You know the drought you’re always hearing about in California, the one that will eventually lead to an invasion of Canada and the draining of our lakes and diversion of rivers to supply the thirsty south (Note to self, stop reading conspiracy theory websites. That means you treehugger.com). Apparently parts of California didn’t get the memo cuz baby it’s green in the central coast. Luxuriously green after a month in the desert.
Okay, Oprah didn’t have time to see us during our brief Santa Barbara stopover and with Pismo Beach in the rear-view mirror we are headed north to see Clint Eastwood in Carmel-by-the-Sea, or simply Carmel as it’s known to locals without a lot of time to talk.
Our base will be Monterey, or so the campground claims. The marketers cleverly named it the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA but in reality the location is about 25 minutes drive from either city. KOA employs this trick often (talking to you KOA Montreal).
Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur are an awesome trio of travel delights with one thing in common, location, location, location. And money. Lots of money. Okay, that’s two things. The Pacific Ocean is the backdrop, with its crashing waves, long stretches of pristine beach, and the smell of sea.
The wind blows hard off the Pacific on the 45-minute drive from Monterey to Big Sur. As George Constanza would say, “the sea was angry that day my friend, like an old man trying to send soup back at a deli”. The view is everything the brochures say—turquoise-blue ocean spewing massive columns of white foamed fury, roadside cliff faces shaped by the winds into crenelated red castles, bridges spanning green chasms.
The Dude, who ran the Big Sur Marathon in his younger slimmer life, says the area was a hippie mecca in the sixties. Writer Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, among others) kept a place here and poet Allen Ginsburg and beat writer Jack Kerouac were frequent visitors. The non-profit Miller museum in a modest cabin off the road, with its incense infused book shop, provides a flashback to the time when long-haired freaky people migrated here to commune with nature, discover the meaning of life in EST’s It, smoke weed, play guitar and get naked. Apparently they all got jobs, bought land and put on clothes, because the place feels like a well-heeled vacation mecca these days.
Big Sur is less a town than a conglomeration of lodges, inns and restaurants strung along the highway between sea and mountains. The biggest cluster has a pub and general store where hikers gather to pick up supplies. In its mountain setting, with the smell of pine in the air, it feels like old time Whistler without the snow.
We decide on lunch at Nepenthe, an iconic eatery a few miles south. Built on a cliff face with multiple stairs, patios and levels, Nepenthe is the ultimate destination restaurant. It has the requisite gift shop with pricey artisan objets de arte for your collection and an outdoor café on its roof with stunning views of waves breaking on the distant coast far below. The main restaurant sports west coast log cabin décor, with a soaring trussed ceiling and massive windows overlooking the raging Pacific. Prices are stunning as well. Ten bucks buys an al a carte basket of fries to go with your burger, a steal at $17 US (add $1.50 with cheese). Despite the stiff prices and accompanying wind, the place is packed on a stormy Tuesday in March. But it’s memories of the drive not the overpriced hamburger that I’ll take away from Big Sur.
With our pricey midday repast digesting, we head back to visit Clint’s bar, the Hogs Breath Inn, in the town that seems much too twee for its macho, squinty-eyed former mayor. Remember Palm Springs and its art galleries and money smell. Take that and times it by ten and you have a picture of Carmel-By-The-Sea. The town is ritzy California culture on steroids. Art galleries line the streets, and lovely streets they are, filled with freshly tended flower beds sprinkled with gold dust every morning to encourage growth. Given the recent rainfall, the local ladies who lunch have opted for brightly painted wellies from Abercrombie & Fitch, or as we call them at home, rubber boots, to stroll the shops.
Clint’s restaurant is off the street, down a narrow passageway that opens onto a brick courtyard. The nondescript building that fronts it is simply and appropriately called the Eastwood Building. Unfortunately, Clint isn’t there and hasn’t left a message for us, so we are left to stroll the streets and gaze in awe at the sculptures, blown glass and paintings with heavenly price tags in the windows of cottages with fairy-tale rounded roofs. The smell of marijuana wafts from a small street-side park. Clearly, Dirty Harry is no longer in charge.
We choose the scenic route back to Monterey on what is unpretentiously called The 17-mile Drive, its name being the only unpretentious thing about it. It costs 10 bucks just to navigate the route, which rangers in Smokey the Bear hats collect at various entry gates. When we ask for the nearest gas station, the ranger advises us to backtrack to a station outside the gates. “Everything costs more inside.” he cautions.
Leaving Carmel, The Drive meanders along tree-lined lanes with massive stone gates that front even more massive estates. Think Marine Drive in South Vancouver then add a few zeroes onto the net worth of the inhabitants. Incomes along this stretch are measured not in tens of millions but in hundreds of millions. The gawking factor is worth the price of admission and that’s before we arrive at Pebble Beach Golf Course with the spectacular ocean-side setting familiar to everyone who likes a little celebrity mixed with their TV golf.
The course famously hosts the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro Am, first held when Bing Crosby invited a few friends to his home course for a clam bake and charitable game of golf. Pebble Beach is so sure of its stature as a premier public golf course visitors are hard-pressed to find a sign indicating they have arrived or directions to the club house. It is assumed if you are here you know the drill.
Our stroll around the putting green, surrounded on one side by a collection of sports clothing and high-end golf paraphernalia stores and on the other by ‘The Lodge’, finished with a bit of a gargle overlooking the 18th, as one does. The Dude, who many of you know is a world class speed guzzler, not a sipper, slowly savors his 10 buck U.S. a pint beer, perhaps reflecting on the misspent youth that prevented him from making the financial cut at Pebble Beach. Although it is a public course, play is limited to those who can afford the cost of two nights at the Lodge, which qualifies them to book and pay for a tee time.
Pretending to be a member of the bourgeois proves exhausting s0 we bid adieu to Pebble Beach and wind our way along the remaining 17-Mile Drive, passing ocean side mansions and favored foursomes playing out their day to the tune of crashing surf on the three other golf courses strung out along the roiling Pacific. Our route takes us to aptly named Lovers Point, jutting into the sea on Monterey’s western edge, distinctively fringed with ice plants, through Steinbeck’s famed (or infamous) Cannery Row to the Aquarium that set the benchmark for zoos of the sea, out past the tidal flats and outlying marinas, by the farmland and roadside fruit and vegetable stands, to the Grey Ghost, the home that grounds us, for a decidedly plebeian dinner of burgers and two buck chuck from Trader Joe’s. Yes that’s right, respectable tasting white or red wine at $2.49 a bottle. Even with the exchange it’s enough to make a Canadian weep.
I think Mr. Eastwood would approve.
Next…The rainy streets of San Francisco