Waves in a golden and stormy sunset at Pacific Grove
Waves in a golden and stormy sunset at Pacific Grove
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By Lee Foster

Author’s Note: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, wealthy residents set up California’s Pacific Grove, Carmel, the 17-Mile Drive, and Pebble Beach Lodge as meccas for established wealth and their religious/artistic bohemian counterpoints. This article is about that territory and is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.

In Brief

The Monterey Peninsula, beyond Father Junipero Serra, the “Path of History” adobes, and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, boasts several additional historic elements. Among these attractions, Pacific Grove was established as a Methodist Bible camp in the 19th century. Due to the lovely coastal setting, many decided to build homes here. Not far away, at the same time, the wealthy residents set up the 17-Mile Drive and Pebble Beach Lodge as a mecca for the established.

In the 20th century, artsy Carmel sought to insulate itself against an outside world epitomized by chain restaurants. To accomplish this, civic leaders created some of the tightest zoning regulations in California.

All along this rocky stretch of the California coast, the crashing waves, whether on a calm or stormy day, can inspire a visitor with the beauty of nature.

Pacific Grove’s Historic Story

To begin, Pacific Grove, a town at the northern tip of the Monterey Peninsula, started out as a seaside Methodist camp in 1875.

The early settlers built lovely Victorian homes. Fortunately, later residents carefully nurtured this architecture as a city amenity. Consequently, several Victorians have been turned into bed and breakfast inns. You can view them along Ocean View Boulevard or a couple of blocks in from the sea.

Be sure to see the Martine Inn (255 Ocean View Blvd.) and Green Gables Inn (301 Ocean View Blvd.). In addition, take a look at Seven Gables Inn (555 Ocean View Blvd.) and Gosby House Inn (643 Lighthouse Ave.). If you have time, don’t miss Centrella Inn (612 Central Ave.).

You can procure a walking map of the Victorians. To do this, go to the Ketchum Barn, a base for local heritage activity. Or you can also get one at the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, houses of historical note have placards on them indicating their date of construction and first owner. Consequently, a walking tour of the Victorians amounts to a pleasant afternoon in Pacific Grove.

Waves in a golden and stormy sunset at Pacific Grove
Waves in a golden and stormy sunset at Pacific Grove

Point Pinos Lighthouse

Pacific Grove is also the home of Point Pinos Lighthouse (80 Asilomar Ave.). The red-roofed Pinos turned on its light in 1855. Importantly, it is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse along the California coast. The original Fresnel lens still warns ships along the Monterey coast. In addition, the lighthouse can be viewed at any time, from some distance, as you drive the Pacific Grove coast road. It is open for tours Thursday through Monday, 1-4 p.m.

Monarch Butterflies in Pacific Grove

Above all, don’t miss the celebrated natural phenomenon here–the gathering each October of monarch butterflies. The congregation is the culmination of a long migration. To accomplish this, the orange and black insect species journeys sometimes thousands of miles to Pacific Grove. Here the current living individuals overwinter in the eucalyptus and pine trees.

The town celebrates with a Victorian House Tour in April (check with the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce) and a Butterfly Parade in October. In early December a number of Victorian inns invite the public to come view their Christmas decorations.

Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

Possibly the most superlative experience in Pacific Grove available to a traveler is a visit to the special Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

Anyone who loves nature in California should allow an hour or two to encounter this remarkable institution. The facility went from an ordinary city museum a few years ago to a world-class science facility, backed by its own Foundation.

There is so much to see here, starting with the grey whale sculpture outside. Inside, there are displays about Doc Ricketts, the noted biologist in the Steinbeck era. Moreover, Native American presentations show arrows and basketry. An annual Wildflower Show each March fills the space with blossoms. The Monarch Butterfly story and its nuances informs visitors, including the tragic 86% population crash in 2018. One large room shows in taxidermist splendor 480 birds you are likely to see in California, plus their nests and eggs. Visitors can rub their hands over a sea otter pelt, with its 250K hairs per square inch. After a rub over this luxurious fur, one can perhaps imagine why the Russians came to California to harvest these mammals for discriminating fur buyers in the Europe and China trade.

After perusing Pacific Grove, take a ride on the 17-Mile Drive past the Pebble Beach Golf Course and the residences of the wealthy.

17-Mile Drive

The 17-Mile Drive through the Del Monte Forest presents an appealing view of trees, coastline, and lavish private homes. Hundreds of sumptuous homes lend a fairytale aura to the woodsy ambiance.

Trees include prime stands of Monterey pine and cypress. The coastline affords ample places to walk or picnic. One good spot is Spanish Bay. Other good sites for observing sea life include Seal Rock and Bird Rock.

Be sure to stop at the gnarled Lone Cypress. This singular tree, growing out of the rocks, struggling constantly in the face of wind, fire, and vandals, stands as a symbol of tenacity and perseverance.

Carmel

Carmel-by-the-Sea is an appealing small village to stroll if you like to browse art galleries and smart shops. Look for the “Carmel Gallery Guide” guidebook offered free in the shops here.

Ask for directions to poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House (26304 Ocean View Ave., Carmel). Jeffers made his reputation celebrating the natural environment, but without seeing man as an improvement on the scene. Details: 831/624-1813; http://www.torhouse.org.

Carmel-by-the-Sea goes to great lengths to maintain its high-tone village exclusivity. It has been zoned to keep out the hoi polloi and their chain-restaurant and bigbox preferences. For instance, the town has no formal street addresses. There are no mailboxes. Villagers get mail at the post office.

At the south end of Carmel you’ll find one of the loveliest beaches in California. This is little-used Carmel River Beach. It includes a parking lot, ample sand, and crashing surf. These are excellent ingredients for a beach walk. The setting offers a distant view of Point Lobos offshore.

Getting There

The Monterey Peninsula is a two-hour drive from San Francisco via Highway 101. Take the marked Monterey exit. If you have more time, take the scenic coast route, Highway 1.

Be Sure to See

This is a driving and walking excursion. Peruse the Pacific Grove Victorians by car or foot and be sure to stop at the Museum of Natural History. Drive the coastal road from Pacific Grove to Carmel. Get out for a fresh-air walk along the coast to enjoy the crashing waves, in both calm and stormy conditions. Meander the 17-Mile Drive. Stop at the iconic Lone Cypress. Finally, park in downtown Carmel to enjoy the art scene and specialty shops.  Perhaps visit poet Jeffers’ house. Enjoy the lovely beach where Carmel meets the sea.

Best Time of Year

Any time of the year is good for this trip. In April Pacific Grove has a Good Old Days celebration. There’s a parade, live entertainment on five separate stages, arts and crafts vendors, food booths, carnival rides, a classic car show, a quilt show, pony rides, a dance showcase and more. The event is free. The week after Thanksgiving, 10 lodgings decorated for the holidays are open to the public during Christmas at the Inns.


Booking.com

Lodging

Among the historic Victorian lodgings in Pacific Grove is the Gosby House Inn (643 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove; 831/375-1287; https://www.gosbyhouseinn.com). The accommodation is associated with the Four Sisters Inn group of boutique hotels.

At the south end of this trek, lodging in Carmel is an option. Consequently, downtown Carmel, only one square mile, offers many charming lodgings. One is Hofsas House. For seven decades one family, the Theis family, has owned the place, with current generation leader Carrie Theis now in charge. Some rooms have ocean views and are large, amounting to two rooms. Moreover, all patrons can engage the staff over breakfast and get local info on art walks, hiking on the beaches, and the diversified fine dining scene in Carmel. Hofsas House is at 4th Ave and San Carlos St, PO Box 1195, Carmel, CA 93921; 831/624-2745; https://www.hofsashouse.com.

Dining

Pacific Grove’s restaurant Fandango (223 17th St.; 831/372-3456) offers an eclectic continental menu, emphasizing Mediterranean food and a mesquite grill. Try the rack of lamb or paella.

For Further Information

For info on Pacific Grove, contact the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce (831/373-3304; https://www.pacificgrove.org).

For more information on the entire area approach the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau (888/221-1010; https://www.seemonterey.com/).

For info on Carmel, visit https://www.carmelcalifornia.com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for another wonderfully entertaining travel article packed with fascinating facts. John Steinbeck introduced many of us to Monterey with his Cannery Row, but your view of the area gives us some idea of the variety of visual and intellectual treasures waiting to be discovered.
    It is almost unbelievable that the 1855 Fresnel lens is still working at the Point Pinos Lighthouse, even today, over 150 years later. Another surprise was that after thinking that we had to go to Mexico each fall to see the awesome migration of the Monarch Butterflies, it is an unexpected delight to learn that we can also enjoy this breathtaking wonder of nature in Pacific Grove, California!
    Just by the way, has the age of the Lone Cypress tree on the 17-mile Drive been estimated by botanists?
    Your photographs are, as always, stunning.

  2. Thanks Travel Ann for your comments. Wikipedia reports that the tree is about 250 years old. I made some new photos of it on my 2019 visit. It is not now as lovely as it was in my past photos. Some branches are gone. The Lone Cypress can probably withstand wind and natural fire, looking ahead. The greatest threat to its future is a misguided high-testosterone teenage prankster with a chainsaw. A protective fence now keeps the general traveler well back from this iconic tree.

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