down the coast.

An important note: I heard that scammers are taking vacation rental ads off of Craigslist for places on the Central California coast and replicating them with their own e-mail reply addresses and trying to swindle possible renters, so make sure you are dealing with a real rental agent at a verifiable, reputable, well-established agency! The scammers offer the properties that aren't theirs, for considerably less money, enticing unwitting visitors with deals that are too good to be true - which they are!

You will want to explore the beautiful coastline, so renting a car is in order. Enterprise Car Rental (www.enterprise.com) has the most reasonable weekly rates. Make sure to rent from the downtown, Del Monte Avenue, Monterey outlet, and to make advanced reservations. It's cheaper than at the airport location, and they will pick you up and bring you to their office. They don't have a drop box for keys so you will have to be sure to drop your car back off during their open hours.

Make sure to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, www.montereybayaquarium.org. It is really wonderful and has some dramatic exhibits of ocean dwellers in dramatic, multi-storied, glass-walled tanks. Be sure to see the penguins, rays, octopus, the white shark exhibit and the remarkably wonderful seahorse exhibit, "The Secret Life of Seahorses," which is on through August 2012. Feeding time in the large sea tank, when divers swim with the fish, is fun and educational to watch, as is the feeding and playtime of the always entertaining and comical sea otters. The Aquarium has a wonderful exhibit of delicate shore birds as well, including snowy plovers, sandpipers, long-necked curlews, and black-necked stilts. There is also a bat ray "petting" tank. When I was there last year, there was a temporary exhibit of river otters and an incredible special exhibit of all kinds of magical-looking jellyfish, accompanied by the most beautiful, breathtaking exhibit of colorful glass "sea forms" by Seattle's own international glass artist, Dale Chihuly. There are always wonderful and memorable exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

A great place to take a walk and see harbor seals and sea lions in Monterey and get up close and personal with dozens of these amazing, dozing, sunbathing creatures is on the U. S. Coast Guard Wharf. One can also rent kayaks nearby and check out the adorable (but fierce) sea otters, floating on their backs lazily along the shore. There are a number of year-round opportunities at Fisherman's Wharf for a three- to four-hour whale watching trip into Monterey Bay with a marine specialist. I chose to go on the "Sea Wolf II," which offers longer trips of four to five hours in the Bay and is accompanied by owner and seasoned marine biologist Nancy Black, who has worked in the region for over 10 years, or other marine biologists who offer expert narration and answer questions on board (www.montereybaywhalewatch.com). We managed to see at least nine whales, including a mother and calf. In the fall, the sea mammals one may see are humpback, blue, and killer whales, and dolphins. It was a lovely, exciting, memorable, and relaxing trip on the gleaming water in the autumn sunshine.

Salinas
It is worth the trip eastbound from Monterey to agricultural Salinas - known as the "Salad Bowl of the World" and author John Steinbeck's hometown - to visit the wonderful, interactive National Steinbeck Center (www.steinbeck.org). Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. As you wander through the museum from one tableau to another, the essence of the stories in Steinbeck's books are visually presented ingeniously along with clips of movies made from his books. I learned so much about John Steinbeck and gained a heightened appreciation for his work and his legacy.

Moss Landing
Another great spot for bird lovers and those looking for sea creatures is Moss Landing, which is a tiny spot 20 minutes by car north of Monterey on Route 1. This is the home of the Elkhorn Slough Estuary, which harbors the largest tract of tidal salt marshland in California outside of the San Francisco Bay, and is home to over 340 species of birds. There are trails for hiking in the Reserve. I went on the Elkhorn Slough Safari boat tour (www.elkhornslough.com), a small, intimate boat trip which I highly recommend. It was an absolutely wonderful way to experience and photograph "rafts" (groups) of sea otters and their pups at rest and at play, sea lions, harbor seals, and huge flocks of pelicans. I then went up into the slough and was delighted to see the most majestic and delicate of many bird species going about their lives in their natural habitat. There is always a knowledgeable naturalist on board and Captain Yohn Gideon, an enthusiastic and avid birder who loves what he does, is lots of fun and makes the whole experience delightful. On the way back, Captain Yohn served us gratefully anticipated cups of hot coffee and tea, as is his custom. The captain and his wife also own a bed and breakfast in Moss Landing, The Captain's Inn (www.captainsinn.com), nestled against the sand dunes along the beach. He gave me a tour of a couple of rooms where the view from one's bathtub was through giant picture windows to your own pristine and peaceful sand dune. He has made his own furniture for the inn as well, and the bed frames are whimsically made from parts of old, weathered boats. His wife has written her own cookbook and serves hearty, homemade breakfasts each morning to guests. Moss Landing also features a small group of sleepy antique stores with some really interesting finds and makes a pleasant, partial day trip from Monterey.

Capitola
Going further north on Route 1, a great stop is the lovely and quaint old beach town of Capitola Village, which was first conceived in the late 1800s as a campground with cabins for summer visitors. It has a wonderful, sandy public beach, lots of restaurants and cafes, and many art galleries and small shops with beautiful handmade goods. One of the best galleries in town for handmade jewelry and other fine goods by local artists is the Many Hands Gallery (www.manyhands-capitola.com). Just a few steps away from Many Hands is a Capitola institution, Gayle's Bakery and Rosticceria (www.gaylesbakery.com), in business since 1978, where you can find some really fantastic and delectable baked goods (made with organic flour), sandwiches, and hot and cold prepared foods, all made from scratch with fresh ingredients. A wonderful casual wine bar, Cava Wine Bar (cavacapitola.com) has friendly, knowledgeable proprietors who have a great deal of enthusiasm and passion for wines. There is often live jazz, classical guitar or other events, and it is a comfortable place to hang out near the beach in the heart of Capitola. There are attractive small cottages adorned with colorful flowers along Soquel Creek and around the town, and lots of vacation rentals. A special place to eat dinner in Capitola is the 63-year-old Shadowbrook (www.shadowbrook-capitola.com), a graceful fine dining restaurant dramatically perched on a hill overlooking Soquel Creek and surrounded by gardens. They grow their own herbs there. You reach the entrance to the restaurant by taking a special cable car down the hillside through the greenery. It is a really lovely and unique place and I recommend it, whether for dinner or a casual drink in the bar by the fireplace.

Santa Cruz
Go further north and spend a day and evening in Santa Cruz, where you can become absorbed by the shops in the downtown area or go on a drive through the redwood trees in the hills above. The Kuumbwa Jazz Center (www.kuumbwajazz.org) is one of the nicest and most eclectic places in the region to hear international, national and regional jazz acts and performers of many genres. Kuumbwa (pronounced "koo-um-ba," silent "w") is a Swahili word meaning "act of spontaneous creation." I had the pleasure of visiting Kuumbwa on a couple of occasions, where I heard exciting performances by fabulous jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas (www.davedouglas.com) and his group and Portland, Oregon's Vagabond Opera (www.vagabondopera.com), a wild cabaret/gypsy/klezmer/Eastern European hybrid band. Kuumbwa also has a great café, with food available during performances. One can always count on Kuumbwa Jazz Center for consistently presenting intelligent, popular and highly creative musical groups from around the world, and it is worth a visit while you are in Santa Cruz.

Big Sur
If you head south from Monterey, you will come upon another set of wonderful and unique experiences. The coastline becomes more rugged, dramatic, wild, and unspoiled, and the stretch of practically untouched, winding coastal cliffs descending down to the sea from the Santa Lucia mountains, Big Sur, is unfathomably overwhelming, expansive and awe-inspiring. If you have never experienced Big Sur, you should make a concerted effort to make it a priority destination. Writers, actors, artists, and new-age thinkers have been drawn to make their lives here.

Iconic author Henry Miller lived here and the Henry Miller Library (www.henrymiller.org) on Route 1 is open to visitors and also presents small, outdoor concerts.

The famed Esalen Institute (www.esalen.org), sits on the cliffs of Big Sur, its healing hot springs perched over the crashing waves of the Pacific below. It has been an international center for the study of spiritual consciousness, psychology, holistic healing, and the arts since 1962. The "Esalen" style of massage therapy had its origins here. Esalen is a place of beauty on all levels. (You must have an advance reservation to go to Esalen, as it is a formal retreat center and not accessible for casual public drop-ins.)

Dinner at Nepenthe (www.nepenthebigsur.com) on Route 1 is a must. Poised on a cliff, you may sit out on the deck 800 feet over the sea and watch the sun sink into the Pacific. It is idyllic and the perfect Central Coast experience; sensual, arty, casual, graceful and elegant. This restaurant has so much history. Originally, before it became a restaurant, the property was bought by actor/director Orson Welles and his wife, actress Rita Hayworth, as a place they hoped to escape to from their hectic Hollywood lives, but they never ended up staying even a day there and eventually sold it to Lolly and Bill Fassett, who had a dream of creating a restaurant where people could enjoy the view and forget their cares. Nepenthe means "isle of no cares" or "the one who chases away sorrow" in the original Hellenic/Greek language. The Fassetts opened their restaurant in 1949 and today it is being run by the second and third generations of their family. The Phoenix Shop below the restaurant has some of the most beautiful handmade goods around, including jewelry, clothing, pottery, garden statuary and more, much of it made by local artists.

The Hawthorne Gallery (www.hawthornegallery.com), across Route 1 from Nepenthe, has some of the most stunning, monumental, and colorful artwork that you can find, some of which is beautifully on display at nearby inns, including the Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn and Spa. The sculptures and wall pieces make dramatic and sweeping statements, echoing the size, power, rhythms, and colors of the Pacific Coast and Ocean and making them iconic celebrations of the essence of Big Sur. I love the artwork at the Hawthorne Gallery.

A visit to the whimsical, magical, colorful Big Sur Spirit Garden on Route 1 is a must. Visionary artist and proprietor Jayson Fann has created a wonderland oasis of community, art, music, and dance. He presents an eclectic lineup of performers on the outdoor stage and arts workshops for children and adults, all surrounded by community-made murals, sculptures, statues, totems, giant cacti, and Fann's remarkable handmade "Spirit Nests," which are giant nests made for humans with sticks and branches in the style of bird's nests. You can see pictures of his amazing nests at the Big Sur Spirit Garden website (www.bigsurspiritgarden.com).

Carmel Valley
Carmel Valley is a favorite place of mine. There is a really strong spiritual feeling in this valley, surrounded by hills. The sun is warm, the air is dry and fresh, and the valley is rich with fertile soil.

Open year round, Earthbound Farms (www.ebfarm.com) is three and a half miles up Carmel Valley Road, heading eastbound towards Carmel Valley Village from Route 1. You may be familiar with their prewashed, mixed organic salad greens, sold in numerous supermarkets and natural food stores. This is a great place to hang out and have lunch. They have their Farm Stand, where one can buy freshly grown, organic vegetables, fresh flowers, and all-organic prepared and wholesome foods, soups, sandwiches and juices, and there is a salad bar with mixed greens and other salad elements. Earthbound Farms even make their own organic soft-serve vanilla bean ice cream, and it's to die for! It tastes so fresh, pure, and real - like something I haven't had since I was a kid! One can sit at the picnic tables on the placid lawn and have a nice meal or just enjoy taking in the lovely scenery, sitting in the warmth of the sun. It is especially fun to visit at harvest time, when the lawn is strewn with many varieties and colors of fresh-picked pumpkins and children are thoroughly engrossed with picking pumpkins to take home. Earthbound Farms offers wonderful special events on a regular basis, including Chef Walks and Flower Walks. For $20, reserved in advance, one can pick a bushel full of vegetables from the fields to take home, and at the end of the walk, a local celebrity chef gives the participants a recipe idea by preparing a dish with those vegetable elements and shares samples with the group. On the flower walk, participants pick a bushel of fresh flowers from the fields to take home, and then Earthbound Farms' flower arranger does a demonstration. I've been on both of these walks and have had a really wonderful, memorable time in the sunshine. I highly recommend them.

Carmel Valley has a productive wine grape growing climate and is home to a number of wineries and vineyards. Five miles up Carmel Valley Road is Chateau Julien, which offers wine tastings and free wine tours of the property. Eleven miles up the road in Carmel Valley Village are seven more wine tasting rooms: Durney-Heller Estate, Bernardus, Georis Winery, Joullian Vineyards, Talbott, Chateau Sinnet and San Saba. Wine tastings are usually $5 (there is now a law that wineries have to charge for wine tastings), but some of the tasting rooms will apply that cost as a credit towards a wine purchase.

I attended an amazing two-day event on September 26 and 27, 2009, on the Quail Lodge property in Carmel Valley. The first annual "Harvest, Farm to Table" (www.harvestcarmel.com) was a celebration of fine food and wine to raise money for charitable organizations and featured gourmet food tastings by over 50 prestigious regional chefs, including Craig von Foerster of Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn, Jeff Rogers of the Quail Lodge Resort, and Phillip Wojtowicz of the Big Sur Bakery. There were also tastings of Belgian beers and over 200 wine tastings by 100 regional wineries. The creativity of the recipes and the flavors of the chefs' offerings were sensuous and delectable, and it was very interesting to become acquainted with wineries that I had been unfamiliar with before. There were cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs and seminars, and a particularly interesting and exciting participatory workshop presented by Austrian master glassmakers Riedel Crystal (www.riedel.com) on the subtle variations of shapes of wine glasses and their effects on the wine's flavors. The Riedel family has been making stemware for over 250 years and currently has over 300 shapes in its collection. Claus Riedel was the first person to design the shape of a wine glass according to the distinctive character of the wine. It was amazing to taste the change in flavors as we tried the same wines in different glasses, and how much subtlety and integrity of the flavors were lost or gained by just a small variation in a wine glass shape! Take a look at 11th-generation Maximilian Riedel's videos on their website. Their highly sophisticated and artistic glasses and decanters are perfect for the ultimate enjoyment and appreciation of wine, for the wine aficionado or novice alike.

Carmel By The Sea
The town of Carmel, to the west of Route 1, is charming and artistic, with small Tudor-like cottages and hand-built stone bungalows. There are lots of art galleries, shops and fine restaurants in Carmel. It has always been a draw for artists and is also a high-end destination for tourists seeking beauty and atmosphere by the beautiful ocean. People make evening pilgrimages down to the sea to watch the sun sink into the Pacific. Carmel is also a destination for dog lovers and their pets, and dogs are like gods here. I've seen some of the best-groomed and well-pampered dogs in Carmel, and they travel with their owners, staying in fine hotels that welcome pets as members of the family.

A fun place to have a drink and listen to live jazz piano with a canine friend is the casually elegant Cypress Inn (www.cypress-inn.com), a lovely hotel co-owned by film actress and animal rights advocate Doris Day, who lives in nearby Carmel Valley. All the dogs present help to create a lively atmosphere, and guests cuddling with their pets on couches and armchairs make you feel like you are in a big, comfortable living room.

Visit the piano bar's nightly open mic at the restaurant at Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch Inn (www.missionranchcarmel.com). The singers are entertaining, and a lot of the locals hang out here. The patio has a lovely view during daylight hours and is a nice place for brunch.

One of my favorite shops in Carmel is the Ajne Perfumery (www.ajne.com), where organic, plant-derived perfumes for men and women are sold, handmade locally with the finest of ingredients. Many of the flowers used for the perfumes, including lavender, are grown on the owner's farm in Carmel Valley. These sensual and precious perfumes are incredibly pure. You can buy a ready-made scent or, for a real treat, you can have a private appointment with the perfume blender, who will mix a unique and special blend for you alone. The scents of these natural perfumes are rare and heavenly!

A trip to Carmel would not be complete without a visit to Tor House (www.torhouse.org), the home of writer Robinson Jeffers. He built his house and his Hawk Tower, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, by hand, using boulders he rolled up from the beach below. He and his family were some of the early Carmel residents, and his lovely, picturesque house and tower hold so much energy, history and spirit.

I attended a wonderful annual event, The Taste of Carmel (www.tasteofcarmel.com), a fundraising event for charity, on October 1, 2009, presented by the Carmel Chamber of Commerce and held in the courtyard of the Carmel Mission (www.carmelmission.org), founded in 1771. This year's theme was "Night at the Hop." The Taste of Carmel is a terrific opportunity for guests to sample foods, including appetizers, main courses, and desserts from some of the best Carmel restaurants, as well as wines from local wineries and beers from local breweries. This year, 34 restaurants and 20 wineries participated. It is very festive and held in the picturesque and magical atmosphere of the Carmel Mission. I tasted some delicious food and drink and got to meet the chefs, wine and beer makers, and a lot of the great local Carmel residents. I recommend attending this event if you happen to be in Carmel at that time of year. It's for a good cause and is lots of fun.

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