The magic of Monterey, U.S.A
I hadn’t planned to spend a week in Monterey. I was on my way to the world-renowned retreat Esalen, situated four hours south of San Francisco, and according to my map it was a convenient halfway point where I could stop for a night. Due to my rather lax travel research, I arrived in Monterey to find the bus to Big Sur, the awesome stretch of central Californian coastline, only runs on weekends during low season (September - May), and today was Monday. Impatient by nature but unwilling to pay $200 for a cab, I reluctantly accepted I could do nothing but stay and explore.
Stepping into a fresh blue sky day it was obvious Monterey, once the capital of California, is a city well used to hosting large numbers of visitors. Munras Avenue is lined with motels, and downtown you’ll find the usual souvenir shops, assortment of restaurants, cafes and over-priced boutiques aimed at the cash-wielding tourist. Fisherman’s Wharf, even in low season, was bustling with bodies ogling at fresh seafood displayed outside the plethora of eateries. But it was while approaching the tip of Fisherman’s Wharf I had my first ‘Monterey Moment’.
Halted by the breath-taking views over the Pacific to the Santa Cruz mountains, serenaded by a choir of nearby sea lions, I watched a single canoeist paddle past with his faithful Jack Russell perched at the helm. A smile crept across my face and I knew I was somewhere quite special.
From Fisherman’s Wharf I followed the ocean-side path south to Cannery Row, perhaps Monterey’s most famous attraction and the water-front street that became the title of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel. The main strip is a mix of big chain hotels, quirky clothes shops, seafood restaurants and the impressive Monterey Aquarium. It’s pristine orderliness feels very “touristy” and it’s no doubt a very different street to the one Steinbeck knew. However there’s a feeling in the air, intriguing and mysterious, a sense of history which captures the heart and reels it in.
Veer off the main strip and, hidden behind the Intercontinental hotel, you can find the remnants of Ed Ricketts’ (marine ecologist, philosopher and close friend of Steinbeck) laboratory, where he carried out pioneering research into the abundant marine life of Monterey Bay. South of the aquarium the coastal path continues, which follows the old train line that ran from San Francisco to Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove (it was this train that killed Doc Ricketts in 1948). As I was tucking into my naughty purchases from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory I was again forced to stop in amazement. Protected by a tall wire fence hundreds of harbour seals lounged lazily on the beach, some bouncing comically on their blubbery bellies, oblivious to the enthralled crowd gathered around them.
This stunning trail drew me back day after day. Locals jog and cycle alongside the mighty Pacific, every bend offering a new and awe-inspiring view of waves crashing onto ancient rocks. It seemed impossible to tire of this scenery. Perhaps a daily dose of supreme natural beauty is what keeps the locals so friendly and laid-back. Sitting at my ‘usual spot’ at Lover’s Point, watching surfers play and attempting to write poetry, I befriended an older couple who, concerned that I had neither a bike nor a car, offered to be my personal tour guides. With detailed narration we drove through the Monterey’s old town, Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach (where the rich and famous make their holiday homes). My proud new friend informed me that Steinbeck based the night watchman character in Cannery Row on his father! Ending with tea and biscuits at their ocean-view home, I was over-whelmed by their generosity and kindness.
At sunset the sight of the Pacific sky fading through dusky pinks and blues as a white mist settled on the water brought me to the restaurants of Cannery Row for a front row seat. Unfortunately this view comes with a price, but one I was happy to pay for the freshest crab and shrimp I’d eaten for a long time. On Tuesday night I discovered the weekly farmers’ market on Alvarado Street, packed with stalls selling local produce, international dishes, arts and crafts. I was warmed to meet more ever-welcoming locals who were happy to stop and chat to a wandering traveller.
Seven days in Monterey rolled by in a dreamy haze. A city like no other, it demands that you slow down, open up and soak in the energy that’s been inspiring writers, scholars and artists long before Steinbeck. In fact I became so chilled during my stay, I had to quickly cram in a visit to the various attractions of the Monterey State Historic Park, the Presidio of Monterey Museum and Robert Louis Stevenson House on my last day! Never has missing a bus been such a pleasure.
- From San Francisco, the Monterey Airbus takes 2 hours. www.montereyairbus.com