The Upside Of Living In Paradise
Monterery County doesn't come cheap; but you get what you pay for.
Thursday, January 16, 2003
It is a cold, hard fact that Monterey County is the least affordable place to live in the United States. It''s also true that well-paying jobs are scarce, home prices are steep, and dinner (though oh so pleasurable) can easily cost a day''s salary.
So, on occasion, we whine. Yet for all the complaints, we stay. And those who leave for greener pastures, such as, say, Iowa, often return.
One reason this place is so pricey is its desirability. It''s a place where the physical beauty, climate, and even the people make other places seem second-rate.
The art galleries in downtown Carmel are minutes away from dolphins and otters popping out of the choppy waters of Point Lobos. Horses canter through meadows across the street from Carmel Valley schools. Downtown Monterey runs right into one of the nicest wharfs on the West Coast. Our oceanside recreation trail offers bikers, walkers, and rollerbladers a scenic passage from one end of the Peninsula to the other.
When our cousins in Des Moines crow about their brand-new five-bedroom McMansions, which cost in total less than our annual rent, we reply, "Yes, but, honey, you''re in Iowa. I''d rather live in a shack by the sea than a mansion submerged in cornfields."
Reality check: What''s out around us in the interwoven communities of Monterey County makes it a pleasure to live here. Sure, we all have to work plenty hard to stay here, but there are days when, sullenly contemplating another deadline, we catch a glimpse of sunlight playing off the waves. And with that, the difficulty of everyday life is a little less hard.
And while I''ll always remember how inexpensive and maybe even easy living was when I was back in Montana, I can''t forget the quality of the sushi there. (Although I would love to forget that rank stuff.)
So since we''re here, and somehow managing to scrape by, let''s take a moment to immerse ourselves in the Central Coast experience and incorporate a bit of touristy behavior into our daily routines.
Located in the paragraphs below, arranged geographically, are dozens of instant vacations. Rather than suggest specific itineraries, we leave it to you to find your perfect local getaway.
The Big Sur Big Chill
The impossibly lovely juxtaposition of wild sea and verdant mountains that define Big Sur make it feel like something more than a place; it''s a spirit that enters our bodies and forces us to breathe deeply and forget the mundane duties that plague our lives. Put off cleaning the garage this weekend, and go for a hike. And dude, you don''t need weed to feel high here.
Being stressed is not on the agenda in Big Sur, so remember to leave plenty of time after your excursion for a leisurely meal and possible repose at one of the local joints, which typically possess a mind-blowing ocean view.
Just seven miles south of Carmel off Highway One is Garrapata State Park-Soberanes Canyon, where the ROCKY RIDGE TRAIL provides a butt-blasting, awe-inspiring few hours of hiking, first through redwoods and creeks, then uphill past cacti and wildflowers.
The terrain can be rocky and steep, so hiking shoes are a necessity. Also, bring water, a snack, and pace yourself (the day I went, a tough-looking guy in army fatigues was moaning, "I can''t make it...I just can''t do this!") And although the climb does seem like it will go on forever, the pinnacle, with views from Big Sur to Salinas, is so worth it.
As you are likely to be starving afterwards, head down the coast to NEPENTHE restaurant for an ambrosia burger (really, really good--and you''ve earned those calories) and a beer on the large deck at the former retreat of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, 800 feet above the ocean. Peruse the PHOENIX SHOP downstairs: a New-Agey collection of jewelry, candles, and treasures made by local artists.
After the sunset, there are various options. If your needs are very simple, if, say, all you want to do is pop up the tent, lay out the bedroll, crack a bottle of Bernardus 1997 Cab and sip it by the campfire with the sound of the ocean throbbing in the near distance, there is the gorgeous JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK, 37 miles south of Carmel, with an easy stroll to scope out whales and McWay Falls--the tallest waterfall in California that hits the Pacific.
If you prefer a roof over your head, there''s the rustic, cute DEETJEN''S BIG SUR INN (doors only lock from the inside and journals in the rooms recount the mythical love powers of Deetjen''s--legend has it that a night there can cure most relationship problems and inspire outrageous passion...yeah-baby!). The morning-after can be topped off by the renowned eggs benedict or blueberry cream cheese waffles.
Another option is to crash at either the VENTANA INN or the POST RANCH INN--the Post Ranch being oceanside and full of outstanding architecture and spa treatments; the Ventana a bit more rustic but still full of delicious pleasures, such as clothing-optional Japanese baths and in-room couple''s massages. Both offer local''s specials in the off-season, allowing us a night to pretend that we too are accustomed to in-room fireplaces, and private hot tubs on our own deck overlooking the ocean. Or, rather, to get accustomed to such things.
And if that''s simply not enough, carry on a bit further down the coast to the ESALEN INSTITUTE, where hot tubs over the ocean are the perfect accompaniment to the spirit-stretching workshops: "Philosophy for Everyday Life," anyone?
Carmel and Carmel Valley: The Quiet Corridor
I admit, as a resident, I''m biased towards the blend of mellowness and quaintness in Carmel, and willing to put up with befuddled tourists who roll down their windows as I''m walking my dog, asking, "Where''s the Hog''s Breath Inn? The Carmel Mission? The beach?" Sure, they drive the wrong way down Scenic and walk at a somnambulist''s pace down Ocean Avenue when I''m just trying to get my soy chai tea from CAFFE CARDINALE, and a bear claw from the CARMEL BAKERY, or on healthier excursions, make it to a class at the YOGA CENTER, but the truth is, I can''t blame these touristas for lingering. The pace of life in Carmel is sleepy, and it''s better just to stop and smell the woodsmoke from those cute little chimneys coming out of those adorable Hansel and Gretel Cotswald cottages.
The town is truly walkable, with the white-sand CARMEL BEACH giving views of Pebble Beach and providing a popular hangout for surfers, families and the aforementioned travelers. Around the dramatic curve of Carmel Point, you''ll find CARMEL RIVER BEACH to be more private, often deserted, and wilder, with twisted driftwood sculptures created by beachgoers stacked into teepees on the rocky sand. The nasty riptide discourages swimming or surfing, but you have a clear view of whitewater crashing against the rocks below Point Lobos.
In winter, when the thin sunlight pierces the thickly clouded sky, you can lose yourself gazing at the surging Carmel River, forcing itself through the Carmel River lagoon and into the ocean.
When the river is trapped in the lagoon come summertime, making a fun wading area for the young''ns, the dirt trail below Carmel Meadows can be accessed from the River Beach and leads past barely used beaches all the way to MONASTERY BEACH, a hot spot for scuba divers. Drownings occur here almost every year, so be extremely cautious.
For culture, art galleries almost choke downtown Carmel, but some are truly special, like TROTTER''S, which features early California art, or PHOTOGRAPHY WEST, highlighting former Carmel residents Brett and Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.
For history, walk by the FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT HOUSE at the south end of Carmel Beach, or tour the CARMEL MISSION BASILICA and its gardens, or poet Robinson Jeffers'' TOR HOUSE AND HAWK TOWER, which Jeffers built singlehandedly out of Carmel Bay granite for his wife Una.
After all this activity, rejuvenate in a comfortable chair at the romantic CASANOVA RESTAURANT, former home to an elderly Carmelian by the name of Aunt Fairy Bird, and now one of the most intimate and exquisite dining experiences in town (among many equals). Or try HANAGASA for sushi--unpretentious, yummy, and not too pricey. For probably the liveliest experience you can have in town (and I''m not being unkind when I say that I was shocked to find people within ten years of my age in Carmel), visit JACK LONDON''S BAR AND GRILL. The dark wooded walls and cozy scale invite fun hangouts with friends over a bowl of French Onion Soup and a Pilsner. Or, in my case, a Rowdy Rita.
Come nighttime, snooze peacefully at one of the many bed and breakfasts with ocean views, like the COLONIAL TERRACE, where the sound of waves in the quiet town lulls you to dream of the famous artists whose ghosts are rumored to still linger in the older residences (can you blame them for staying?), or indulge in a private cottage at the fancier LA PLAYA HOTEL.
In the morning, head on out Carmel Valley Road to THE WAGON WHEEL for hearty breakfasts served at moderate prices by friendly Wrangler-wearing wait staff. Hike up sunny GARLAND RANCH, horseback ride at the STONEPINE EQUESTRIAN CENTER, or, for those brave souls risking a scraped behind and chilly waters, tube down the CARMEL RIVER.
For a more passive experience, book a Hawaiian Lomilomi massage at BERNARDUS RESORT and relax in the warming pool and private meditation garden for spa goers. The Bernardus winery, along with a handful of others in the Valley, offers wine tasting rooms and picturesque strolls underneath the green mountains.
In the evening, hang out with the cowboys and girls at THE RUNNING IRON in Carmel Valley Village, or dance to live music with a margarita in hand at BAJA CANTINA (at the mouth of the Valley).
The Toro Route to Steinbeck Country
While cliched, the phrase Steinbeck Country comes out easily after seeing the mellow gold hills peppered with black cattle and live oaks twisting under clouded skies along Highway 68.
Toro Park''s almost 5,000 acres of trails for hiking and mountain biking, picnicking spots, softball fields and horseshoe pits makes it a groovy place to spread out with the gang and spike a volleyball.
OLDTOWN SALINAS provides shopping in restored Victorians (plus the chance to visit and dine at Steinbeck''s home) on the way to the interactive National Steinbeck Center--just wrapping up a year-long celebration of the author''s 100th birthday with lecture series and special events.
Laguna Seca Recreation Area hosts events like the Sea Otter Classic cycling trials and car racing, plus provides fishing, a shooting range, camping and trails for hikers and bikers.
And lest you forget this is real cowboy country--join the locals in July for the SALINAS CALIFORNIA RODEO, a two-week event featuring bull riders, barbeques, cowboy poetry, kids'' parades, golf shoot-outs, and a chance to see the Miss California Rodeo pageant and horsemanship competition.
For more daredevil activity, watch October''s CALIFORNIA INTERNATIONAL AIRSHOW, which shows off the US Navy Blue Angels and other aerobatic marvels at the Salinas Airport.
Still feeling adventurous? Tame the savage beast, or even take one home with you, at VISION QUEST RANCH AND WILD THINGS ANIMAL RENTALS, where over 100 lions, tigers, and bears (and birds) reside. You can also experience an overnight stay at their Safari Bed and Breakfast--elephant wake up call, sir?
For kiddie fun, pick strawberries, pet farm animals, and ride on a tractor at THE FARM in Spreckels, plus pick up yummy organic produce from their well-priced stand.
Eating out is becoming more upscale in the "salad bowl of the world" with restaurants such as HULLABALLOO, which provides a range of offerings from ribs to risotto, in a fun, cool atmosphere.
And when the stars pop out of that clear open sky, swing your partner at DAKOTA''S CORRAL, known for its country music and dancing and karaoke, or catch a peformance at the WESTERN STAGE AT HARTNELL COLLEGE, known for its original adaptations of Steinbeck novels.
Monterey: The Original Tourist Town
Nowhere in the county is it better to play tourist than Monterey--there are simply so many places to play. From the endearing all-day party vibe of CANNERY ROW, to the mesmerizing denizens of the MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM, you''ve got city fun with an eye on nature.
Admit it: It''s still fun to slurp a bowl of clam chowder in a bread bowl, with nose pressed to glass at one of the restaurants along the wharf, watching sea lions below; it feels like you are on vacation even if it''s just your lunch hour. Personally, I find some gourmet junk food, like an ice cream cone or a caramel apple, heightens the devil-may-care experience, and I can almost forget the office is a few minutes away. Purchase a souvenir penny for 50 cents and you''ve officially fallen into the tourist trap.
For exercise, SEA KAYAKING in the country''s largest marine sanctuary offers a fierce workout and an otter''s view of the Peninsula; JACK''S PEAK delivers awesome Bay views and uncluttered hiking trails, and if you''re still filled with wild tourist abandon, you can rent a surrey or a recumbent bicycle from ADVENTURES BY THE SEA to pedal down the recreation trail on your way to a paddle boating on LAKE EL ESTERO. (While you''re there, jar yourself on the bumpy old slide at DENNIS THE MENACE PARK, before it''s too late--rumor has it all the fun old playground equipment will soon be replaced with "safer" modern counterparts.) Or strap on a skateboard helmet (it''s the law now) and pop some ollies at the El Estero SKATE PARK.
Cultural aspects like THE MONTEREY MUSEUM OF ART, and the historic tours of the city, abound.
There''s also a vibrant nightlife in Monterey, from Cannery Row to ALVARADO STREET. It''s fun to catch straight-laced co-workers with a cigarette in hand on their way to mosh at biker-friendly OCEAN THUNDER, or watch the packs of teenagers flirting while waiting for movies. Pop into LALLAPALOOZA for the attractive crowd, some firecracker fries, and a martini, or hit the MUCKY DUCK for a cocktail and some dancing in the beer garden.
If you''re still peckish, have giant portions of sushi at SAPPORO, or let them cook your sizzling meal in front of you while watching ships harbor at the wharf.
By now totally encumbered by food and drink, it''s best not to try to drive home, but instead walk to one of the lovely waterside hotels, like the five-star MONTEREY PLAZA, and check in for a night of room service and fluffy towels.
Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach--From Cozy to Grand
Pacific Grove calls itself America''s Last Hometown, and it puts out a lot of effort to earn that title. From December''s Candy Cane Lane (an astonishing display of neighborhood holiday lights) to April''s Good Old Days celebration, PG honors its family spirit.
Adorable Victorian style bed-and-breakfasts and antique shops line Lighthouse Avenue and many of the side streets, where you can pick up coffee and a light lunch at WILDBERRY''S, paella at FANDANGO''S, or a gyro and other yummy Greek dishes at PETRA''S.
Town is right next to the coast, so hang at LOVER''S POINT for scuba diving or stroll down the MONARCH BUTTERFLY TRAIL to see the orange beauties during their migration.
Pop back in the car for a cruise through Pebble Beach--after making a quick detour to check out the POINT PINOS LIGHTHOUSE--the oldest operating one on the West Coast--then hit the famous 17 Mile Drive and head past Asilomar Beach into the Del Monte Forest.
It''s now $8 bucks to drive through the gates, but if you''re on official business (say a reservation at one of Pebble''s great restaurants) the drive is free. Book appetizers and drinks at STICKS, spring for an evening at ROY''S huddled by the outdoor firepit watching the sunset over Stillwater Cove, and dining on panko-crusted Dungeness crab cakes, or book an aromatherapy massage at THE SPA AT PEBBLE BEACH. Or cycle in--gawking at a leisurely pace at the mansions and celebrity homes, while joining the company of many other road riders on the weekends.
For recreation without breaking a sweat, there''s of course golf, golf and golf, at a variety of private and public courses, all with lovely ocean views and idyllic scenes of deer munching on the greens.
All this needn''t break into your retirement fund: did you know for only $5 you can hit a bucket of balls at the driving range at Spyglass, or for $20 play the Peter Hay course? Yes, most of us can''t quite cover the $375 to play 18 holes at Pebble, but hey, we can at least enjoy the vibe or watch the real playa''s play at February''s AT & T PEBBLE BEACH PRO-AM TOURNAMENT.
These up-and-coming towns may lack the refinement of their Peninsula neighbors, but they are in the process of buffing and polishing. Besides, it can refreshing to hang out where the keyword isn''t cute. It''s possible to purchase a reasonably good, bargain meal in these towns, and on a purely relative scale, housing is more affordable. Establishments like Marina''s PAPA CHEVO''S on Del Monte and the nearby MORTIMER''S CARD ROOM AND COCKTAIL LOUNGE provide cheap eats and entertainment.
And whether you call it progress or gentrification, changes are happening. To the delight of many locals tired of getting their morning coffee from McDonald''s, Marina recently opened its first gourmet coffee sources: TULLY''S and the excellent WILD THYME DELICATESSEN.
These towns--filled with young adults attending California State University at Monterey Bay--have hard-core athletes: skydiving, hangliding, surfing and the odd kite-sailor or two abound at MARINA and SEASIDE STATE BEACHES. Fort Ord offers trails-a-plenty for mountain bike riders--7,000 acres of some of the best single-track on the Central Coast--and paved roads closed to traffic for roadies. Also on the former military base is indoor paintballing and ice hockey.
Sand City--besides offering big-box stores galore--has the SANCTUARY ROCK GYM, an indoor climbing facility where even those truly afraid of heights can overcome their phobias over a soft bed of shredded tires. Next door, the MONTEREY BAY SKATE STATION has an indoor skate park with lessons available.
Neighboring Seaside provides an assortment of authentic ethnic foods and markets--including ICHI-RIKI for sushi and the incomparable LA VILLA TAQUERIA for Mexican food, plus parks like LAGUNA GRANDE, 34 acres with a lake and BBQ area.
With other pleasures too plentiful to enumerate here, and new restaurants and events being conceived of as we speak, it''s obvious that this is only a smattering of the possibilities available in the elegant county we call home. But be grateful we ran out of space, and not ideas. So as you drift off to sleep tonight in your overpriced abode, let visions of otters dance in your head, and think kindly on the poor landlocked souls who may have a tiny mortgage, but nary a possibility of waking up tommorow to a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice on the beach.