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California’s crown jewel: Monterey is a very walkable central coast of natural wonders

By Adriana Janovich For The Spokesman-Review

Bird Island Lookout and its sweeping views of a craggy offshore outcropping that seems to undulate with Brandt’s cormorants, western gulls and other shorebirds loomed just around the bend.

It was our turnaround spot. But before we trekked the final leg of the first half of our easy, almost 2-mile hike, we paused to view another spectacular sight: the sparkling emerald waters of China Cove and its whimsical rock arch. The scent of sunny pine wafted through the refreshing sea air, and I didn’t want to leave.

My husband and I were making our way along the well-maintained trails of the breathtakingly beautiful Point Lobos State Natural Reserve situated on California’s Central Coast some 3 miles south of the charming village of Carmel-by-the-Sea at the northern end of Big Sur. Long called “the crown jewel” of the California parks system, these pristine 3,400 acres were our last stop before undertaking the two-day drive back to the Inland Northwest.

We spent four days in and around the picturesque Monterey Peninsula walking in the footsteps of John Steinbeck and, more recently, the cast and crew of “Big Little Lies,” with the Monterey Marriott as our home base. Before we left, I was already dreaming of returning.

Besides its numerous natural wonders, one of the best things about the area is just how walkable it is. One day, I logged 10 miles strolling along the coastline from downtown Monterey to Asilomar State Beach, looping back through Pacific Grove’s quaint neighborhoods full of historical homes. If you’re planning a spring getaway to this enchanting seaside region, be sure to bring comfortable shoes.

• Bird Island and China Cove are just two highlights of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, where each secluded cove seems even more captivating than the last. Located along California Highway 1, Point Lobos features an old whaler’s cabin-turned-museum and free docent-led walks past steep cliffs, groves of Monterey cypress, hidden beaches and sun-basking sea lions.

• Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail also offers opportunities to watch sea lions. Located along an old railway, the paved pathway stretches 18 miles from Castroville, the “Artichoke Center of the World,” to Pacific Grove, “Butterfly Town USA.” The leg I walked – from Old Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey past Cannery Row to Lovers Point Park – is popular with runners, cyclists and in-line skaters. The well-used lane offers spectacular ocean views and glimpses of marine life and activity – from frolicking sea otters and preening shorebirds to kayakers and standup paddle-boarders.

• Old Fisherman’s Wharf juts into Monterey Harbor just off Custom House Plaza, all settings in scenes from the HBO series “Big Little Lies.” Perhaps one of the most recognizable, along with Big Sur’s iconic Bixby Bridge, is Paluca Trattoria, an Italian eatery overlooking a peaceful marina – the inspiration for the show’s Blue Blues Café. Peppered with seafood restaurants and souvenir shops, the wharf is a launch pad for ocean-going activities. While we didn’t take a whale-watching tour, we dined outdoors at Abalonetti Bar and Grill sharing a whole crab.

• Cannery Row offers glimpses into Monterey’s past as the one-time “Sardine Capital of the World.” The city changed the name of Ocean View Avenue to Cannery Row in 1958 in honor of Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, which described the city’s fish-packing district as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Today, it’s lined with shops, hotels, art galleries, wine tasting rooms, the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and eateries, such as the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop where I indulged in a $13.95 chocolate sundae. Interpretative signs, plaques, sculptures and murals pay homage to cannery workers, Cannery Row revitalizers, Steinbeck and his legendary friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Buildings Steinbeck described in his book, including Ricketts’s lab, still stand. A trio of tiny, original shacks remind visitors how difficult life was for the workers, often immigrants, who worked in the canneries before sardines disappeared from Monterey Bay after World War II as a result of overfishing.

• Learn more about Steinbeck in his hometown of Salinas, where the National Steinbeck Center anchors Main Street. Explore the author’s life and works through a video, timeline, interpretative exhibits and artifacts before walking a couple of blocks to his birthplace and childhood home. The Queen Anne-style Victorian Steinbeck House is now home to a restaurant.

• The bustling Farmers Market at Old Monterey Marketplace teems with vendors selling a wide range of organic fruits and vegetables, freshly cut and potted flowers, arts and crafts and street food. It operates Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. October through April, staying open an hour later May through September. After perusing the 3½ blocks of tables topped with pastries, persimmons, strawberries, the area’s famous artichokes and more, consider grabbing gourmet pub grub and a pint or two at Alvarado Street Brewery. Look for its tropical Mai Tai PA and Coco Lime Time featuring the brewery’s Milkshake Double IPA as its base.

• The modern, bicycle-themed Monterey roaster Captain + Stoker had lines out the door both mornings I stopped here for lattés, an almond croissant and biscuit sandwich, but it was worth the wait. So was the line at Alta Bakery and Café, located in Monterey’s recently restored historic Cooper-Molera Adobe building, where I enjoyed a lavender latté and arugula, prosciutto and cheese sandwich in the sunny back courtyard. The no-frills Paris Bakery, also in Monterey, is a great place to get a croque monsieur, pain au chocolat, éclair, napoleon or any other French-inspired pastry or cookie.

• Asilomar State Beach and Coastal Trail, adjacent to the Links at Spanish Bay golf course, offers an easy walk on a well-maintained pathway and boardwalk that winds past sandy dunes and rocky tide pools and spectacular ocean views – as long as you’re there before the marine layer sets in.

• For more jaw-dropping views, including the famous Lone Cypress, pay the $11.25-per-vehicle admission fee for Pebble Beach’s scenic tour along 17-Mile Drive.

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