MONTEREY — Monterey is the cradle of California civilization.
It was the capital of Alta California under both the Spanish and Mexican flags.
It was the capital of the short-lived Bear Republic when that banner was hoisted in 1846 above the Customs House — of which a carefully restored version dominates Monterey’s Historical Plaza. And it became the capital of California as a territory after the Mexican-American War.
Given Monterey’s mellow weather one can’t help but wonder what things would be like today if after admission to the union in 1851 the state capital stayed in Monterey instead of bouncing to San Jose, and then Vallejo, and then Benicia before settling in Sacramento in 1853.
Sacramento at the time was midway between California’s biggest city — San Francisco — and the all-important Gold Country. Southern California and Los Angeles were mere backwaters at the time.
Monterey also boasted many of California firsts including the first theater, public library, public building, publicly funded school, newspaper, and printing press.
Today Monterey is an escape for many with such attractions as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Fishermen’s Wharf, and Cannery Row where the likes of John Steinbeck toiled in the fishing industry that depleted the bay of its once dense schools of sardines, and touches such as Dennis the Menace Playground Park that’s a tribute to the comic strip’s creator Hank Ketcham.
Monterey has its share of top-notch restaurants — including a number with stunning views of the bay — and shopping opportunities.
It is also at the heart of a number of other manmade attractions.
There’s Pacific Grove next door with its oceanside park promenade and abundance of bed and breakfasts within storybook Victorian homes.
The neighbor to the south is the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea that inspired the late Thomas Kinkade, known as the “painter of light.”
Carmel’s village center is overflowing with 17th and 18th century British inspired architecture with equally quaint shops and restaurants. Be warned. Carmel is as pricey as it looks.
Then there is the world famous Pebble Beach Golf Course where 18 holes will set you back $550 per person plus a $45 per person cart fee for those that are not guests of the course hotels.
You can travel the legendary 17-Mile Drive with its stunning vistas and equally impressive homes for $10.50 per vehicle. The gate fee is reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at all Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, excluding the Pebble Beach Market. It is open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
Monterey is home to the storied Monterey Jazz Festival (for info go to www.montereyjazzfestival.com) and next door to the home of one of the world’s premier car shows when it comes to rare luxury, power, and sport cars — the Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance (go to www.pebblebeachconcours.net for more info).
You also will find the Laguna Seca Raceway now known as Mazda Raceway, where world class racers on motorcycles and in cars tackle the 2.238-mile course featuring 180 feet in elevation change and two downhill plunging corkscrew changes. This is also were the Monterey Jazz Festival is held. Race information is available at www.mazdaraceway.com.
Monterey is also home to a healthy winemaking industry. It boasts the nation’s largest vineyard — it is the third largest in the world — in the form of the 8,500-acre San Bernabe Vineyards. The vineyard has a strong 209 link as it is owned by the Manteca-based Delicato Vineyards.
Monterey is also the gateway to fabled Big Sur, its Bohemian culture, and unmatched rugged California coastline.
On the way to Big Sur is the place some call “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world” that’s better known as Point Lobos State Reserve.
It’s a place you can whale watch without leaving dry land between December and April. It’s a year-round stopping point for orcas and is home to sea otters, harbor seals, elephant seals, and sea lions.
On land there are gray foxes, raccoons, coyotes, skunks, and nocturnal mountain lions. Sightings have been made of weasels, deer, bobcats, badgers, and rabbits.
The reserve is a bird lovers’ paradise. The long list includes California quail, American kestrel, red-tailed hawks. Anna’s hummingbird, Brandt’s cormorant, black-crowned night herons and many more.
The submerged aquatic life at Point Lobos is one of the most varied in the world. Due to its popularity you have to call ahead to make a reservation by dialing 1-831-824-8413.
There are some of the best hiking trails in Monterey County plus the Whaler’s Cabin Museum.
The biggest draw for most people is being able to explore numerous tidal pools.
There is no charge for walk-ins. The best parking — and most convenient parking — requires a $10 entrance fee.