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Pacific Grove, Calif.: A Serene Escape

Welcome to a tiny sliver of the California coast that gives off such a laid-back vibe, even the wildlife comes here to relax.

mother sea otter holding pup, image
Photo caption
A mother sea otter lays on her back in the water and holds her pup close to her.


Of all the animals that feed and frolic in the nutrient–rich waters of Monterey Bay—from hide–and–seek hermit crabs to humpback whales—the mellow sea otter offers the best vacation cues for my money. This furry critter lolls about on its back most of the day, munching shellfish. Every now and then you’ll see one shoot through a kelp bed, disappear, and emerge with a pawful of seafloor snacks. Otherwise it’s life with a slow, familiar rhythm: Eat a little. Rest a little. Repeat steps one and two. And so it goes in Pacific Grove, Calif.—if not the Mayberry of the Monterey Peninsula, then a close relative. You can probably do everything there is to do here in a day, but that would be missing the point. Attraction–happy travelers can find tickets and tour buses in neighboring Monterey and nearby Carmel. But if you’re looking for a getaway that’s more like an initiation into life’s simple pleasures—a quiet stroll, a good book, a nap, a dream—then P.G., as the locals call it, is the place.

Begin by the water. A four–mile, coast–hugging recreational trail starts near the Monterey Bay Aquarium (a third of which resides in Pacific Grove) and runs west along P.G.’s rocky northern edge before dipping south against the huddled sand dunes of Asilomar State Beach and ending at the gate of 17–Mile Drive. A fast walker might pull off the trek in an hour. It took me three days.

"People need to slow down to fully appreciate what’s here," says Milos Radakovich, a local nature guide dressed almost entirely in fleece. "You’re looking at one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the planet, and it’s completely accessible. Just keep your eye on the horizon."

Even without binoculars, almost anyone can spot loads of sea lions, sea otters, and harbor seals as well as schools of dolphins, acrobatic humpbacks, and the occasional orca. Between July and October, the bay plays host to one of the largest gatherings of blue whales in the world—picture nature’s version of a Winnebago convention. As many as 200 of these 80–foot, 170–ton leviathans arrive here to gorge on the area’s abundant supply of krill and plankton, each devouring up to 7,000 pounds a day.

When you’re through mammal gazing, explore one of Pacific Grove’s bountiful tide pools, none more famous than the Great Tide Pool of Point Piños. This bustling little basin of aquatic activity is immortalized in the pages of onetime resident John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. At low tide the slick, creviced rocks bubble with frenetic action. Sea stars and hermit crabs and chalk–white barnacles mingle with mussels, urchins, and black turban snails in a gushing ballet of intertidal life. Get up close and watch, but don’t forget two golden rules of tide pool etiquette: Be gentle with the creatures you handle, and put them back where you found them. The last thing you want to do is make anemone.

While at Point Piños, pay a free visit to the oldest operating lighthouse on the Pacific coast. Since 1855, the Point Piños Lighthouse has been flashing through its French Fresnel lens and prisms to warn approaching sea vessels of the coast’s dangerous shoals. A little farther south, squeezed between a forest of cypress, pine, and oak and 26 acres of flower–flecked dunes, you’ll find the Asilomar Conference Grounds. A former YWCA retreat that’s now part of the California State Park system, Asilomar shows off 11 homey structures designed by William Randolph Hearst’s favorite architect, Julia Morgan. For $5, you can learn about each one—and about the acorn woodpeckers, black legless lizards, and other wildlife that populate the grounds—on a two–hour audio walking tour. For about $130 more, bed down for the night in one of 312 guest rooms.

Pacific Grove’s dazzling scenery may feed the eyes, but it’s the restaurants and cafés on and around Lighthouse Avenue that feed the rest of you. Not a morning passed when my girlfriend didn’t rhapsodize on the blisteringly hot coffee at Juice n’ Java—"Mmmh! Even better today." Whether it was the thick doughy waffles and local morning chatter at Toasties or the goat cheese-smothered portobello and basil sandwich at the Red House Café, eating on P.G.’s main thoroughfare often lulled me into a slumberous state of satisfaction.

For dinner, look no further than Passionfish, a husband–and–wife–owned outfit that specializes in sustainably harvested seafood and wines priced so low you’ll wonder, What’s the catch? "We sort of ditched the industry standard of outrageous markups," says co–owner Cindy Walter. "I’d rather someone got a chance to try a wine they really wanted but normally wouldn’t shell out for." It’s those experiences, she says, that spawn repeat patronage. Case in point: The bottle of German riesling the waitress paired with my spicy Caribbean bouillabaisse complemented the dish’s bold saffron and coconut flavors and my modest travel budget.

After sunset, the streets of Pacific Grove empty and the town goes pin–drop still—a carryover, perhaps, from its early days as a fenced–in Methodist retreat where public dancing, immodest bathing attire, billiards, and riesling were strictly prohibited. (P.G. was the last dry town in California, finally relaxing its ban on liquor in 1969.)

Back at the Seven Gables Inn, a glowing 1880s Eastlake–style house (one of many late–19th–century Victorians in town converted to commercial lodging), the staff lays out a platter of peanut butter cookies. The evening’s entertainment? A gin rummy marathon. During a shuffle break, we talk to the innkeeper about the famed monarch butterflies that winter in a secluded eucalyptus grove nearby. Every October, thousands of them show up to perch on low–hanging branches. They congregate in thick drooping clumps, their orange–and–black wings warming in the sunlight. They just bask there. All afternoon long.

Now that’s my kind of critter.

Photography courtesy of Mike Baird/Wikipedia

This article was first published in July 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.