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(2015 - Spring Issue)


I was standing in front of it, or should say, in it.

It was utterly ... visually stunning, though I came here without an image in mind. 

Soon after check-in at the Portola Hotel & Spa, I passed the historic adobes of Monterey, and the shops and restaurants of a Cannery Row I’d never known. This had been the sardine canning industry depicted in the novel Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, Monterey County’s great author from Salinas. I had come to the city’s main attraction: the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The aquarium’s gigantic undersea Kelp Forest tank teems with marine life including huge schools of silvery anchovies. A special exhibit features the astounding floral beauty of jellyfish. Elsewhere, otters cruise on their backs.

Sea Watch, a guide on sustainable catch initiated by the aquarium, has become the rule for the county’s leading restaurants like C restaurant at the InterContinental’s The Clement Monterey. Their kitchen works with smart choices such as fabulous rock cod, abalone and fresh calamari. Passionfish, a perennial favourite in adjacent Pacific Grove, orchestrates sea stewardship, impeccable seafood and Ted Walter’s precision cooking (rockfish with Japanese-style cucumber pickle). His wife, Cindy, embraces her fishing family roots, and was named 2008 California Woman of the Year for her passionate advocacy for marine sustainability.   

A Bounty of Pleasures

Blessed with Pebble Beach’s fabled golf courses, spectacular Big Sur, the Monterey Jazz Festival plus a sunny, warm, moderate climate year-round, Monterey County never lacks for visitors. Then recently, Wine Enthusiast magazine listed it among 2013’s Top Ten Wine Travel Destinations in the world. Reason to see why.

From Cannery Row, most Monterey attractions are barely a 30-minute drive. North to Elkhorn Slough Safari in Moss Landing, skipper Yohn Gideon and a naturalist take passengers on a fantastic two-hour pontoon ride to view huge sea lions, harbours seals, otters and many of the 300 species of birds in the area.

A few minutes southeast is the Salinas Valley, one of the world’s greatest fresh produce regions. Castroville is the Artichoke Capital of the World. Artisan and multinational growers based in this valley, known as the Salad Bowl of the World, harvest gargantuan lettuce. It’s the romaine and boxed arugula consumed in Canada throughout most of the year. In neighbouring Carmel Valley, organic giant Earthbound Farm began from a couple’s modest roadside stand. It’s still there. 

In the city of Salinas, I take Main Street to pretty Patria for vibrantly fresh salads, fried local artichokes and inventive flatbread pizzas.

Nearby, the National Steinbeck Center’s multimedia exhibits, memorabilia and film clips honour John Steinbeck. Books that triggered America’s conscience, such as East of Eden (Salinas) and Of Mice and Men (Soledad), told stories of migrant workers and the Mexican and Asian immigrants in Salinas and Cannery Row.

Farther south are the Santa Lucia Highlands, known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

At Hahn Family Wines in Soledad, visitors tour vineyards 300 metres up by ATV. It’s rocky soil with good drainage according to Andy Mitchell, director of viticulture. “We have a strong influence from Monterey Bay,” he tells me, describing how its waters cool the air transported by afternoon winds. “It gives us a really long growing season, which allows us to get true characteristics of the flavours.” Indeed.

Rich fruit, with minerality, acidity and tempered oak elevates Santa Lucia’s wines: Chardonnay (orchard, tropical fruit) and Pinot (black cherry, strawberry, truffle, tobacco). Hahn’s are among the best. Try the Hahn Winery range and excellent estate SLH wines (some available in Canada) and their exceptional limited release Lucienne Chardonnay (Alberta only) as well as the exquisite Hook Vineyard Lucienne Pinot with its strawberry and bushberry undertones and fine acidity.

The closest wine appellation to downtown Monterey, though, is Carmel Valley, minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea, home to Betty White, Doris Day and former town mayor Clint Eastwood. Its hotter sunny climate produces Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah wines available at tasting rooms among the chic town’s galleries and bistros. Carmel Valley Road also has tasting rooms plus wineries, such as Joyce Vineyards, which produces reserve and fresh fruit-forward wines.

Château Julien, a striking French Provincial château-style establishment, makes elegant wines including an award-winning flagship Merlot. Limited production Black Nova III shows sumptuous Malbec-Syrah fruit with crushed pepper and tannic allure. 

Sadly, except for widely imported Wente and J. Lohr’s Chardonnays from the Arroyo Seco appellation, the terrific wines such as Bernardus and Paraiso I’ve tried from Monterey’s nine AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) rarely come into Canada.

Even Lodge Restaurant at Carmel Valley Ranch has produced its own first vintage. Lodge, with a gardener, beekeeper, botanist and now a Pinot Noir with white pepper undertones, clearly thinks terroir.   

A refined rural elegance to recall a European auberge keeps the valley’s gorgeous Bernardus Lodge & Spa on several best lists for international hotels and resorts. Chef Cal Stamenov’s experience under masters such as Pierre Gagnaire and Masa Kobayashi shows at their superb Marinus. Eclectic ingredients shimmer through understated presentation and subtly complex flavours: hamachi sashimi with paddlefish and flying fish roe, delicate brioche crouton and ground espelette pepper; pillowy red abalone; chocolate mousse bombe with almond financier.

Highway to Heavenly Cuisine

The drive down Route 1 from Monterey alone draws world travellers. At magnificent Point Lobos State Reserve hiking trails pass cypress and Monterey pine and unusual coastal rock formations. Then on to Big Sur, cameras click, cliff after cliff on a route often rated best in the world. 

Ultra-luxurious Post Ranch Inn’s bungalows perch cliffside, balconies almost level with clouds—a view repeated at its Sierra Mar restaurant, open to the public. Chef John Cox’s modernist cuisine inventively transforms, in texture and form, superb ingredients bringing new tastes: purple sea urchin, garden egg and foraged sea salt.

At Big Sur Roadhouse chef Matt Glazer weds his New Orleans roots to Monterey’s harvests in a lush smoky gumbo following shaved organic fennel ribbons dressed perfectly with olive oil, Meyer lemon and sea salt.

Here, chefs source the finest artisanal quality from Monterey’s bounty, creating a varied and evolving cuisine. At Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach, chef Johnny DeVivo’s brilliant creations have made the fairways a gastronomic destination: paprika oil, yogurt, preserved lemon and Arabic za’atar spice for roasted cauliflower, pecans and raisins; and an ingenious “caviar” of pickled mustard seeds.

Pacific Grove chef Jeffrey Weiss, who worked under star chefs Adolfo Muñoz and Dani García in Spain courtesy of their government, delivers authentic arroz meloso (juicy Spanish rice) and deep-fried eggplant at Mediterranean-slanted Jeninni kitchen and wine bar.

The last evening before departure makes a restored Monterey mansion a suitable setting: Restaurant 1833. Hospitality reigns throughout. Dishes focus on natural flavours: stunningly plated carpaccio (shimeji mushrooms, chili oil); or dig-in style luscious roasted bone marrow with garlic. Respected Talbott wines echo the tour: Santa Lucia Chard, then a rich Pinot Noir from Carmel’s warm sun.

Travel Planner

The Portola Hotel & Spa (portolahotel.com) is ideally located for touring Monterey. Excellent comprehensive information on Monterey can be found at SeeMonterey.com.

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