Monday, January 5, 2009

Monterey, monarchs and meanderings

An inch of hail fell during my stay in Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula one morning recently and the little kernels of ice actually stuck on my car's windshield for a few hours. The record-breaking cold, however, didn't stop a small group of us shiver-prone Californians from enjoying our overnight stay here in what is one of the most beloved of state's old lodges. Asilomar, created in 1913 as a YWCA retreat, contains the largest collection of Julia Morgan's architecture in one location and the buildings and grounds are tenderly looked after by a state park and concession crew that includes long-term employees. One is Pat Cosio, a raconteur and 50-year dining room server who is a repository of all kinds of Asilomar lore (he can tell you about being there the day John F. Kennedy had breakfast in the hall). To get the official background on the place, however, call ahead and reserve a spot on the park service's tours of the grounds. The one I joined was led by Andrea Bates (left), a ranger with an deep knowledge and enthusiasm for Morgan's architecture, the local micro-habitats and Asilomar's history. The tour takes visitors inside many of the grand Arts and Crafts-style buildings designed by Morgan, the first architect to practice in California, and around the sprawling grounds with views of the crashing surf and the lush fairways of Pebble Beach. (If you don't catch a ranger-led tour, there are new self-guided walking audio tours available any time).
Later, my group hopped on three-speed beach cruiser bikes (for rent at Asilomar) for an easy four-mile ride loop ride stopping at a number of local sites, including the quaint old Point Pinos Lighthouse (above, right), the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the west coast, Asilomar State Beach and the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary. I'd always heard about the 40,000 monarch butterflies that migrate to this town every year but never visited between October and early February when they hunker down in the pine and eucalyptus trees. Bring some binoculars to see the clusters of butterflies up close, or plan to stop by when a docent is on hand with a telescope. Even without those aids, however, look close and soon you'll be aware of dozens of the colorful little insects circling around you. That evening, as the temperatures fell to near freezing, we warmed ourselves with a delicious Mediterranean-style dinner (rack of lamb was a highlight) at a long-time favorite Pacific Grove restaurant, Fandango.
Winter is a terrific time to visit the Monterey Peninsula: bundle up, bring an umbrella and you'll find much lower hotel rates, cozy spots by fireplaces and fewer crowds at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which, by the way, recently released a wallet-sized sustainable seafood guide to sushi, part of its free Seafood Watch series of little folding guides that easily fit into pockets books).