The breathtaking peninsula offers gorgeous natural wonders, a scenic coastal drive, a world-class aquarium, and a fairy tale town. A former California resident and noted gastroenterologist, Dr. Jun Ruiz, reminisces his erstwhile weekend getaway
In my almost ten years of living the American Dream in Silicon Valley in the heart of California, I was working hard with a good-paying job and earning big respect from my colleagues and patients. With a minimum of 10 hours of work time daily, the weekdays could take a toll on my physical well-being. I was always longing for the weekend to relax, revitalize, and indulge in leisure activities like what Northern Californians do. Fortunately, fun can come in a variety of diverse activities in Silicon Valley, whether cosmopolitan or in the countryside, that are available and catering to everyone’s interests.
Many people would assume San Francisco is that place for me to unwind, given the multitude of leisure and cultural attractions that this cosmopolitan city has to offer. However, the inherent inconveniences of a major urbanized center can bring more stress than relaxation.
My favorite weekend getaway to take it easy is the beautiful Monterey Peninsula, a one-and-a-half-hour drive (125 km) from Santa Clara. The rugged peninsula offers breathtaking natural wonders of the azure sea, white beaches, rocky cliffs, and an unspoiled territory. Monterey is one of the most beautiful coastal cities in California. A scenic drive along Highway 1 that runs along the coast is one of the most picturesque joyrides in America. In addition, there are several luxury resorts and restaurants that offer the best seafood cuisine in the region. Whenever I had visitors, a road-trip to the Monterey Peninsula over the weekend is always in the itinerary.
In 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into the Monterey Bay and landed. He named the area after his patron, the Count of Monte Rey. But it was not until 1770 when a series of overland expeditions from San Diego led by Spanish Captain Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra that a Spanish military base with a presidio and a church was established. The city that is now known as Monterey became the Spanish colonial capital of California in 1846. Then came the Gold Rush that saw the mass northward migration of people in search of gold. The city lost its status to San Francisco, and settled into the role of a fishing port, market town, and military base.
Monterey and Cannery Row
The Monterey Peninsula is very different from San Francisco and Los Angeles, the biggest cities in California. Here, time slows down as one escapes from the hustles and bustles of one’s work in the big cities. The beautiful coastline, its world-class aquarium and the locale setting from the many John Steinbeck novels attract visitors from all over the world. The principal cities of the peninsula are Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The city of Monterey, located on the northern side of the peninsula, draws most of the tourists. Pacific Grove is an artist’s haven and a former religious retreat. The southern picturesque city of Carmel-by-the Sea lures the easygoing wealthy crowd. Skyrocketing price tags on real estate help maintain the small-community atmosphere along Monterey’s lovely coastline.
The epicenter of the tourism industry in Monterey is at Cannery Row. This six-block waterfront street was celebrated by John Steinbeck in his popular novels Cannery Row and Sunset Thursday. This was once the site of more than twenty sardine canning factories that processed sardines from Monterey Bay. The first cannery opened in 1903, followed by several plants that thrived, reaching their greatest volume of production in the 1940s. In 1945 the sardines suddenly disappeared, perhaps as a result of over fishing, and most of the canneries were abandoned, demolished or burned. The last cannery closed in 1973. The best way to get back to Cannery Row’s roots is to take a trip to the Cannery Row Antique Mall.
Cannery Row is now a tourist attraction, with an eclectic collection of boutique hotels, gift shops, seafood restaurants, and bars located in former cannery buildings. The bust of Steinbeck found in Cannery Row commemorates the writer who is a favorite son of this region, having extensively written about Monterey in his fiction novels. The area offshore from Cannery Row is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected ocean area that is home to a large resurgent marine population of California sea lions, seals, dolphins, and whales in dense kelp forests. Nearby are beaches that offer popular spots for kayaking and scuba diving.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The most popular attraction along Cannery Row is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It is one of the largest aquariums in the US, with more than 500 species and tens of thousands of marine animals and plants from the Monterey Bay area are on display. This is a dream come true of four local marine biologists. I was amazed to see live sardines, mackerel and other fish weave in and out of the Kelp Forest. The other Monterey Bay animals are represented here, like the sea otters, sea turtles, stingrays, sharks, crustaceans, birds, and other fish raised in the aquarium. One of the most-loved exhibits are the tanks of large jellyfish that lit up as they fluoresce in the blue waters. The entrance to the aquarium can be costly, more expensive than usual, but many visitors will consider worth the ticket. Indeed, many tourists travel to the Monterey Baysolely to visit the Aquarium.
Nearby is the picturesque Fisherman’s Wharf, where one can admire panoramic views of the bay, go sailing, join whale watching, enjoy a kayak excursion, taste clam chowder, explore unique shops, and experience the sights and sounds of Monterey’s past. In addition, you can wander through the downtown’s historic district where you can admire the best-preserved historical adobe buildings from California’s Spanish and Mexican periods.
The 17-Mile Drive
Next to Monterey is the city of Pacific Grove. Because of its outdoor natural beauty, especially during the full bloom of flowers during spring, and the elegant Victorian-era homes, the place has become an artist’s haven since the 1890s. The scenic ride along Pacific Grove highlights its lovely coastal parks and stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean, where the waves crash dramatically against the rocky shores. The city is also the location of the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in California.
From Pacific Grove, start a spectacular journey that offers the most enchanting seventeen miles in America, filled with dramatic coastal cliffs, white-sand beaches, mystical forests, and iconic golf courses. This is the 17-Mile Drive. It is a twisting, turning road that begins in Pacific Grove and hugs along the Pacific Ocean coastline down to Pebble Beach. Be prepared to be captivated with breathtaking panoramic views that encompass much of the natural and man-made beauty of the southwestern Monterey peninsula. Whether it’s your first or 5th time visiting the area, the stunning scenery along the 17-Mile Drive does not disappoint.
This famous scenic drive gives you an overload of picture perfect seascapes and nature’s treasures that involve spectacular sea cliffs, regal Monterey cypress trees that dominate the Del Monte Forest, vivid brown rock formations, and strong waves breaking into white foam and spray. There are 17 stops for the 17 miles. I recommend stepping out of your car in each stop to be fascinated with such postcard-pretty vistas. My favorite stops are the shores of Spanish Bay where I usually take a stroll along the wooden paths, and the much photographed “Lone Cypress”. The latter is world-famous as it has braved all the harsh elements atop its rocky pedestal overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is the emblem of both the 17-Mile Drive and the Monterey Peninsula.
No golf course in the United States can match the Major championship pedigree of Pebble Beach Golf Links, which hosted its sixth U.S. Open this year. Golfers dream of playing at the Pebble Beach Golf Club, which is often considered to be one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, and are encouraged to book over a year in advance. The stunning beauty of the region has also attracted many wealthy people to build their multi-million-dollar mansions here.
The picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea
Once you exit from the 17-Mile Drive, you will end up in California’s Jewel City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Carmel, for short. It is located south of Monterey and Pebble Beach, and is also known for its natural scenery and rich artistic history. Early city councils were dominated by artists, and the city has had several mayors who were poets or actors, including actor-director Clint Eastwood who served as mayor from 1986 to 1988.
Travel enthusiasts have called Carmel-by-the-Sea a fairy tale town as the architecture of its elegant cottages, shops, galleries, and restaurants with rolled eaves, rounded doors, and asymmetrical stone chimneys are styled in the look of an English country village. The high real estate prices have kept the town population below 4,000, maintaining its quaint small village atmosphere. The downtown area is only one square mile, so strolling at one’s pace is a delightful experience. At the turn of 20th century, the city was a mecca for artists and writers who intended the area for intellectual and cultural oasis.
It is not unexpected that Carmel-by-the-Sea is a pricey town that has plenty of designer stores, gourmet eateries and upscale art galleries that cater to its wealthy residents and tourists. There are over 100 art galleries and boutique shops along the charming tree-lined streets, alleyways and courtyards, most are around the main avenue – the picturesque Ocean Avenue. Carmel is a heaven for food and wine lovers, with a wide selection of gourmet restaurants and wine tasting rooms. Thus, Carmel is the place to get away from the big city, but without sacrificing the cosmopolitan leisure of art, theater, music, dining, shopping, and luxurious spas.
The end of Ocean Avenue leads to the idyllic white-sand Carmel Beach, considered as one of the most beautiful beaches in America. Beach bumming is totally fun here, and you will see a diversity of sun worshippers. At first light, dog walkers, runners, and surfers enjoy the long stretch of pristine white sand and the soft waves breaking into the beach. Later during the day, you will see stereotype visions of California – carefree sunbathers and physically active individuals playing beach volleyball and other sports. The grand finale is when many, including myself, come to witness an inspiring sunset when the sun dips into the Pacific.
The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was the second mission established in California by Saint Father Juniper Serra in 1770. It is referred to as the Carmel Mission, and was named after the Carmelite friars who accompanied Father Serra. The Basilica Church is the centerpiece of the mission, and is most famous for its incredible catenary ceiling, and thirty-foot reredos that have religious images on it. Father Serra’s remains is serenely preserved under the altar of the church.
If you still have time, continue driving south on Highway 1 to be awed by the dramatic cliffs, rocky coves, and breathtaking mountains of the Big Sur coastline that can create an epic backdrop for family bonding, romance, or adventure. Marvel at the photogenic arched Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the largest single-arch bridges in the world. There are no large towns and very few signs of civilization in the area.
I have always loved the laidback setting of the Monterey Peninsula, providing the perfect weekend getaway to revitalize my mind and well-being during my Kaiser days. Since moving here to the Philippines, I never failed to stop by Monterey every time I visited my former home. The place just brings back great memories.