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Pacific Grove, California

Where surf and sea meet the local charm of America's Last Hometown

Point Piños Lighthouse
Photo caption
Point Piños Lighthouse is the oldest in continuous operation (since 1855) on the West Coast.

Every year, California's Monterey Peninsula draws tens of thousands of visitors, none of whom have been there before. They are monarch butterflies, and they travel hundreds of miles to spend the winter in the area's pine and eucalyptus groves. Relying mainly on their instinct to guide them, these orange-and-black-winged beauties somehow know right where to point themselves—toward a slice of serenity called Pacific Grove, otherwise known as Butterfly Town, U.S.A.

Of the four main towns on the peninsula, three—Monterey, Pebble Beach, and Carmel—are internationally known. And that's just the way the residents of Pacific Grove like it. If you want a wharf and a world-class aquarium, then Monterey is the place. If you're looking to smoke a stogie and stiff a 7-iron, reserve a round at Pebble Beach. Prefer old English charm and galleries instead? Try Carmel.

But if you yearn for a weekend amid the peninsula's best balance of history, scenery, and community, a place that can call itself "America's Last Hometown" and earnestly mean it, then P.G., as the locals call it, is the spot.

Coincidentally, America's Last Hometown began as a temporary retreat—for Methodists rather than monarchs. In 1875, tent-size lots were sold at $50 apiece, and Pacific Grove (which didn't actually become a city until 1889) emerged as a religious summer community that promoted stern moral values. There was a curfew, a fence surrounding the community to keep out the Monterey riffraff, and even rules prohibiting intoxicants, profanity, and visiting the beach in "immodest bathing apparel."

Today, a hint of P.G.'s past lingers. You won't find any raucous taverns here, prohibition itself having lasted all the way until 1969. It's still a city that shuts down early, allowing for quiet morning walks along coastal trails lined with lilac and cypress trees. Visit in May, when the wildflowers bloom a perfect pink, and you'll conclude, as Robert Louis Stevenson once did, that you "have never been in a place so dreamlike." As for the bathing restrictions, they're often rendered moot by the coast-hugging fog.

But the fence that kept the locals cocooned like caterpillars is long gone. Visitors are welcomed with sincere small-town smiles. But in this community of 17,200 you don't sense a tourist parade. Half the people strolling the sidewalks are grinning because they think they've discovered it. The other half are gloating because they live here.

To begin your tour of Pacific Grove, find your way to Ocean View Boulevard, which follows the dramatic rocky coastline around the edge of town. You can drive it, but the accompanying four-mile recreation trail is magical. The trail starts at Monterey's Cannery Row, made famous by onetime P.G. resident John Steinbeck, then catches its breath at a picturesque park called Lovers Point, where you might spot a cavorting sea otter or two. At the tip of the peninsula, where the bay becomes ocean, the trail finds its way to Asilomar State Beach, where the surfers and sunsets linger that much longer.

Near the peninsula's northernmost tip stands Point Piños Lighthouse, the oldest in continuous operation (since 1855) on the West Coast, where afternoon tours are offered Thursday through Sunday. Follow Lighthouse Avenue—which began as a supply trail in 1874—into the heart of Pacific Grove.

Just off Lighthouse Avenue is the famed Monarch Grove Sanctuary, the city's largest and most accessible butterfly habitat. Each fall, these butterflies escape the cooling air by seeking the higher humidity, warmer temperatures, and abundance of light found in Pacific Grove. When the butterflies arrive, P.G. schoolchildren parade through town in brightly painted wings. But the best time to see the real wings is anytime from October through March at midday, when the sun warms them into flight.

Let the monarchs have the trees. You can settle in nearby at the Inn at 213 Seventeen Mile Drive, a meticulously restored 1920s Craftsman charmer, or the adorable Centrella Inn, built in 1889. Perhaps you'd rather watch the waves from a bayside mansion. Try the 23-room Martine Inn or the famous Seven Gables Inn, both on Ocean View Boulevard. P.G. is a veritable B&B buffet, and from most of them it's a short walk to the town's center.

Pacific Grove is justly proud of its architectural heritage, as evidenced by the plaques touting the names of original occupants and the Victorian home tour that satisfies the curious every October. Indeed, the city celebrates its history enthusiastically and often, with events like Good Old Days in April, when you can participate in a pie-eating contest, and the Feast of Lanterns, a weeklong celebration in July of the city's founding that includes a street dance, fireworks, and a pageant featuring boats lit by Chinese lanterns.

Stroll through town and savor it slowly, like a good cup of coffee, which you can find at Wildberries, the kind of informal hangout usually indigenous to college towns. Nearby is the quaint Red House Café, where chef-owner Chris D'Amelio will serve you a warm tomato and mozzarella sandwich in a cottage-like setting.

If your tastes run more toward the antique, visit the impressively housed dealers of Holman Plaza just a few blocks farther along Lighthouse Avenue. Maybe you can pick up a first edition of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, which devotes a chapter to Holman's rooftop flagpole. You can bone up on all forms of the peninsula's plant and animal life with a trip to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. You can't miss the building. It's the one fronted by a life-size sculpture of a gray whale.

By now, with all the walking, you may have worked up a whale of an appetite.

At Fandango, in the heart of town, you can enjoy Monterey Bay accented with a subtle taste of the Mediterranean. Try the sand dabs, a local fish specialty, or the paella.

When you're done, step outside, smell the wood-burning fires crackling throughout town, listen to the waves crashing and the sea lions barking, and consider this: Unlike the seasonal monarchs, you'll probably be back again.

Photography courtesy of Frank Schulenburg/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in May 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.