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Slow for the Views

Changes abound in Monterey County, but the old charms remain.

SLIDESHOW

The main hot tub at Bernardus Lodge and Spa in Carmel Valley.

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One of the seemingly infinite, priceless vistas from Point Lobos, just south of Carmel.

Photo: Courtesy of Bernardus Lodge and Spa

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Lighthouse Avenue, the quaint Victorian shopping area in downtown Pacific Grove.

Photo: Courtesy of SeeMonterey.com

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The industrial-chic interior at Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette in Marina.

Photo: Courtesy of Salt Wood Kichen and Oysterette

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A 1957 Porsche 356, one of the classic rides for rent through Monterey Touring Vehicles.

Photo: Robbie McCay

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Seventh and Dolores in Carmel-by-the-Sea is a handsome, airy contemporary steakhouse featuring a topflight wine list.

Photo: Courtesy of 7D

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Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette boasts a superb raw oyster bar and a seafood-focused menu in a funky-hip space overlooking Marina’s sand dunes.

Photo: Courtesy of Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette

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Poppy Hall, a cozy neighborhood bistro serving “California soul food” by chefs Philip Wojtowicz (Big Sur Bakery) and Brendan Esons (Big Sur Roadhouse).

Photo: Daniela de Sola

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Riders get a motor-powered assist up trails on e-bikes from Big Sur Adventures.

Photo: Joaquin Sullivan

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Cormorants flock to Point Lobos just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Photo: Wiki via user Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

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Bernardus Lodge and Spa, a high-end resort on 28 acres with spacious suites (from $950) and two-bedroom villas (from $2,500). Rooms from $325.

Photo: Courtesy of Bernardus Lodge and Spa

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The cozy 34-room motel the Getaway, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, was reopened in April by San Francisco’s PlumpJack Group; simple but elegant rooms start at $250.

Photo: Courtesy of the Getaway

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Guest cottages open onto the windswept Marina Dunes at the 60-room Sanctuary Beach Resort. Rooms from $279.

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An inventive, mezcal-focused cocktail menu anchors Cultura, Carmel’s most stylish bar.

Photo: Courtesy of John Cox

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A dozen house beers are on tap at Alvarado Street Brewery, an Old Monterey gastropub.

Photo: Courtesy of Alvarado Street Brewery

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Pinot noir and chardonnay are the stars at Folktale Winery, which features frequent live music.

Photo: Courtesy of Folktale Winery

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The sun is just setting behind the Santa Lucia Mountains, throwing off sorbet pinks and oranges, as my wife and I slide into the steaming infinity tub. We’re at a luxe Carmel Valley resort, looking out over neat rows of grapevines that edge right up to the steep hillsides cloaked in evening shadows. We’ve been in Monterey County for only a few hours, and already I’ve acquainted myself with the mixture of creature comforts and staggering natural beauty that has long beckoned weekenders.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory for most Bay Areans, not by a long shot. One of my earliest childhood memories is of stomping around the tide pools at Asilomar during a weekend with my aunts and uncles at the boho resort. That was the 1980s—my mother-in-law remembers staying in little cabins on Carmel Beach as long ago as the 1940s. And even today, there’s a timelessness to the sand dunes around Seaside and Monterey, the dewdropped redwood canopy that swallows up 17-Mile Drive, and the gentle roll of the hills in Carmel Valley. It’s not at all hard to close your eyes and picture yourself blissing out under the sun with a Steinbeck novel, the fog gathering in the distance. But times change, and tastes with them, and in its way—languidly, in not much of a hurry—this region has altered too. I’ve come to take stock of how.

Already, I’ve found the best view in the house: the one from the hot tub where I’m nursing my second drink, at the highest point on the property at Bernardus Lodge and Spa. The resort underwent a full renovation and expansion in 2016, and what had been a charming ranch-style spot was reborn as a lavish 73-room retreat complete with spa facilities, a dozen 1,050-square-foot suites, two 2,100-square-foot villas, and amenities galore, including two-­person soaking tubs, eight fire pits, and even a croquet court. The edgeless infinity tub, perched uphill from the estate vineyard and vegetable garden, is an especially nice touch.

Relaxing though it is—I would have no trouble lounging here all week—I’m committed to scouting what else is new around these parts. And so, after the last sliver of sun disappears, we set out for dinner.

Tonight, that’s at Seventh and Dolores, the Carmel-by-the-Sea steakhouse that opened in June 2017 and is operated by chef Todd Fisher, also of nearby Folktale Winery. The restaurant is smack-dab in the middle of downtown Carmel, among the frou-frou boutiques, floral B&Bs, and Frenchified bistros that have been here since Goddess knows when. Carmel dining has long pandered to the moules-et-frites tourist crowds that flock in each summer, and this white-tablecloth establishment, housed in an airy, high-ceilinged former bank building, doesn’t quite subvert that stereotype. But it does freshen things up with California-cuisine twists such as a burger made from Niman Ranch dry-aged beef, filet mignon, and brisket, whipped with bone marrow, finished with cognac-roasted onions, comté, roasted tomato, and aioli, and served on toasted brioche.

Elsewhere, similarly sly injections of Bay Area dining sensibilities have livened up otherwise comfortably set-in-their-ways locales. North of Monterey, in the hamlet of Marina, chef David Baron (formerly of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn and Coi) has transformed a scuzzy-around-the-edges roadhouse into the seafood haven Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette, which opened in late August 2017 and has since drawn visitors from as far afield as Silicon Valley and the South Bay. Recycled-wood floors, a giant metallic fireplace, and a raw bar make the space inviting and lively. But beyond the Insta-worthy interior, the draw here is the oysters, served raw or grilled and dressed with a mignonette made from kimchi butter, Granny Smith gelée, finger limes, or béarnaise-and-tarragon pesto. We try each, and I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite—as with dogs and children, every oyster is perfect.

Closer to the main tourist hub of Monterey’s Cannery Row but culturally eons away, chefs Philip Wojtowicz and Brendan Esons’s Poppy Hall opened earlier this year in Pacific Grove—a town that was founded as an exceptionally square Methodist retreat and to this day retains elements justifying that characterization. Another cozy-hip California restaurant, Poppy Hall features spins on old standbys, such as a smoked salmon–wrapped trout with beluga lentils and braised greens. Both it and Salt Wood would register back home as welcome neighborhood eateries; here they feel more like the avant-garde of a foodie revolution.

Still, dining isn’t everything. For many people, cars are. The over-the-top auto show known as Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is celebrating its 68th anniversary this year, drawing in car and motorcycle collectors and enthusiasts from around the world to see and be seen in priceless whips. “Great views and lots of money” is how Robb Talbott explains the region’s popularity with car crazies. We’re inside the Moto Talbott, his recently opened motorcycle museum in Carmel Valley, where he keeps 170 classic, concept, and outlandish rides on display, including an art deco 1925 BMW R37 that has twice won first place in the Concours.

Talbott isn’t the only one tapping into the classic-automobile market here: In Monterey, husband and wife Heather and Rob Gardner recently launched Monterey Touring Vehicles, which rents out a range of jaw-dropping rides to day-trippers. As we enter the couple’s garage, we ogle a 1981 DeLorean, a 1970 Corvette Stingray, and a 1949 Willy’s Overland Jeepster. But my heart is set on the candy-apple-red ’57 Porsche 356 Speedster, and after a test lap around the block, we’re flying down the coast toward lunch in Big Sur.

Top down, we dive into and out of the fog, around the breakneck bends, and along the sheer cliffs with the ocean spread out before us. We detour to Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch Hotel and prowl up and down Carmel Valley Road, where tourists point and honk at us in approval. We pull over no fewer than five times to take photos.

Our next adventure is a very different kind of tour. Following the closure of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur, Joaquin Sullivan began investing in electric bicycles so he and his friends could get to and from the few shops in town, on the closed-to-car-traffic stretch of Highway 1. Soon he was renting them out, and when the bridge finally reopened earlier this year, he expanded his nascent endeavor, Big Sur Adventures, into a bike rental shop in Pacific Grove. Today, he and his team lead e-bike tours throughout the county, including their most popular trek, through Pacific Grove and along 17-Mile Drive. The three-and-a-half-hour round-trip ride passes Asilomar State Beach, Bayonet Golf Course, and eye-wateringly pungent Bird Island before climbing the famously tony stretch of 17-Mile Drive lined with multimillion-dollar homes. We finally stop at the lookout point for the Lone Cypress, a 250-year-old Monterey cypress standing on an outcropping of rock in the Pacific. This is, after all, what people have been coming here for ages to see.

With that in mind, my wife and I wake up early the next morning and set out for Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just south of Carmel. We scramble over rocks and along trails overgrown with bright-orange lichen. At one point a doe emerges 10 yards ahead, as indifferent to us as the sunbathing sea lions down on the beach. We crane our necks and squint our eyes to see the cormorants and pelicans that fly above the seals bobbing among the waves. Making our way to the farthest edge of Sea Lion Point, we peer through binoculars out to sea. It looks the same as I remember it from when I was a kid, the fog already gathering offshore, ready to roll in.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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