When Bay Area locals talk about getting away for a weekend in Monterey, they’re usually referring to the Monterey Peninsula and its sister cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Visitors to the area typically bounce between one highlight to the next (mostly in Monterey), and may not pay much attention to differences. But believe it or not, each of these bordering towns has a distinct character about them. Monterey is the big sister with the most activity and biggest attractions, while Carmel is the old-money sophisticate with rows of high-end shops, galleries and wine bars on its leafy main drag.
Pacific Grove (or PG), on the other hand, is like a quiet nature retreat of old Victorian inns, craggy tide pools and Monterey pines growing landward from the near constant winds that blow in from the Pacific. There may be some truth to its self-proclaimed “America’s Last Hometown” nickname – it feels a little lost in time with so many historic homes. But it’s certainly “California’s Last Dry Town”; PG was dry until 1969, and to this day there are no stand-alone bars.
Which is one reason we made a new friend, Craig, on a recent trip here. We were staying at Asilomar Hotel and Conference Grounds, playing pool at a billiards table in the main hall, when a guy showed up with his dog and a pool cue and called next. He lived across the street, he said, and would often saunter over on a weekend night for a game of pool and a beer (one that he brought with him). The hotel has a bar/café, but otherwise there aren’t a lot of options in the town for a guy like Craig.
Nearly all of PG’s retail businesses – restaurants, shops, coffee houses – are located along a stretch of Lighthouse Avenue. It’s a wide street, wide enough for a strip of parking in the center, and “Main Street USA” type buildings set along wide sidewalks. We happened to visit during the annual Good Old Days street fair, and did a spin past all the booths set up on the street selling arts and crafts. But most other days there’s rarely any pedestrians about, and all that empty street space doesn’t help dispel its sleepy impression.
But that’s also what I like about Pacific Grove, the peacefulness of it. You can stand on a corner and look up at the crystal blue sky (on a clear day, there’s no bluer sky you’ll ever see), the sun deep and golden, feel the cool ocean breeze, the sway of deep-green cypress, the sound of sea birds and often a glimpse of the ocean. There’s not much here to distract you, nothing to get in the way of all that splendid nature. PG is a great example of a city in tune with its natural surroundings.
The attractions for visitors are in keeping with this. Asilomar is a popular place to stay in PG, but it’s more than a hotel. Originally opened in 1913 as a YWCA camp, the sprawling grounds dotted with buildings are now part of the National Park Service, and include Asilomar State Beach. We followed the boardwalk through protected sand dunes and scrub to the white sand beach, and spotted deer grazing just outside our balcony. None of the rooms here have TVs, so the main activities include the swimming pool and the main hall – a beautiful stone and wood Craftsman building with leather chairs by a large stone fireplace, an antique piano and the pool tables. There’s also a stack of board games and puzzles. It’s a retreat space really, and when we cracked open the sliding glass door at night we were lulled to sleep by the sound of waves.
What else to do? Just drive along the coast, on Ocean View Blvd, and pull off at one of the many sandy parking areas. Climb the boulders along the shore, explore the tide pools, or watch the waves crash in a sea spray against the rocks. We toured the historic and still functioning Point Pinos Lighthouse, which is also a museum. In the past, we’ve also visited the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, which is basically a stand of towering eucalyptus trees in one of PG’s neighborhoods. In the winter though, the monarchs flood the park and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions and let you look through binoculars at the clusters of butterflies.
For more excitement, or bars and restaurants, head to Monterey. But you’ll find yourself happy to be back in Pacific Grove at the end of the day.