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by Lee Foster

Few sites in California present the full pleasures of nature so lavishly as Monterey.

Nature can be enjoyed by travelers of all styles, from the car driver who traverses the 17-Mile Drive to the ocean kayaker who skims the water close to a sea lion.

The diversity of nature is also impressive, ranging from the lively sea otters cracking abalone shells on their bellies to the overwintering monarch butterflies in the pine trees at Pacific Grove.

Nature can be enjoyed at all times of the year and seasonally. Your destination of choice may be the all-year Aquarium, a brilliant exposition of ocean life, or a seasonal event, such as winter whalewatching.

NATURE AND TRAVEL STYLES AT MONTEREY

There are several approaches to nature in the Monterey area.

*Driving to nature. A ride along the 17-Mile Drive offers a traveler the pleasing combination of rugged seashore and thick forest.

The most famous landmark along the 17-Mile Drive is the Lone Cypress, still magnificent after rehabilitation following torching by a misguided teenager. The gnarled Monterey cypress, which grows naturally only here and at Point Lobos, fills a special ecological niche, clinging to granite cliffs, watered by fogs and salt sprays, trimmed and twisted by coastal gales and headwinds.

Besides the Lone Cypress, some appealing stops along the 17-Mile Drive are Bird and Seal Rock, famous for its cormorants and sea lions; the Restless Sea, where two sea currents meet and throw up sprays of white froth; Cypress Point, with its stunning views of the rugged coast; and Fanshell Beach, a small cove with a beach of bright white sand.

At several locations, such as Spanish Bay, you can picnic and walk.

*Walking to nature. In Pacific Grove, on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula, stroll the Pacific Grove Oceanview Boulevard, with its colorful pink iceplant decor. This walk is an excellent choice to experience crashing surf, kelp beds, and sea otters. Oceanview Boulevard winds all along the waterfront of Pacific Grove.

Pacific Grove’s Asilomar Beach, along the west side of the town, offers one of the best beach walks in the region. You can inspect tidepools at low tide.

Point Lobos State Reserve (831/624-4909), a few miles south of Monterey-Carmel, is the choicest single place in the region for nature walks. The reserve protects the native plant and animal life, the geological features, and the scenic value of the area. At any time of the year the beauty of Point Lobos, with its ample flora and fauna, offers many rewards for the walker, who wanders over its 15 miles of trails.

You could spend a lifetime meditating over the natural world of Point Lobos. The blue blossom ceanothus, a typical California shrub, and the Douglas iris, one of the delicate California spring wildflowers, flower lavishly here.

*Ocean kayaking is a new and adventuresome way of seeing nature in the Monterey region. Ocean kayaking is organized by Jeff Schrock (Monterey Bay Kayaks, 693 Del Monte Ave, 831/373-5357).

After a brief orientation, you take a guided tour in two-person kayaks through Monterey Bay, putting you close to sea otters and sea lions. Hundreds of the barking lions bask on stones that form a breakwater to protect the Bay. The kayaks are relatively stable, though good judgment and moderate fitness are required.

On a kayaking expedition with Schrock, this writer met sea otters climbing up on his kayak, sea lions barking in large numbers only a few feet away, and numerous marine birds swimming close by.

“The peace and quiet of ocean kayaking, the exercise of it, the scenic beauty, and the chance to see wildlife have made the sport popular,” says Shrock.

More advanced kayakers can take their small craft outside Monterey Bay and along the coast to Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove. The rugged shoreline, with abundant bird and mammal wildlife, makes the adventure exciting. One feels a little like an Aleut Indian hunting sea otters for the Russians around 1800.

*Scuba diving is perhaps the most adventuresome approach to nature here, but considerable instruction is required. Point Lobos boasts an underwater trail for scuba divers. The waters are too chilly for snorkeling without a wetsuit.

The splendor of the Monterey Aquarium comes close to approximating the thrill of scuba diving for the general public. The huge tanks, with their ample sea creatures, give a diver’s view of fecund Monterey Bay.

THE DIVERSITY OF NATURE AT MONTEREY

Seascapes, plus the plant and animal life present both on land and in the water, provide an unprecedented variety for the observer of nature here.

No creature symbolizes that diversity better than the sea otter.

Sea otters, once endangered, now number about 1,500 and are expanding their range.

“People have to realize that sea otters and a viable commercial abalone fishery are incompatible,” says Stephen Melster of the Monterey Aquarium. “As sea otters expand, the abalone will decrease.”

The high temperature of otters (103 degrees) in this chilly water and their absence of insulating fat makes it imperative that an otter eat a third of its weight in shellfish meat every day just to survive. Otters are eating almost continuously, propping shells up on their bellies as they float in the kelp.

The fur of sea otters was the main reason why Russians settled along the California coast, founding Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, but abandoning it in 1810. The otters were hunted almost to extinction.

Otters are visible in Monterey Bay near Fisherman’s Wharf, along the 17-Mile Drive, and at Point Lobos.

ALL YEAR AND SEASONAL NATURE ENJOYMENT AT MONTEREY

The pleasures of nature in the Monterey region divide into dependable attractions available all year and seasonal enticements that may enhance a visit.

Major all-year attractions not to be missed are:

*The Monterey Aquarium (866 Cannery Row, 831/648-4888). So much has been written in recent years about this magnificent aquarium that many readers will be familiar with it. Since it opened in October 1984 millions have visited the Aquarium, one of the largest in the world, with over 100 major exhibits.

This brilliant gift of the David Packard family celebrates the offshore aquatic world of California in superb displays that include a three-story kelp forest with fishes, a live sea otter exhibit, and several hands-on exhibits, such as the Bat Ray Petting Pool. An Outer Bay wing and a Fishing for Solutions exhibit, about worldwide pressure on fisheries, are the newer aspects.

As you walk through the Aquarium, you see exhibits ranging from a full-size whale model to a simulated tidal surge habitat, filled with versatile creatures able to survive in an environment of pounding waves. You encounter remarkable creatures, such as a school of sheephead fish, which are all female except for one female that becomes a male.

The wonder of nature is so adeptly presented here that there is no urge to train porpoises to jump through hoops. The conception of the Aquarium wisely limits its focus to the abundant California coastal fauna and flora. This approach contrasts with the usual aquarium commitment to becoming a fish warehouse of isolated exotic species from all over the planet.

*Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History (831/648-3116). This small museum is an excellent introduction to nature in the area, looking at each aspect of nature with an exhaustive display. Geology, plant life, insects, shells, mammals, and birds of the region (400 birds alone) are catalogued and displayed in encyclopedic detail. Outside the museum you’ll meet the life-size sculpture called Sandy the Gray Whale.

Both the Aquarium and the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History inform visitors and glamorize an environmental ethic. Without this glamour the environmental movement would not develop sufficient public support. A display at the Pacific Grove Museum, for example, describes the Xerces blue, a butterfly species made extinct by the expansion of San Francisco to its peninsular limits. An observer comes away from the exhibit with a more conscious sense of man’s role in preserving or destroying the environment.

*The 17-Mile Drive. The drive is open all year (with a per car charge), allowing a visitor to walk the beaches and see the crashing surf in different seasons.

*Point Lobos. This park, often described as the jewel of the State Park System, is also open all year, with spring flower time (March-May) as a particularly hospitable occasion to walk its path.

The main seasonal activities are:

*December-February: Winter Whale Watching from Monterey Wharf. (Call 831/649-1770 for a list of the boats.) Some of the 15,000 migrating Pacific gray whales are usually spotted, but humpback and blue whales may also be seen.

During one whale-watch trip, this writer experienced a school of about 400 porpoises shooting through the water on all sides of the boat. Once a porpoise school or whales are spotted, the boat can follow them, keeping them in sight. Hunting whales and porpoises with a camera can be as dramatic as harpooning them must have been of old.

From land, good whale-sighting places are Point Pinos, Asilomar Beach, and Point Lobos.

*April: The Wildflower Show at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. This show (third weekend in April) is a spectacular exhibit of 600 species from the region’s flora.

At the show you can get maps showing excellent flowering areas, such as sites in Fort Hunter Leggett near Jolon, in the southern part of Monterey county. Combine a visit to the show with an excursion into the field.

*October-March: Pacific Grove’s Monarch Butterflies. The butterflies return in the autumn and overwinter on the branches of pine trees. Largest number of arrivals are in November. With a walking map from the Museum of Natural History in downtown Pacific Grove you can locate the trees, in Washington Park, and see the butterflies hanging there.

In October, a butterfly parade of school children welcomes the insects back to Pacific Grove.

A traveler who wants to immerse himself or herself in the pleasures of nature in California will find that Monterey is an apt location. Monterey has had an honored place in the observation of California nature from the earliest days. The first descriptions of the California grizzly bear, now extinct, were made at Monterey in 1602 when the Vizcaino expedition observed a grizzly feeding on a whale carcass.

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MONTEREY: IF YOU GO

For more information on the area contact the Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau, PO Box 1770, Monterey, CA 93942-1770, 831/649-1770.

Among upscale lodgings, good choices would be the Hotel Pacific (831/373-4815) and the Monterey Marriott (831/647-4000). Both hotels are centrally located near the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf and downtown. The Pacific has a pleasing early California architecture that blends in with the surroundings. The Marriott is elevated with a good view of the Wharf from its roof restaurant. The Monterey Plaza Hotel (831/646-8937) locates you along Cannery Row, directly over the water. Quail Lodge (831/624-1581) in rustic and sunny Carmel Valley is another of the region’s top resorts.

Pacific Grove’s Victorian bed and breakfast lodgings are also appealing. One noted for service and located near the beach is the Martine Inn, run by Marion and Don Martine (831/373-3896). Others to consider are: Centrella Hotel, Green Gables Inn, Seven Gables Inn, and Gosby House Inn.

Among restaurants in Monterey, the abalone and Italian selections at Domenico’s are excellent. Domenico’s (831/372-3655) is on the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf and presents a view of sailboats, yachts, and sea lions. Another Wharf restaurant, with a more modest decor but with excellent seafood, is Mike’s, run by the several-generation fishing family of Phil Anastasia. Try the grilled salmon at Mike’s (831/372-6153). Pacific Grove’s restaurant Fandango (831/372-3456) offers an eclectic and pleasing continental menu, emphasizing Basque food and a mesquite grill. Try the paella or seafood salad.

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