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Discovering the Monterey Coast

Beauty, adventure, great food and wine await

Monterey's Cannery Row is much more hospitable to visitors today than it was when local hero John Steinbeck wrote about its Depression-era denizens.
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Tim Fish

Striking scenery is just one reason to visit the Monterey Coast. Few destinations in California have such wide appeal and diversity, offering history, outdoor adventures and wine country, as well as fine dining and lodging opportunities more often found in large cities.

Located about 120 miles south of San Francisco, the Monterey Peninsula is the centerpiece of the region, anchoring the south shore of Monterey Bay. Most of Monterey County's residents live inland and to the north, while the coastal area is sparsely populated. The city of Monterey has just 30,000 residents, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Valley, Pebble Beach and Big Sur have far fewer.

That means there's room to explore. The Spanish were doing just that when they founded Monterey in 1770. Monterey was the capital of California under Spanish and Mexican rule, until the United States captured the city in 1846. By the early 1900s, fishing was king, and Cannery Row supplied the country with canned sardines and salmon. Unfortunately, overfishing led to the collapse of the industry in the mid-1950s.

Spanish missionaries made the first wines in the region in the late 1700s. The modern wine era began here in the 1960s, with a few stalwarts such as Chalone, but most of the region's wine was blended into the mass-market bottlings of Paul Masson and others. "Even when I came here in 1997," says winemaker Peter Figge, of Figge Cellars, "85 percent of the fruit was trucked outside the county."

That's beginning to change. Monterey County is large, with about 40,000 acres of vineyards; its winegrowing centerpiece is Santa Lucia Highlands. Since the late 1990s, the Highlands have gained national attention thanks to the success of vineyards such as Pisoni, Mer Soleil and Garys', as well as a wave of new producers, including Roar and Morgan.

In recent years, a host of small wineries, like Figge Cellars, have set up shop. They provide visitors to the Monterey Coast with plenty of opportunities to discover new things. You can taste a range of wines in both Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley—two areas where a number of wineries have opened tasting rooms in close proximity to one another.

Beyond wine touring, there's much to do. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is among the best zoological institutions in the world. Historic sites abound, and beach hikes and whale-watching excursions are popular. Pebble Beach is a golf destination, with world-class courses that hug the ocean. The region has two of the most breathtaking scenic drives on the California Coast: the 17-Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula, and Highway 1, which traverses the rugged and beautiful terrain of Big Sur south of Carmel.

If you want to be pampered at a hotel or first-class restaurant, the Monterey Coast doesn't disappoint. Visitors have a host of options, from the secluded luxury of the Post Ranch Inn, in Big Sur, to the good-value InterContinental Clement Monterey, on the piers of lively Cannery Row.

The dining scene is surprisingly sophisticated, including Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurants Sierra Mar and Marinus, while another nine restaurants hold a Best of Award of Excellence. (For a complete list of area winners, see page 56.) Wendy Heilmann, Pebble Beach Resort's director of wine and spirits, sees a growing interest in food and wine from locals and visitors alike.

In the Tap Room at Pebble Beach Lodge, where golfers like to spend big after a good round, Heilmann sells a lot of cult wines, including Screaming Eagle, and top Burgundies such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but curiosity extends beyond those at the other restaurants she handles. "We see a lot more interest in wines of this region," Heilmann says. "The wines have really started to come up on the radar."

The same could be said for the Monterey Coast in general. It is fast becoming a must-visit destination on the West Coast.

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