Embraced by the Bay: On California's Monterey Peninsula, Discover a Passion for Fresh Food and Colorful History

Article excerpt

The Pacific Ocean is different at the mouth of Monterey Bay. Waves hitting the rocks at Point Pinos seem just a little bluer, more luminescent than elsewhere along the coast, with the golden ridges of the Santa Lucia Range as a backdrop. The air is charged by transcendent ocean mist, or perhaps by the legends of past resident spirits--writers John Steinbeck. Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Austin.

With its poetic beauty and awesome estates, the Monterey Peninsula has an ethereal, almost unattainable quality. But one thing here is certain: It all starts with the water.

These waters have been feeding voyagers for thousands of years, since the Costanoan, an early Native American tribe, used tule-reed boats to harvest mollusks and hunt seals in the bay. So when we went searching for the mythic place and its real counterpart, we started at the sea.

We paddled out in kayaks from Cannery Row, and almost immediately marine life surrounded us: a sea otter popped up, then another--they are really just bundles of charisma wrapped in fur--dark heads in the kelp. California sea lions porpoised through the waves to circle our boats. Giant kelp wrapped long green tentacles around our paddles.

It was a prescient reminder of what's important in this place: In our wanderings here, we discovered a peninsula still deeply wedded to natural rhythms, from restaurants changing menus with the harvest to a lighthouse historian still marking the season by the tides. Towns flourish here not despite stewardship of the region's natural beauty but because of it.

Here we highlight three communities that, together, represent the diversity of experiences waiting to be found along the Monterey Peninsula.

MONTEREY

Cooking just like Mom did

The peninsula's largest city, Monterey was the original political, economic, and settlement hub for the state. It's home to Steinbeck's famed Cannery Row, now a shopping and hotel district, and the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium.

In the early 1900s, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese fishermen plied Monterey's waters for sardines. In one season, about 250,000 tons of the cannable creatures were taken from the water--but the population crashed in the 1940s.

Today the bay is once again producing a bounty, with the rebounded sardine catch as well as squid, anchovies, rockfish, and mackerel. Brothers Johnny and David DiGirolamo grew up working in their family's restaurant, helping to serve fish their Sicilian father had caught. A U.S. Navy gunner in World War II, he returned to Monterey to marry a Japanese American nurse who had joined the Red Cross to escape internment camp. Both parents taught the boys to Cook; now they run one of the city's most popular seafood eateries, Monterey's Fish House.

"We've always tried to do things thinking, 'How would Mom do it,'" says chef David. "We serve our mussels with marinara, which is very Italian, but they also have chili and sake, from our mother."

Monterey is full of culinary gems like the Fish House. Restaurants line Cannery Row, where packinghouses once distributed the bay's harvest across the country.

Visitors can try making dishes like lobster cream sauce and sauteed flounder at the four-year-old Culinary Center of Monterey. From the kitchen, you can see the sea--a view that can't help but enhance the flavor of the food.

PACIFIC GROVE

Surveying the sea

Keeping an eye on the sea has been the job of 14 successive keepers at Point Pinos Lighthouse since it opened in 1855 in Pacific Grove, northwest of Monterey. The second lighthouse to be lit in California helps guide mariners at the bay's often foggy entrance.

You can tour the whitewashed eight-room structure of the lighthouse, where docent Jerry McCaffery, author of a history of the building called Lighthouse: Point Pinos California, will direct you to the same view Robert Louis Stevenson admired in 1879. …