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Monterey Today

Venice? Provence? A veteran world traveler finds pleasures aplenty on a lovely seaside peninsula rich in California history.

A smoldering sunset colors the sky over Monterey Bay.
Photo caption
A smoldering sunset colors the sky over Monterey Bay.

Families flow down Prescott Avenue toward Cannery Row—one of tourism's great crossroads—searching for things to nibble on. In their sneakers and T-shirts they make the place seem playful. But back in the 1930s, when two dozen canneries handled over 250,000 tons of sardines a season, it was anything but. Waiting for a latte at Starbucks you gaze at 1950s black-and-white photos of abandoned canneries and desolate streets. Then you walk out among the ice cream crowds with a new appreciation. Here on California's Monterey Peninsula, a forested thumb of coast between Santa Cruz and Big Sur, the ambling families bring a sense of continuity. There are other spots where the past folds as neatly into the present, but few where travelers feature so prominently in both.

Several decades ago, vacationers at a posh resort launched a fishery here. It in turn gave rise to the canneries that inspired John Steinbeck, the author whose novels then made the place famous. On this peninsula, for many years, fish, artists, and sightseers have fed off each other.

Archivist John Sanders stands on the steps of what was once the region's grandest hotel and opens his laptop. A newsreel of a costume party fills the screen: Salvador Dali and his wife flitting in outfits designed to represent nightmares. Bob Hope lifting the lid off a dinner plate to reveal live frogs.

Hotel Del Monte, the setting for these antics, opened in 1880, just 34 years after Commodore John Sloat raised the U.S. flag over Monterey during the Mexican War. Guests of the elegant seaside establishment toured the coast on 17-Mile Drive, where the iconic Lone Cypress still stands on its granite promontory. Pebble Beach, renowned for its stunning oceanside holes, was one of the hotel's several golf courses. Fishing enthusiasts wielding newfangled gear would go out with hotel guides and catch heaps of salmon. Locals took notice and upgraded their tackle to exploit the bounty—first salmon and later sardines.

After fires in the 1920s, the Del Monte was rebuilt in Spanish revival style. Among its features is La Novia (The Bride), a diorama showing a handsome wedding party of the early 1800s rancho era by artist Jo Mora. Sadly, that work is now off-limits, as is the hotel itself, currently the main building at the government-run Naval Postgraduate School, where Sanders tends the library archives.

But other treasures by the artist are easy to find. A bona fide vaquero born in Uruguay, Mora spent much of his life in California and eventually settled on the peninsula. His sculptures, watercolors, and witty 1930s cartes (illustrated maps) of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon now fill a gallery at the Monterey Maritime & History Museum just off Del Monte Avenue. Visit to find more of the artist's work.

Nearby, in the Paris Bakery, sardine history lives on. "Look at everyone here," says octogenarian Tony Aiello one weekday morning. "They all had mothers or sisters working in the canneries."

"Everybody worked in the canneries," John Cardinalli says.

While they also worked on the boats. "During the Depression all we ate was fish," Cardinalli adds. "Fish and pasta."

"Once a month we'd eat red meat," Aiello says. "And it was delicious. Now our doctors say we can't eat meat"—he laughs at the irony—"so we still eat fish and pasta."

World War II started. Fishermen became soldiers. A few of them ended up in Italy where, they say, no one could understand their Sicilian. But these two appear to have come through it all fine, sitting with friends in a warm café on a bright morning. They are gracious, affable men, though you can get them arguing by asking where all the sardines went.

Ed Ricketts—the philosophical marine biologist who was the model for Doc, the soul of John Steinbeck's novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday—believed he knew what became of the sardines. "They're in cans," he declared. But that's not the entire story. The besieged fish slipped away as ocean conditions shifted, scientists say, but have since returned. Ricketts is legendary, yet even those who have read the novels may fail to recognize the wooden structure hunkered next to a new InterContinental Hotel as his Pacific Biological Laboratories.

"Ed Ricketts was a leader in ecology before we knew what the word meant," says Jim Conway, a city historian, in the lab's well-preserved front room. It's not hard to picture the ecologist relaxing here, lost in a beer and his beloved Gregorian chants.

After Ricketts's death in 1948—a Del Monte Express train struck his car—the lab was taken over by Harlan Watkins, a Monterey High School teacher. Every Wednesday evening Watkins and his friends would meet, talk, and listen to jazz. In 1957, San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons visited and floated the idea of holding a local celebration of jazz. So here, in a former marine lab (Ricketts's old tanks are still out back), the Monterey Jazz Festival was born. Again the arts, fish, and travelers converged.

Rancho-era buildings still dot the city, and most of them, happily, welcome visitors. Colton Hall, where in 1849 California's first state constitution was signed, overlooks a spacious lawn on Pacific Street. The Custom House and Pacific House, both now enchanting museums, stand near other oldsters down by the waterfront.

The two wharves—Fisherman's and Municipal—stick out like symbols of leisure and labor. The first is a lively promenade, bunched with bright restaurants proffering clam chowder, shrimp scampi, and barbecued squid. The second is a no-frills motley of fisheries, among them the Monterey Abalone Company.

"What Napa is to wine, Monterey is to abalone," co-owner Trevor Fay says. His farmed abalones grow to market size—3½ to 5½ inches—in big cages sunk beneath the wharf, grazing on newly harvested kelp fronds.

Monterey Abalone doesn't offer tours, but you can buy the mollusks right there in its tiny shop. Cupped in each shell is a gelatinous mass that looks lifeless at first but expands rather creepily as you watch. If you prefer your abalone cooked, Fay says a good place to try his—breaded and seared and as tender as scallops—is the Portola Restaurant at Monterey Bay Aquarium a few blocks away.

The aquarium opened in 1984 in the old Hovden Cannery. It is a kind of redemptive triumph: tanks inhabited by fish where they were once packaged. At one exhibit, you can press buttons to "order" seafood, then watch screens on which restaurant workers tell you whether or not your selection suffers from overexploitation or habitat decline. The aquarium has put out millions of its Seafood Watch guides, says Executive Director Julie Packard; the newest version is designed to convert the nation's sushi lovers to its "best choices" cause.

Packard fought to claim this seaside spot. Jutting out over the bay, the aquarium grants visitors the head-turning experience of seeing a penguin and then looking out a window and seeing a seal. There is a richness outside as well as inside, which is why you may see children in wet suits exploring a tide pool. The idea, Packard says, is to dig deeper: "We want to get people out in the bay."

Just southwest, the town of Pacific Grove hugs the coast, the porches of its homes facing the everevolving seascape. Ocean View Boulevard sweeps past craggy Lovers Point and its alluring beach, then curves around a rooftop lighthouse where it acquires a new name and leads onward to 17-Mile Drive.

Unlike most toll roads, this one winds through stands of wind-bent cypresses, past freshly minted mansions, and beside rocky cliffs and salt-sprayed links before dropping, like a well-stroked putt, into Carmel-by-the-Sea. Normally we associate wealth with grandeur, but here the elite homes are generally cottage-size, even those along the beachfront, where no shops or restaurants are allowed. The grid of downtown is relieved by cobblestones and flowery courtyards full of well-dressed shoppers.

Carmel once had a bohemian quality, exemplified by poet Robinson Jeffers's rough-hewn Tor House, and nonstarving artists still live here. You can't throw a paintbrush without hitting a gallery—there are about 120—or, it sometimes seems, a dog. A great glass bowl filled with dog biscuits sits atop the reception desk at the Cypress Inn (built in 1929 and now partly owned by Doris Day), where the canine guests look as contented as their companions. Pets are welcomed in no fewer than 25 restaurants nearby.

Across town, Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo stands on a slight rise now fringed with homes. Founded in 1771, the second of 21 Spanish missions in California, it served as headquarters for Franciscan Father Junípero Serra, who is buried here. It is a graceful complex that though rebuilt and expanded still appears to be of another era.

Jo Mora's nearly life-size bronze-and-marble cenotaph of Father Serra in eternal repose, priests kneeling by his side, dominates a chapel adjoining the basilica. An adjacent museum presents a recreation of the mission's dining room, which, a sign says, was FOR ENTERTAINING OF TRAVELERS AND GUESTS HERE AS THERE WERE NO HOTELS IN EARLY CALIFORNIA. Outside lie dirt graves rimmed with abalone shells. Even here, in the hallowed mission, is the peninsula's lasting trinity: art, visitors, gifts from the sea.

Photography courtesy Monterey County Convention and Visitor's Bureau

This article was first published in September 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.