Scenic, Charming and a Place to Reconnect with Nature
By: Charlene S. Mixa
Romance, spectacular views, a seaside sanctuary, unique shops, and world-renowned restaurants beckon visitors to Pacific Grove. Located between Monterey and Pebble Beach, this quaint coastal town is scenic, relaxing, and a location to reconnect with nature. Beginning as a summer Methodist Camp in 1875, the Pacific Grove Retreat offered a place to worship, rest and meditate. The fragrant pines and fresh sea air enticed visitors. With the Monterey canneries bustling, this paradise inspired the saying “Carmel-by-the-Sea”, “Monterey-by-the Smell” and “Pacific Grove-by-God!”
While California’s charming towns dot its varied coastal terrain Pacific Grove boast “Best Seaside Town” by VIA Magazine and Life Magazine named it the “Most Romantic City in the US.” Richard and I look forward to another visit to Pacific Grove. Earlier trips focused on Monterey Peninsula’s tourist areas of 17-mile drive with its famous golf courses and upscale Carmel-by-the Sea. We are ready to reconnect with nature in this delightful seaside town.
Asilomar, the “Refuge by the Sea,” consists of 107 acres of diverse beachfront. Sitting on sand dunes above the Pacific Ocean and in a pine forest, Asilomar was initially built in the early 1900’s as a summer camp for the Young Women’s Christian Association. Driving through the stone entrance gates of Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds, we admire the cozy cabins, rustic lodges and unspoiled surroundings. We check in at the Phoebe A. Hearst Social Hall, a large, beautiful wood and stone building that now houses guest registration, a gift shop, a nice relaxing area and the primary location for Internet access.
Initially, we are assigned a room in the Pirate’s Den, which previously housed the young male staff during the summer camp. As a former summer camp, Asilomar’s guest rooms are rustic and simple providing an escape from the demands of everyday life such as TV’s, phones, and Internet. This is in keeping with helping guests get away from the outside world to reflect inwardly and appreciate the tranquil surroundings. Due to a mix up with our room, the staff moves us to a suite, which happens to offer some extra amenities along with its cozy charm.
Now to explore Asilomar! At registration we pick up literature on Julia Morgan’s Architecture and a walking tour of eight of the original buildings. A famed architect from California, Julia Morgan, employed the use of an Arts & Crafts architectural style for Asilomar. The goal was to restore craftsmanship and artistic form to all buildings bringing balance, health, harmony and happiness. We locate the buildings on our walk, stopping to better appreciate the structures with the use of local woods and stone plus their open spaces and natural lighting.
At the Dune Boardwalk we leave the buildings and the pine forest as the terrain gives way to low lying bushes and grasses. The boardwalk leads us to picturesque Asilomar Beach. This white sandy beach is one of the few beaches in Pacific Grove where you can actually walk on the beach. Most of the coastline in Pacific Grove is along low cliffs with rocky outcroppings. Going south along the Coast Trail we enjoy the scenic view and sounds as waves crash on the beach. The trail gives us the chance to also check out golfers as it borders the edge of Spanish Bay Golf Links. Returning to the boardwalk we follow the signs of the Living Dunes Trail. A massive restoration project begun in 1984 returned the dunes at Asilomar to their native state. We stroll along the Living Dunes ¼ mile boardwalk noting the stops in the Living Dunes guide with explanations on the dunes and its unique flora and fauna. With its magnificent beach, dunes, and pine forest, Asilomar creates a true harmony with nature and tranquility.
Following an afternoon of roaming Asilomar we return to our suite to relax before heading out to dinner. Driving to Pacific Grove’s downtown, we pass beach style cottages, bungalows, Victorian houses and numerous quaint bed & breakfasts. The charming downtown area is several blocks offering a variety of shops and numerous eateries.
We locate Passionfish just at the edge of the downtown area. Entering the restaurant it presents a crisp trendy setting yet a fun, casual atmosphere. Once seated, we quickly learn Passionfish is all about good food, good service and a good dining experience. Owned and operated by Chef Ted Walter and his wife Cindy Walter, Passionfish has received the Wine Spectator magazine’s Award of Excellence every year since 1998 and has a Zagat rating. With an excellent wine selection, we relax with our drinks as we review the menu. Offering a varied selection of sustainable seafood, we start with the Malaysian pole caught squid with a spicy cilantro-citrus sauce with mango. The Dungeness crab salad is layers of avocados and crab topped with spicy ginger vinaigrette. My entre’ of Sea Scallops with tomato-truffle butter, risotto custard and minted celery is excellent. Richard’s slow poached Sturgeon with lemon-grass jasmine rice and lemongrass slaw with spicy red curry vinaigrette is very tasty. The wait staff is extremely conscientious and Chef Ted even stops by to chat. Passionfish offers a great and unique dining experience!
We stroll through downtown Pacific Grove this beautiful evening, enjoying window shopping through the various shops and restaurants. It’s a relaxing evening with beautiful skies and mild temperatures. Tomorrow, we plan a day of walking along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, so it is early to bed.
As “leisure guests” at Asilomar our breakfast is included. Walking to the Dining Hall, we enter this large hall with its round tables that have a lazy Suzanne’s in the center. Signs atop the tables designate the group for conference attendees. We are directed to the table for “leisure guests”. The Dining Hall is busy this morning with many of the conference group tables already filled. A hot breakfast is served each day plus a wide assortment of other breakfast options offering stations for cereals, breads, bagels, sweet rolls, fresh fruit, and yogurt with numerous healthy toppings. The perfect beginning for our full day of outdoor activities!
With clear blue skies and temperatures in the high 60’s we are off to walk along the Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Trail where it winds along the cliffs and shoreline of Pacific Grove. We drive along Sunset Drive with its spectacular ocean views and park on Ocean View Boulevard. The trail paths are designated for walkers and bikers. The view across Monterey Bay with the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance is fantastic. Walking the path along the cliff is one magnificent scene after another. Each turn offers a new special view as large waves crash on rocks along the shoreline. Photo opportunities abound! We sit and relax at benches along the path. The scenery with the sound of the waves is mesmerizing. We learn the history of Pacific Grove at a mural on a beach-wall. Nature is alive and well! In the water we spot Sea otters feeding on crabs and fish. In the bay whale watching boats cruise along with tourists seeking a glimpse of gray whales as they migrate north. Lover’s Point Park and Beach create an enchanting setting. Yes, Pacific Grove is a “dreamy” and “romantic” seaside town. As the path heads north toward Monterey’s Cannery Row, we stop and watch the harbor seals.
The serenity and spectacular cliff edge with the ocean view ends as the trail enters the popular vacation destination of Cannery Row. The new scene is shops, restaurants and hotels bustling with tourists. We detour along Cannery Row checking out the shops and walkways around buildings that sit over the water. Informative historical signs explain the heritage of Cannery Row with its fishing canneries, the rise and fall of the industry and the impact of John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row. We make a quick stop at the Pebble Beach Shop to check out any sales and a swing through Ghiradelli’s for a free sample of their delicious chocolate. As we continue on Old Fisherman’s Wharf, the sidewalk winds around buildings that border Monterey Bay. At Old Fisherman’s Wharf, we are accosted by hawkers at each restaurant urging us to sample their clam of the “best clam chowder.” On our return, we are back on the Coastal Trail which is now away from the coastline. We stop for a light lunch and admire the bungalows, bed & breakfasts, and houses along the trail. Now to relax at Asilomar!
Upon recommendations of family and accolades of magazines of a restaurant “not to be missed”, we have reservations for dinner at the Sardine Factory. Actually housed in a building where sardine workers were once fed, the Sardine Factory is the highly successful dream of Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino. With their vision, Ted and Bert, overcame the business rules they broke of a restaurant that was on the wrong side of the tracks (no view nor near the water), an ugly building with stairs to climb and no marketing program. As we climb the stairs to the Sardine Factory, we agree there is nothing spectacular about the building. Opening the door, everything changes! The restaurant is alive with activity and welcoming. We are escorted to the Conservatory, one of several dining rooms. Surrounded by lush greenery beneath a glass-domed roof, we love the romantic and enchanting affect of this beautiful setting.
The Sardine Factory definitely lives up to its acclaim of an unforgettable fine dining experience. The service and attention to detail is excellent. Each course is perfectly prepared beginning with our Appetizer Trio of calamari puffs, huge prawn cocktails, and tasty fried Castroville artichoke rings. Richard loves “the world famous” Abalone Bisque, which was served at President Regan’s inaugural dinner. The Acai salad is my healthy choice with poached pear, orange segments, walnuts and an Acai blackberry vinaigrette. The entrées of fresh Alaskan Halibut with crabmeat over spinach and broiled fresh wild Alaskan Salmon filet are fantastic. During dinner, Bert Cutino, stops by and shares the history and amusing stories about the restaurant. The grand finale is the “Sorbet on Ice Swans” glowing a deep blue as the waiter carries them across the room. The mango sorbet is delicious and light. A truly superb dining experience!
Our final evening at Asilomar, we enjoy the fireplace and recall this exciting and memorable visit. Asilomar offered the tranquility in a natural setting and our peaceful walk along the spectacular Pacific Grove’s shoreline, touristy Cannery Row and Monterey Bay Coast Trail gave us an even better love of this “paradise”. For this visit in late March, the weather was perfect. Daytime temperatures were in the high 60’s with fantastic clear blue skies. The great restaurants of Pacific Grove’s Passionfish and Cannery Row’s Sardine Factory exceeded our expectations for fantastic dining experiences. Pacific Grove may be a quaint town but it has a lot to offer any visitor.
If you go:
Asilomar Conference Grounds, 800 Asilomar Boulevard, Pacific Grove, CA 93950-3704
Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1770, Monterey, CA 93942
Passionfish, 701 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950
Sardine Factory, 701 Wave Street, Monterey, CA 93940-1016