Stimulating Relaxation in Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey and Pacific Grove
By Mark Owen, Travel Contributor
At the age of 39 I had never been to California; a trip was definitely in order. After some consultation with Ron Kapon who wrote of his trip there in 2009, I decided to follow up with a visit of my own to the Carmel/Monterey area. As a New Yorker who'd never seen the West Coast before it proved to be the perfect choice for an introduction to America's Pacific and the California coastline.
I flew into the Monterey Peninsula Airport, a small and easy to navigate location with friendly staff. Even the bathrooms were clean. 15 minutes after walking off the plane I had my bag in the trunk of my rental car and was on my way to Highway 1, heading south towards Big Sur.
Imagine being caught in the hustle bustle chaos of Manhattan's concrete jungle for some time. Then you take a comfortable trip by plane to the West Coast. Immediately after that you are driving with the windows down, the smell of the ocean and clean air rushing thru and suddenly you realize you are driving along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It was, truly, a perfect introduction.
The 47-mile drive south to Esalen took roughly 90 minutes. If you are a first time visitor like I was you will want to add time to pull over at several of the many available pull offs offering wonderful vistas for pictures or just appreciation; I stopped at least 8 times on the drive south with a cloudy coastline for pictures.
Esalen is both a retreat center and educational institute that is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. They offer a myriad of workshops for personal and professional growth including organizational leadership, the arts, psychology, spiritualty, sexuality, physical and emotional recovery... The list goes on and on. Peruse their newly designed website for more details. Esalen is also a retreat, space permitting, for those who simply wish to recharge their sensibilities with access to hot spring pools or massage right on the shore, yoga, tasty and healthy food grown and prepared on site and the wonderful ambiance that Big Sur provides. There is no cellular signal nearby and wireless in the dining area is not active during meals. It is truly possible to put the world at arm's length at Esalen.
The Bixby Bridge on the Big Sur coastline.
A view of Cannery Row form Kayaks' view.
I chose a Friday-Sunday workshop concentrating on posture and energy, which proved an invaluable start to a relaxing trip. The workshop was taught by Harvey Deutsch, a yogi and physical therapist who is owner as well as practitioner at Red Hawk Physical Therapy in San Francisco. I learned a great deal about how to better stand, sit, breathe and focus with a pursuit for better health and mental acuity. I'm sitting with better posture and attention as I write this as one result!
I took advantage of the hot spring tubs several times and they are greatly relaxing and restorative. They are clothing optional which, to my surprise, proved to be quite confortable. It's all about the ocean, the mineral water and relaxation. One might hear sea otters playing in the surf just below or a whale call in the distance like I did. My one regret was not fitting in an Esalen massage though I plan to indulge on my next trip out.
Sunday afternoon after the last workshop session and lunch I packed up, checked out and headed back north towards Monterey/Carmel. I was graced with open sunshine that transformed the Big Sur coastline into a different beauty causing me to make more stops on the roadside. About 10 miles south of Carmel I had an early dinner at the Rocky Point Restaurant which sits right on the water. It offers outside dining as well as interior seating with windows along its waterside. The menu ranges from great seafood appetizers to a Filet Mignon entr?e with all the trimmings.
With my navigating iPhone low on power I hurried the last miles to Carmel with just enough time to check into the Sandpiper Inn and a quick one block walk to the southern end of Carmel beach to watch the sunset. The sunset was spectacular and began my lonesome yet romantic visit to Carmel/Monterey. The Sandpiper Inn features comfortably rustic d?cor with early California architecture. I fell asleep surfing around the virtual Carmel/Monterey using their free wireless.
Monday morning I took breakfast at the Inn and took a walk around the neighborhood, filled with beautiful and mostly empty multi-million dollar homes. On the advice of other Inn visitors I walked to the south end of Scenic Road and followed its loop around and back up towards Carmel Beach. It proved to be good advice as I got to see Carmel River State Beach, a beautiful stretch bereft of all the visiting tourists.
A family on the grounds at Esalen.
Considering the shore at Esalen.
After a 5-minute drive mid-morning I made my way over to Hofsas House where I checked in and met the General Manager Carrie Theis, who helped me settle in. Hofsas House was founded by Carrie Theis's grandmother Donna Hofsas 60 years ago and has always been managed by the family, with Carrie as general manager since 2000. The main hotel was built in 1957 and today features 38 rooms on several levels on an inclined slope, an unusual property for Carmel that allows a lot of light, air and large deck views of the sea. Enjoying its large lot size Hofsas House includes a year-round heated swimming pool, an unusual luxury in Carmel by the Sea. Other features include dry saunas, one each for men and women, ample off street parking which I must say is an area luxury, free wireless in all the rooms and most of the property as well as continental breakfast which can, upon request, be delivered to your room. Also, "All of the spacious rooms have cable television, telephones with voice mail, coffee makers, hair dryers and private bathrooms with such amenities as shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and a vanity kit. Fireplaces, wet bars, kitchens or private balconies are available in some rooms. Deluxe rooms have microwaves and refrigerators. Available upon request are irons and ironing boards." Carrie and her family run a family hotel that is family friendly all while making guests feel like family.
Settling into my room on the top level and facing the sea I was greeted by a mini kitchen featuring a bottle of chilled local Chardonnay called Ventana, paired with crackers and two local cheeses from The Cheese Shop. The cheeses were East of Eden and Domain du Village. Continuing my theme as the lonesome romantic my room also offered a king size bed and a cast iron stove large enough for a vigorous fire. After some wine and cheese I unpacked for the evening and went out to see the town.
Armed with a Carmel Wine Walk by-the-sea Passport I went out to explore. The Passport offers complimentary tastings featuring local wineries at Galante Vineyards, Caraccioli Cellars, Figge Cellars, Vino Napoli, Scheid Vineyards, Manzoni Cellars and Wrath Wines. Please note these tasting locations have different hours/days of availability, so if you want to see them all plan ahead to fit your itinerary, especially if you are combining the wine tastings with gallery hopping and shopping.
The tide coming in at Esalen.
Bay seals sunning near the Monterey Aquarium.
As a stone carver I really enjoyed exploring some of the many galleries and studio/galleries. One can very easily spend a day or even an entire weekend looking at the art and craft work in Carmel by the Sea. Perhaps struck by the local partnering theme I saw at Hofsas House, I really enjoyed the Carmel Art Association, the second oldest operating non-profit artists cooperative featuring over 120 local artists. If I lived in the area, I'd try to be a member.
Filled with sufficient wine, color and local texture I hurried back to my room at Hofsas House to get refreshed before going to Dinner at Mundaka Restaurant, named for the hill surf town in the Basque region of northern Spain where the owner Gabe Georis once studied and surfed. Mundaka offers a tapas style menu of great variety and a well paired wine list as well as a dangerous cocktail menu; I perused all three to great effect. The lovely and interesting interior is hard to describe though my best effort that evening was a combination of reclaim modern, rustic Spanish and a dollop of steam punk. With the assistance of my waiter I enjoyed a nice wine from the Canary Islands, Fronton de Oro, which paired well with the variety of tapas I enjoyed that included both red meats and fish. Please note that on Mondays Mundaka hosts a Spanish guitar player both talented and experienced. Between courses I approached the bar to ask a question or three of the host who turned out to be the owner, Gabe Georis. He was very generous with his time and provided me with very helpful background on the history and community of Carmel. Beyond sated I returned to my room at Hofsas House where a nice fire, the remnants of wine and cheese and a full day in Carmel by the Sea brought me to sleep. Tuesday morning I took advantage of the in-room coffee maker enabling me to go down for breakfast, more coffee (alas) and a proper tour of Hofsas House with Carrie Theis before leaving for my next location.
By 11:30 AM I arrived at the Martine Inn that sits facing the water on Ocean View Boulevard in Pacific Grove. It is a short walk from there to Cannery Row and the Monterey Aquarium on one side and the Lovers Point Park and Pacific Grove Golf Course on the other. It is owned and operated by Don Martine, a local of 35 years who is a sports car and engine restorer, particularly MG's. At the age of 77 he continues to race the cars he maintains in vintage races. He has been a city councilman, chairman of the Beautification Committee, Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and was awarded Citizen of the Year. He is the founding president of the California Association of Bed and Breakfast Inns (CABBI) and is a member of the California Hotel and Lodging Association Hall of Fame. The Martine Inn's web site describes it as a living museum, a place where guests can experience the lifestyle "as a wealthy person 120 years ago." Don Martine oversaw and conducted a $1 million restoration of the Victorian mansion in 1972. "The Martine Inn is now furnished with period antiques ranging from 1800 to 1920."
At first blush I wasn't able to get past Mr. Martine's professional reserve, though he was very informative during the tour of what is, really, a living museum. Picture if you will a large period mansion that thoroughly maintains an era from yesteryear's heyday. You are walking through it with its owner who knows each piece of silver in every service and every antique in every room, which is every item in every room. The owner speaks casually with absentminded and utter familiarity and you struggle with the impossible task of perceiving all that you are seeing as you move on. That was my experience, walking through history with an impressive figure of a guide in Don Martine.
The ocean with beach at Big Sur, driving along Highway 1.
The pristine Carmel State Beach after breakfast.
I fetched my bags and Mr. Martine guided me to my room, the Malarin. The Inn has several categories of rooms: the Ocean View, Fireside, Romance, Intimate and Family Suite rooms. Each room has a profile page describing the furnishings with detailed pictures. The Malarin is a Fireside room that included an 1893 Mahogany American Eastlake King bed headboard and a 1900 5?-foot claw foot tub with shower, among many others. Seeing pictures is a start, but visiting is the surefire way to understand how well Mr. Martine has created history you get to visit.
Then Mr. Martine asked if I would be interested in seeing his "shop," where he restores and maintains his MG's. I naturally jumped at the chance and was treated to a Don Martine who spoke passionately about something he loves, maintaining/restoring vintage MG cars and racing them. He literally knows each car from nut and bolt, as well as how best to drive each car strategically in a race. I found myself wishing to have lived in the era when those cars were ascendant. Like Don Martine, they really don't make them like they used to. The visit to his shop was a highlight to my trip. Several of his cars are at the Inn to be enjoyed, if not driven, by visiting guests. A list of the cars on property at any given time are shown on their website.
With the afternoon at hand I walked the short distance to Cannery Row, a hotspot for shopping, hotels, food and fun activities ranging from miniature golf, wine tastings and spas. On the way there from Martine Inn I passed by the Edward F. Ricketts State Marine Conservation area, home to a resurgent population of California sea lions. As I wasn't expecting them on a casual walk, when I saw a host of harbor seals sunning on the beach I stood gawking; I'm an east coaster. While gawking I was in the way of fellow visitors who had rented bikes and surreys, four wheeled bikes for several people. Out of Cannery Row there are also kayak rentals, kayak tours as well as stand up paddling, which looks challenging to me but I'm fairly tall at 6'4.
With the afternoon fast disappearing I hustled to the Carmel Valley Athletic Club in Carmel Valley, roughly a 15-minute drive from Pacific Grove with tourist traffic midday. Though I'm not a member of the club, visitors are able to make appointments to "America's 1st Co-Ed Relaxation Spa," called Refuge. They call it "your 3 best hours in Carmel" and I'm hard pressed to argue if your goal is relaxation. I was greeted by Axel Binneboese, the general manager of the CVAC. He explained the philosophy behind Refuge, its effectiveness at helping people achieve relaxation and strongly encouraged me to apply their repetitive cycle properly.
View of the ocean from the Malarin Room at Martine Inn.
A street view of Hofsas House.
Refuge touts a hydro thermal cycle, which is practiced thusly: first heating up for 5-10 minutes in a vast co-ed cedar sauna, a co-ed eucalyptus steam bath or one of 6 sparkling, UV cleansed, thermal mineral pools; second is the cool down in either one of two cool plunge pools the temperature of the Pacific Ocean or one of two cold (COLD) pools the temperature of an icy river for 10-60 seconds; third you relax somewhere in the available "2 acres of serene, silent, indoor & outdoor relaxation overlooking the Santa Lucia Preserve" for 10-15 minutes. That includes zero gravity chairs in quiet rooms with soothing ethereal music, where I witnessed and experienced incidental naps. Refuge recommends that the full benefits come from repeating the sequence 3-4 times and that a euphoric yet calm and relaxed state is often achieved in this practice. With Axel's encouragement in mind I did the sequence 5 times and my only regret was not having scheduled a massage at Refuge immediately after. Silence is part of this practice, so cell phones and chatter are specifically discouraged. The pricing currently is $39 for Refuge admission, $60 in addition for a massage and $12 for a robe rental if you don't have one while traveling. Bathing suits are required. Sandals are available for purchase as is water. For my next visit to Refuge I'll bring my bathing suit, robe, flip-flops, large water bottle and sunglasses. You can't bring food in so I strongly recommend a snack waiting in the car. The relaxation practice at Refuge is effective and I think beneficial for all walks of life. Axel, when are you bringing this to Manhattan?
After my very successful relaxation at Refuge I headed back to Carmel for dinner. Yet again I found myself solo at a romantic establishment called, to deepen the irony, Casanova. Casanova is on 5thAvenue between Mission and San Carlos. It is a self-described landmark of Carmel and is rich with history. I did not know beforehand, but Casanova is home to Van Gogh's Table, the table at which the artist enjoyed his meals at the Auberge Ravoux, still in operation today, where he lived in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris. I rarely indulge in a digestif, but at Casanova I closed the evening properly with a Single Malt Whiskey. Back at the Martine Inn I again fell asleep with a crackling fireplace.
Wednesday morning I enjoyed a full breakfast at Martine Inn and marveled at the silver and china service while enjoying the broad view of the ocean from the dining room. After another stop to gawk at the harbor seals, I met a friend with her three young sons at the Monterey Aquarium, giving me the chance to enjoy the children's introduction to the aquarium as well. Who knew 7 year-olds are such good photographers as tourists? Three hours, many pictures and "wow's!" later we all piled into a minivan for the 17-Mile Drive, the scenic road through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach. If you enjoy golf, the ocean, mansions or natural beauty I recommend this 17-mile stretch. If you enjoy them all then it is a must. We stopped at Pebble Beach where I picked up a golf cap for my father. As my friend grew up in Pebble Beach she gave me a tour, showing me many of the grand mansions that her father designed and built. It was an insider's treat to a unique community.
A nighttime view of the pool and decks at Mariposa Inn.
Our next stop was the nearby Fisherman's Wharf, formerly a wholesale fish market into the 1960's when local commercial fishing tapered off, and a major tourist attraction today. The wharf has many seafood restaurants including casual, open-air clam bars as well as formal indoor venues where diners can enjoy views of the bay. If you want souvenirs the Wharf also has gift shops, jewelry stores, art galleries and candy shops. We went open-air and enjoyed clam chowder and fish & chips with a mandatory stop with the kids at one of the candy stores.
After parting with my friend and her children I headed 10 minutes over to my last night's abode, the Mariposa Inn and Suites, located on Munras Avenue in Monterey. Check-in was easy and I rapidly found myself getting familiar with my room, one of the Inn's Executive King Suites featuring King-size bed with luxury linens, Gas log fireplace, Separate sitting area, Microwave & refrigerator, In-room safe, Desk with media lamp, Wired & wireless internet, Two flat-panel HD televisions with cable TV & HBO (one in sitting area and one in bedroom), Complimentary "Healthy Beginnings" Continental Breakfast, I-Pod docking station/alarm clock, Complimentary local phone calls, Single-brew coffeemaker with Wolfgang Puck Coffees, Iron and ironing board, Ionic hairdryer, Plush bathrobes.
The room was very comfortable and while the pool was tempting I only had one more day to explore the area this visit. My first stop was right across Munras Avenue at the Del Monte Center, a shopping center with several dozen retail stores, eateries and services including UPS and a Whole Foods Market. But all I needed was socks from the GAP and an iPhone charger from the Apple Store. Then I headed back into Carmel by the Sea with my Wine Walk by-the-sea Passport. After several glasses of wine and more galleries visited I decided to simply stroll along the beach and watch Carmel's dusk approach. Dinner found me at Carmel by the Sea's Akaoni, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar on Mission and 6th Ave that several people had recommended. More than sated on Tempura and sushi I headed back to my room at the Mariposa Inn and yet again fell asleep in a King size bed, this last night the fire being a gas log fireplace and my iPhone playing music on the room's I-Pod docking station/alarm clock. After enjoying the Continental Breakfast the next morning and catching up on email with my iPad on the deck with wireless I took my leave of the Mariposa Inn and Suites and prepared to leave Carmel, Monterey and Pacific Grove.
My next visit to the area I'll bring a date to take advantage of the romantic and private settings I found at Hofsas House, Martine Inn and Mariposa Inn. Hofsas House is centrally located in Carmel by the Sea, making it easy to forget your car for a few days with so much nearby within walking distance. Martine Inn is right on the water, is itself an attraction and offers easy access to everything Pacific Grove and Monterey have to offer, with the Aquarium and Cannery Row just steps away. The Mariposa Inn is just off Highway 1, making it an easy launching point to anywhere in the area by car, though I'd likely next stay in one of its Spa Suites, which includes an in-room spa. Please see the links below for more information. Hofsas House, Martine Inn and Mariposa Inn and Suites all have local partnerships and specials, so take advantage of what may be available during your stay.
Other things on my To Do list for the next trip is Scuba Diving, renting a bike for a long coastal ride, hiking the Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park and Garland Ranch Regional Park, a kayak tour of Stillwater Cove, some sailing in the local waters and, of course, a round of golf.