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Hiking Soberanes Point with the St. Lucia mountains in the background. Photos by Shelley Rotner.

California's Central Coast

Nature vs. Nurture

From San Francisco I headed south up US 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, to explore the central coast. Pacific Grove, a coastal town on the Monterey Peninsula, would be my base for a month. It’s also called “Butterfly Town USA” because 25,000 Monarch butterflies migrate to the eucalyptus and pine sanctuary there every year.

Monterey is also on the map because it was the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row. Vestiges of that time, the 1940’s, leave an imprint. Steinbeck wrote: “Monterey is a poem stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Fading graphics remain on the façades of old sardine factories now transformed into restaurants, shops and the internationally known Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Monterey’s mood changes with the tides and the weather and in spite of a touristic transformation it has a “weathered” character. Nature prevails and rules this peninsula. The fog belt determines the quality of light- veiling and revealing vignettes of reality.

The inter-connectedness of nature vs. nurture shaped the focus of my trip as these two elements constantly played off of each other.

After an early morning departure from the east coast and logging in eight hours of driving time, I needed a break. My first stop, the state park Ano Nuevo, was only 55 miles south of San Francisco but a world away.

The Nature Channel--Live

The Pacific Coast highway on California's Central Coast.
The Pacific Coast highway, in Central California.

For over 5,000 years, the Quroste people and their ancestors came here to collect clams and mussels. Set on a rocky, windswept point, it is home to the largest mainland breeding colony of the northern elephant seal in the world. Every year the males battle for mates on the beaches and the females give birth to their pups on the dunes. Winding walking trails lead down to ocean coves where hundreds of elephant seals sun and rest after their long journey from Hawaii. There, right before me, was the nature channel live!

This truly commenced the start of my adventure experiencing the grand and dramatic California coast. I breathed the fresh sea air in deeply. Nature was already nurturing. Ahhh, to feel small in a big landscape.

After delicious crab cakes for lunch in a relaxed setting with an ocean view in Santa Cruz, my next stop was Pacific Grove. In any direction the hilly roads end at the water. Biking and walking paths hug the coast. Harbor seals and sea otters on the rocks below form mysterious shapes as the fog rolls in.

There are dramatic sunsets to witness everyday. Crashing waves are the soundtrack. Nature puts on a different show everyday. Even the touristy aquarium drew me in. I was mesmerized by the swirling, undulating world of jellyfish. Dragon sea horses did their dance too, otherworldly, resembling mythical creatures.

Seals recline at Ano Nuevo State Park.
Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park.


Carmel-by-the sea, just six miles south of Monterey, is the dog capital of the U.S. It has over eighty pet-friendly eating and drinking establishments and lodgings. Tables have hooks to leash your dog.

Diggity Dog is the most fashionable pet boutique I have ever seen. Besides a volume of products and designs, there’s a sporting goods section with packs, vests, sweaters and accessories for dogs and their outdoor adventures.

Carmel resident Clint Eastwood has a presence here. His inn, The Mission Ranch is the perfect place to sip a drink. It’s an idyllic scene to watch the longhaired sheep in the field by a meandering river that wanders down to the sea. Continuing south out of Carmel, on U.S 1, we listened to a tape that Eastwood narrates describing the 88-mile stretch south on U.S.1 to Big Sur-“the greatest place where earth meets sea.”

The road carves its way through canyons copying the curves of the coastline, twisting and cliff-hugging. There are pull-offs everywhere to view nature’s drama. Oral accounts describe the road blasting that now allows the traveler to easily witness this beauty.

Point Lobos hiking trail.
Point Lobos hiking trails.

The beauty is so dense and abundant with so many choices it’s hard to decide how to spend your time. We decided to stop again, just 3.5 miles south of Carmel, at Point Lobos, considered to be the crown jewel of the state park system. Punta de los Lobos translates as Point of the Sea Wolves.

The sound of sea lions howling carries inland. The park is home to over 250 different animal, marine mammal and bird and species, as well as hundreds of plant species. Hundreds of cormorants were nesting on Pinnacle Cove adding to the already impressive and unique landscape.

Over 100 million years ago when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, active volcanoes slowly cooled and formed what geologists call Santa Lucia Granodiorite. Unique rock patterns remain. Trails traverse this diverse terrain around coves with turquoise-colored water and through an enchanted and rare cypress grove.

More Twists and Turns

Heading south from here, the road continues to twist and turn. The view seems timeless and forever changing, sometimes crystal clear and sometimes like a black and white photograph with shades of grey. The weather changes without warning and shapes play peek-a-boo with glimpses now and then of the shimmering water far below. At one point, a linear band of white clouds moved in transforming the vivid ocean scene into a surreal setting- more like a painting than reality.

Big Sur coastline, dramatic and incredible. Click to enlarge this photo.
Big Sur coastline. photo by Shelley Rotner.

Again, we stopped just another three and a half miles south, at Garrapata State Park. Cormorants drifted by in lines or formation sailing on a wind current. The trails lead everywhere- down to beaches and rocky coves, across headlands and up ridges and through canyons crossing rivers and through redwood forests that towered high in the sky, dwarfing everyone and everything else around.

There are dramatic coastal headlands at Soberanes Point. Narrow paths lead the explorer through multi-color patches of wild flowers--excellent material for the multitude of plein air painters and photographers trying to capture this immense beauty and grand scale. Pastel orange, bright orange vermillion shades of yellows, pale purple, fuscia, and grape- an artist’s rainbow palette. The St Lucia Mountains were tinged with shades of these colors- an impressionist’s dream of painted coyote brush, stickey monkey, sagebrush, black sage and unfortunately the beautiful, but invasive mustard.

An Assault on the Senses

It was an assault to the senses. A sweet honey smell permeated the air. Waves were crashing with contact on the rocky promontories. Sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters were seen below. California gray whales pass close by during their yearly migration. I hiked into Soberanes Canyon with the Santa Lucia Mountains rising above. Nature was nurturing my soul. Time finally seemed to slow down. It had to, in order to absorb the magnitude of the beauty that is everywhere.

Pfieffer Big Sur Beach scene. Nobody goes in the water here.
Pfieffer Big Sur Beach scene.

Traveling south from here on US 1, just six miles further, is the famed Bixby Bridge- a single spanned concrete arch more than 260 feet high and 700 feet long. It is a peak and gateway of sorts, to an even grander nature.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
is just beyond. The Big Sur River runs through thousands of acres emptying into the sea where the roaring surf channels through arched rock formations. It isn’t called “big” for nothing! It’s where photography giants Ansel Adams and Edward Weston went to capture the raw and rugged beauty not seen by many before their dramatic photographs captured it for the world to be amazed by.

I couldn’t resist visiting the Esalen Institute, known as a hippie destination in the '60s-70s. A lot of names from the counter-culture had a presence there, like Ferlinghetti and Ken Kesey. Esalen is still a retreat focusing on humanist alternative education through meditation, yoga, massage, ecology, psychology and spirituality. There are hot mineral springs gushing into baths perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. The baths are open to the public from 1:00-3:00 A.M. -not a typo!

We had to stop for a drink at Nepenthe known for its bar on top of the world offering a birds-eye view to the clouds and water below and the jagged, rugged coast black in silhouette fading to gray in the distant fog. Quilted clouds below give the allusion of a foamy ocean in motion. The last light of the day was ethereal.

Local character in Pacific Grove CA.
Local character in Pacific Grove, CA.

Spirit Rock in Marin County

Approaching the end of my trip, we headed back north with a visit to Spirit Rock in Marin County. The landscape reminded me of Tuscany with rounded straw-colored hills and sculpted trees.

We arrived in time for a Monday night meditation with Jack Kornfield-one of the key teachers who introduced Buddhist mindfulness and loving kindness. The quiet time of being with my breathe integrated the sensory experience and magnitude of my recent explorations.

And last but not least, we ended the trip in Berkeley, the epitome of a “California state of mind.” I had lunch at Alice Walters’s famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, celebrating its 40 anniversary. Ms Water’s is known for being instrumental in starting the organic, farm to table movement. The edible schoolyard is her brainchild used as a model for teaching children about source. Ms Waters honors the farmers, the fisherman and the ranchers. Again I found that nature and nurture were interchangeable.

We had dinner at the restaurant; Gather, which was much like the landscape I had just

"Charcuterie" veggie style at Gather.
Vegetarian "Charcuterie"  at Gather.

experienced. It was a culinary adventure pushing the limit of exploration. Designer cocktails started the meal. I had Obituary- tequila, lemon, chartreuse and orange zest. There were beer flights, bourbon flights, red flights, white flights and bar bites!

I tried the signature plate: Vegan “charcuterie” which included mushroom, corn, purple Viking potatoes, porcini butter; beet blood custard, cashew goat cheese, beet tops; pulled mushroom, charred peanuts, pistachio; seaweeds, Analise’s cilantro blossoms; and sprouted lentils, curry leaf and baby mustards!

It was a more than a mouthful!

Café Gratitude is another restaurant with this creative Californian cuisine. It’s a school of transformation disguised as an organic vegan restaurant based on love and healing. It professes consciousness and sustainability for well-being and health with gratitude, hence the name.

We covered a lot of ground but we were continually reaffirmed by the omnipresence of the nurturing nature. I felt satiated and nourished by all the elements on California's central coast.

Shelley Rotner

Author and photographer Shelley Rotner, wrote GoNOMAD's top story of 2010, about visiting the native Americans on Martha's Vineyard. She is an award-winning children’s book author of over thirty books.
Dogs Don’t Brush Their Teeth! Was selected by Time Magazine as top ten Children's Book of the year. Visit her website


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Tags: storySection: Destinations
Location: California,United States
author: Shelley Rotner
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