The American Riviera

Feature by Willard Manus

MONTEREY PENINSULA, CA -- Magic happens here in this stretch of northern California where sea meets land in unforgettable fashion. The elements are vibrant and dramatic--tumultuous surf, rugged cliffs, towering redwoods and cypresses, foggy mist, abundant wildlife, elegant houses, dazzling sunsets, patches of white beach. It's the USA's version of the French Riviera, but with its own unique heritage and spirit.

Monterey was first inhabited by the Indians, who then lost control of it in 1770 when Father Junipero Sierra, backed by the Mexican/Spanish army, declared it the capital of California. The American influence dates back to 1849, by which time Monterey was a major whaling and fishing center whose hard, dirty work was done by successive waves of Chinese, Portuguese and Italian immigrants. So rich were the waters of Monterey Bay that by 1913 local fisherman were netting 25 tons of sardines a day! The catch was processed by eighteen canneries which worked round the clock well into the 1940s, only to go out of business when the sardines ran out.

Monterey's clamorous and colorful history was captured by the late writer John Steinbeck (1902-68) in two of his books, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Steinbeck, who was born inland from Monterey (in the nearby town of Salinas) and who achieved worldwide prominence and success with his Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, is very much the Peninsula's favorite son. There is a Steinbeck Plaza on Cannery Row, complete with an imposing statue of the famed author. Shops and malls are named after him and the town sponsors a Steinbeck Festival every year (in September).

My interest in Steinbeck was one of the reasons that made me decide to visit Monterey. It was good to walk in his footsteps on Cannery Row and to visit the Steinbeck showcase in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which also includes items and specimens from the laboratory of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the inspiration for the Doc character in Cannery Row. Ricketts published a book of his own, Between Pacific Tides, in 1939 and had long lectured the sardine industry on the dangers of over-fishing.

But for a proper immersion in Steinbeckiana, one must drive to Salinas and visit the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main St., 831-775-4721) and the place of his birth, the Steinbeck House, at 132 Central Ave (831-424-2735).

It was artists like Steinbeck who put Monterey Peninsula on the map. Drawn by the region's beauty and peace, novelists like Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Miller, poets like Robinson Jefferson, and photographers like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams settled here, sometimes in cabins they built with their own hands. They then fought like hell to keep the developers from destroying the pristine qualities of the region, a fight that to some extent is still being carried on today.

My wife and I stayed in the town of Carmel-By-The-Sea, in the Tally Ho Inn (Monte Verdi & 6th Sts., 800-652-2632 or 831-624-3851). This charming, vest-pocket hotel (twelve rooms in all) afforded us an idyllic place to decompress and rest after the long drive up from hurlyburly L.A. We could walk down Ocean Avenue from there and reach the sea, or investigate the town on foot. Despite its bohemian roots, Carmel is a tourist center today, albeit a tasteful, upscale, sophisticated one. No highrises, fast-food joints or schlock shops. Boutiques, art galleries and fine restaurants abound. Foreign languages are heard wherever one goes.

Carmel has hundreds of lovely houses and gardens, the most famous of which is probably Tor House (26304 Ocean View Ave., 831-624-1813). Built by Robinson Jeffers in 1916, its 40-foot tower has stones embedded in its walls from around the world, even The Great Wall of China. Admission is by guided tour only on Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 am-3 pm. Reservations are advised.

Movie star Clint Eastwood has put his stamp on Carmel. An ex-mayor of the village, he owns the Mission Ranch on Dolores St., a former dairy farm which he turned into a vacation center whose scattered cabins are surrounded by wetlands and grazing sheep. Eastwood also runs a restaurant here, the Restaurant at Mission Beach. With a little luck you might find him tickling the ivories in the restaurant's jazz bar.

By far the leading local attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831-648-4888). One of the most popular museums in the nation, with up to fifteen thousand visitors a day in season (at $30 a pop!), it's home to some 350,000 marine animals and plants. The Aquarium is family-friendly, with lots of interactive exhibits and games to keep even the most restless of kids happy. The favorite attractions are the three-story, 335,000-gallon tank with clear plastic walls where swarms of leopard sharks, fish, sardines and other marine creatures dart in and out of swaying beds of kelp, and the newly-opened otter site where half a dozen of the cute, furry mammals splash and dive to their heart's content and do circus-like tricks when feeding time comes.

Equally new and well-attended is the "Secrets of the Seahorse" exhibit. Whether dancing or mating (it's the males that give birth!), these delicate, graceful and fascinating creatures are a constant delight to watch and study.

Pebble Beach and the 17-Mile Drive are two more of Monterey's famous attractions. The former is a pricey, elite golfer's paradise whose long green fairways are dotted with a handful of luxury hotels. Once again, sea meets shore here, smacking against high cliffs that overlook the western edge of the USA.

The 17-mile Drive is a toll road ($10) but it does enable one to enjoy some fabulous sights: Seal and Bird Rocks, Cypress Point Lookout, the lone Cypress Tree, Del Monte Forest, not to speak of

dozens of majestic estates belonging to the rich and famous. (Visit and click on "17 Mile Drive" at the bottom of the page).

For comprehensive visitor information, contact the Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau at 831-649-1770,

We took lots of wonderful memories away with us after our stay in the Monterey Peninsula: feasting on artichoke salad (a local specialty) at Tarpy's, visiting the Port Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, sipping martinis with a twist at the Sardine Factory, taking the Do It Yourself Literary Tour. Musn't forget either the "Top Kissing Point" at Lover's Point, Pacific Grove, where we obediently smooched away while watching a classic redball Pacific sunset.