Monterey County: A diverse and gorgeous region where the new meets the old

Ari Burack/Special to The S.F. Examiner
Monterey Bay is rich in natural beauty and opportunities for whale-watching
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From the old adobe buildings and winding streets of Monterey, to the pastoral beauty of Carmel Valley, and the mountains and dramatic seaside cliffs of Big Sur, coastal Monterey County has a bit of everything.

A look at things from the water is always a fun way to get your bearings.

Bounding across Monterey Bay and bouncing over ocean swells in a 33-foot, military-grade former Coast Guard inflatable speedboat, Fast Raft is a thrill ride that also comes with a message of learning about and safeguarding the ecosystem and wildlife that surrounds you. Trips can vary with weather and interest, but the craft is fast and light enough to get down to stunning Point Lobos or up to Elkhorn Slough and back in less than three hours, with plenty of sightseeing in between.

It’s also maneuverable enough to maintain a safe distance from the whales, dolphins, otters, sea lions and several species of sea birds that are likely to cross your path as you navigate past rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, lighthouses, and some of the most famous and exclusive golf courses in the world.

A much slower, but just as beautiful, seafaring alternative is Monterey Bay Kayaks. The winds are normally calmer in the morning and you won’t have to fight the surf as much. And you will be close enough to wildlife to hear the grunts and bellows (and smell the pungent aroma) of sea lions from a few yards away. Slip past an otter eying you warily as it cracks its breakfast on its stomach. Paddle through kelp beds or rows of ships in the marina.

You can also take in some of Monterey’s history from just offshore, and even more when you return to land. Some of the stately adobe and brick homes, 19th-century remnants of Monterey’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, line city streets that curve and bend at awkward angles, another clue to the city’s old age.

A few of the buildings — such as the Cooper-Molera Adobe built in 1823 and the Stevenson House, a former hotel where author Robert Louis Stevenson stayed and wrote for a time — maintain lush and colorful outdoor gardens. Colton Hall, which sits next to Monterey City Hall, was the site of the California Constitution’s first writing in 1849.

Dining options in Monterey include the family-run Cibo Ristorante Italiano, which blends low-key and upscale plus traditional Italian dishes with local ingredients. But perhaps the nicest thing at Cibo is the spirit of hospitality exemplified by owner Mario Catalano’s mom, Rosa, who at 81 still helps plate the dishes and occasionally cooks a few favorites from her native Sicily, like an off-menu pennette with marinara, swordfish and mint. Rosa greets customers with a lovely smile, sits and talks with them, and tells them to come back.

For a glimmer of old Monterey with a hip, modern twist, sidle up to the bar at 1833. The two-story adobe home has been renovated inside to accommodate a restaurant and beautifully backlit bar eerily reminiscent of the one in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” You will almost definitely fare better than Jack Torrance after downing a delicious artisanal cocktail or two, or even an elaborately poured glass of absinthe. The location, with nearly two centuries of history (some of it amusing and some of it dark), also comes with its own requisite ghost stories.

Just a short drive south, lovely Carmel-by-the-Sea is a cozy, upscale hamlet that has drawn artists, adventurers and entrepreneurs to its dramatic shores since the early 1900s.

Now settled into the high life, it welcomes tourists to view its exquisitely and creatively designed homes, shop for art, and dine and rest in style. A guided tour with Gael Gallagher of Carmel Walks is an intriguing exploration of the town’s side streets, hidden walkways, unique architecture, colorful characters and history — by someone who truly loves the area.

“This town was meant to be explored by its passageways,” Gallagher says, ducking into a tree-lined courtyard unseen from the road.

The La Playa Hotel, one of Carmel’s oldest, was originally a mansion built in 1905 and renovated in 2012. It’s a charming, beautifully decorated boutique hotel in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the business district. Narrow, intriguing corridors lead to rooms offering ocean and garden views.

A short drive inland, Carmel Valley is sunny and warm and lined with picturesque hills, farms and vineyards. It’s peaceful and a great option even if you’re not made of money. The gorgeous Quail Lodge is celebrating its 50th year and has recently forgone some of its amenities to lower prices, but the spacious, immaculate California ranch and Spanish colonial-style luxury accommodations, fine dining and scenery on the 850-acre estate — complete with fountains, lakes and an 18-hole golf course — all remain.

A few miles farther into the valley, the 26-acre property of Bernardus Lodge is set among vineyards in rural splendor. Elegant rooms and spa service are paired with fabulous cuisine and wines, some made by the resort’s own winery.

Back down the coast, Big Sur’s hiking trails, mountains and quiet cottages are the ultimate getaway in coastal Monterey County. And you don’t have to leave comfort behind either. Set in the woods just back from the highway, Glen Oaks Big Sur has several rooms and cottages, originally built in the 1950s and updated with an eco-friendly, modern rustic theme. The Big Sur River and the second-largest redwood tree in Big Sur are located right on the property. The nearby Big Sur Roadhouse is California-style cuisine with a New Orleans accent, paired with a selection of wines, some from nearby vineyards where the cooler climate of the region is ripe for pinot noir.

Great hiking lies in every direction. One lesser-known trail, in Andrew Molera State Park just 2 miles north of Glen Oaks, takes you out to the ocean, up along the bluffs and then down a narrow path to a tiny beach, where stacks of old logs and driftwood lie on the way to the pounding surf and the sand is painted a purplish hue.

On the way back north you could consider lunch or dinner in the sleepy, seaside town of Moss Landing on the county line, where a massive power plant overlooks natural waterways and marshland, old boats and antique shops. The Haute Enchilada, a restaurant and adjoining gallery, offers bold, intense Latin-inspired flavors and colors to match its art. Dishes include a vegan chile relleno mole, and crab and huitlacoche (a corn fungus) enchilada with a citrus cream sauce. It’s a treasure in an unlikely place.

IF YOU GO

Monterey County

Where to stay:

La Playa Hotel: Camino Real at Eighth Avenue, Carmel. From April to early November, rooms start at $399. www.laplayahotel.com

Quail Lodge: 8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel Valley. Rooms from $150 to $425. www.quaillodge.com

Bernardus Lodge: 415 W. Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley. Rooms from $350 to $955. www.bernardus.com

Glen Oaks Big Sur: Rustic outdoors, eco-modern indoors. 47080 Highway One, Big Sur. Rooms from $225; cottages $300 to $350; cabins $275 to $550. www.glenoaksbigsur.com

Where to eat:

Cibo Restaurante Italiano: Dinner, cocktails and live jazz. Traditional Italian recipes in a familial atmosphere. 301 Alvarado St., Monterey. www.cibo.com

Old Fisherman’s Grotto: Try the crispy fried calamari and balsamic-glazed grilled artichoke. 39 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey. www.oldfishermansgrotto.com

Bistro Abrego: The restaurant is refining its menu to include fresh, local ingredients, including a Monterey crab cake with a spicy aioli. Hotel Abrego, 755 Abrego St., Monterey. www.hotelabrego.com

1833: Food and artisanal cocktails at the former Stokes Adobe, built (you guessed it) in 1833. 500 Hartnell St., Monterey. www.restaurant1833.com

Flaherty’s Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar: All kinds of seafood dishes at reasonable prices, including locally caught sand dabs, seafood tacos and a tasty lobster bisque. Sixth Avenue at Dolores Street, Carmel. www.flahertysseafood.com

The Haute Enchilada: Latin-inspired cuisine and art. 7902 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing. www.hauteenchilada.com

What to do:

Fast Raft: Tours leave from the pier at 32 Cannery Row, Monterey. $60 to $140 per person. www.fastraft.com Monterey Bay Kayaks: 693 Del Monte Ave., Monterey. Guided tours leave from Monterey and Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing. $55 to $120 per person. Kayak rentals also available. www.montereybaykayaks.com

Walking old Monterey: For information and maps on the many homes, museums and other sites of historical interest, visit the Monterey State Historic Park website at www.parks.ca.gov/mshp. Self-guided tours are possible, though entrance to some locations requires a guide and fee.

Monterey Bay Aquarium: The aquarium’s latest exhibit, “Tentacles,” features some of the more alien creatures of the sea – cephalopods – such as a reclusive deep sea octopus, peering almost a little too knowledgeably at you from behind glass. 886 Cannery Row, Monterey. Adults $39.95, kids $24.95. www.montereybayaquarium.org

Carmel Walks: Two-hour tours Tuesday through Friday at 10 a.m.; Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Meet in the courtyard of the Pine Inn on Lincoln Street at Ocean Avenue, Carmel. $25 per person. Reservations (831) 642-2700 or www.carmelwalks.com

Andrew Molera State Park: State Highway 1, 20 miles south of Carmel. Parking is available in a small lot on Highway 1 across from the entrance, or inside the park where parking is $10. www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=582

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com

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