Many kinds of wonderful in Monterey County
~ By Katharine Fong.
Breakfast arrived sometime after 9. We saw them coming: Mailika, the smallest elephant, lumbering alongside her trainers, who were pushing boxes of food in a cart.
But we weren’t really focused on our breakfast — we were looking forward to giving Mailika hers. While we squealed delightedly from the cabin deck, she stood at the railing and with her trunk gently grabbed the apples and bananas from our outstretched palms. Her trainers explained why Mailika is so petite — she has food allergies, which means she’s on medications as well as a special diet of Sudan grass (grown in Oregon) and also means she must keep her trunk up in the air at all times and not brush it along standard-issue grass as elephants are wont to do.
We weren’t in the African bush. We were in Salinas, in Monterey County. Vision Quest Ranch, an exotic animal sanctuary and educational facility, to be exact.
Sure, Cannery Row, the Aquarium, 17-Mile Drive and even the Steinbeck Museum are all known and loved Monterey County destinations. But there are also many other, slightly less-touristed gems to be found. And certainly getting up close and personal with pachyderms counts among these.
Another treausre is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, three miles south of Carmel. Even those jaded by Highway 1’s endless vistas of crashing surf and rock formations are awed by Point Lobos’ natural beauty and thriving wildlife (seals, sea lions, otters, migrating whales, a multitude of sea birds such as cormorants and pelicans). Hike one of the easy trails along the shoreline to peer down into the coves and to admire the Monterey cypress. Trees closest to the ocean’s salt spray are often blanketed with a striking orange growth — actually a harmless green algae with beta carotene that changes its color. Photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, among many others, were captivated by the cypress’s fantastic shapes, achieved after years of battering winds.
Adding immeasurably to a visit are the docents, many with telescopes, the better to view otters feeding in the waves and sea lions barking on the rocks. Our docent Paul Reps, an early Cisco employee now retired, was a fount of information about Point Lobos’ history, flora and fauna. (An example: Those mounds of twigs off the trail? Woodrat houses, the first one built by a mother who turned it over to a daughter and who then built another a few yards away.)
More than half of the reserve is underwater, meaning animals and plants in its rich marine habitat are protected. At the turn of the 20th century, the area was a part of the whaling and abalone industry, and today a small cabin at Whalers Cove, built by Chinese fishermen in that era, is a cultural history museum.
Don’t miss the tide pools at Weston Beach; the literal stars on the day of our visit were two huge starfish, one orange, one purple.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Something old, something green
Old Monterey and downtown have an easy vibe, with modern restaurants and shops lining streets rich with history, adjacent to landmark buildings, and near the waterfront and old pier. The main thoroughfare, Alvarado Street, is part of the “Path of History,” marked by round yellow tiles set in the sidewalks. Monterey served as California’s first capital under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. rule, so there is much to explore on this two-mile, roughly rectangular walk. It can be joined at any juncture; its 55 historic buildings and sites include the spot where the Spanish first landed in 1602, one of the last remaining whalebone sidewalks, the house that Robert Louis Stevenson lived in in 1879 and more.
The best part of strolling the path — and Old Monterey in general — is ducking into the alleys and through open archways to discover shaded courtyards and secret gardens. (The Memory Garden behind the Pacific House Museum, while not secret, is particularly lovely, filled with multicolored roses.)
Tourists and clam chowder-hawkers at restaurants on the pier are not the only reminder of modern times: the Monterey Conference Center in the middle of the action in Portola Plaza draws conventioneers and eventgoers. Next door is the Portola Hotel & Spa, an eco-hotel perfectly located as a base for walking, biking (the 29-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, for example) or — if you must — driving the area.
The Portola received LEED silver certification last year, the first hotel in central California to earn this level. Its recently renovated rooms use low VOC (volatile organic compounds) carpeting and paint, low-flow plumbing, sustainable wood, green cleaning products and amenities. Hot water is produced with a cogeneration machine that simultaneously generates electricity. Rooms also feature beds made by the Monterey Mattress Company, with 100 percent organic cotton and recycled mattress springs. And the hotel brewpub and restaurant offer organic food and drink.
Portola Hotel & Spa
One man’s vision
The centerpiece of the Wild Things animal compound on Vision Quest Ranch in the Salinas Valley is the five-acre elephant area, where the pachyderms socialize, play, eat, sun themselves and dip into their pool. For many visitors, standing at the fence of the area is as close as they’ll ever come to these amazing creatures.
Wild Things is also home to some 150 other exotic and domestic animals, including camels, a baboon, a hyena, and lions, tigers and bears. The daily public tour affords close-up views of many of them, as at that hour they’re in their outdoor enclosures. Many are veterans of film, television and live productions; several have been adopted from less-than-ideal environments. Owner Charlie Sammut’s passion for these animals, and for sharing them with others, is clear in his hands-on handling and website stories.
Sammut, 50, stumbled into his passion. A son of immigrants from Malta who established successful businesses in Salinas, Sammut studied to be a veterinarian, became a police officer, bought a kennel business, rescued an old cougar from a Seaside garage and gradually acquired a number of exotic animals, including an African lion named Josef whose good looks led to an appearance in a Dreyfus Fund commercial. That led to Wild Things becoming an animal rental company (though requests for live animals have declined in recent years with the rise of sophisticated computer graphics).
Sammut now runs his sanctuary, animal rental company, kennel, an equestrian center, educational programs, animal trainer school, “Elephants of Africa Rescue Society” and B&B on the 51-acre ranch. His latest venture offers wounded military veterans and their families a week of hands-on bonding with his team of African elephants and other animals (see related story).
The vets and their families stay at the African-style tent cabins, which are otherwise used for the B&B. The eight cabins are comfortably furnished and equipped with TV, space heater and other amenities. Décor corresponds with cabin name — for example, bedspreads and pillow cases in ”Monkey Manor” are adorned with monkeys, and toy monkeys hang above the beds’ canopy netting.
Vision Quest Ranch
Pachyderms & Patriots
In December, five disabled veterans and their families arrived at Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas to participate in a unique weeklong pilot program. Using specially made “saddles,” the vets lounged atop the ranch’s elephants as the animals went about their day, and interacted with many of the other animals as well. The lengthy time spent in an unusual environment and connecting with animals — many with back stories as wrenching as the vets’ — resulted in an extraordinarily positive and constructive experience for everyone involved.
“We put one guy on an elephant with his son for a couple of hours,” says Charlie Sammut, director of EARS (Elephants of Africa Rescue Society), which presents the program, adding that the vet had had difficulty communicating with his family and everyone else since his tour in Iraq. “They got to share something unique to them both. The next day his wife came to me with tears in her eyes because that morning he was wrestling on the bed with his kid — she hadn’t seen him like that for years.
“This was a guy who at the beginning of the week, when we all had to tell each other our names and who we were, got up and walked out. At the end of the week at our luncheon, he was able to pick up the mic and talk.”
Called “Our Heroes’ Dreams — A Healing Safari,” the program now takes place once a month. Participants come from all over the country and are selected by a nonprofit serving wounded veterans (also called “Our Heroes’ Dreams,” based in Hanford, south of Fresno). In addition to the therapeutic, even magical, time with elephants and other creatures, the week includes counseling and outdoor activities such as scuba diving, sky diving, fishing and sailing — all tailored to the physical challenges faced by disabled vets. Sammut will officially introduce the program at his EARS annual fundraiser in May; this year’s theme is “Pachyderms & Patriots.”
Add a year-round mild climate to breathtaking scenery and plenty of inviting accommodations and you’ve got the perfect area for a destination wedding. Want to exchange vows by the sea, overlooking vineyards, at a luxury lodge or in a historic cathedral? You’re bound to find what you want in Monterey County.
A classic spot for smaller parties (200 or less) to consider is the venerable Hyatt Carmel Highlands, built in 1917 and still one of the most romantic venues to say “I do.” There are few views in the world that compare to the one from its redwood deck above the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. And if the weather is too brisk, the view is still stunning from the indoor banquet rooms — for that matter, from most every room at the inn.
Other venues of note: Cowboys and cowgirls should love the restored Holman Ranch or Stonepine Estate Resort with its hayloft for line dancing. Art aficionados can exchange vows at the Monterey Museum of Art, a former Mexican adobe. Those who like the quirky might find that Tarpy’s Roadhouse and Monterey Stone Chapel fits the bill. Holly Farm can house the wedding couple and 24 of their friends in an idyllic yet homey escape.
And golfers? They don’t even have to ask where they can tee up — er, tie the knot. Monterey County’s luxury lodgings with award-winning courses are legendary.
Hyatt Carmel Highlands,
Upcoming events in Monterey County
Pebble Beach Food & Wine
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Wine Festival
HOT restaurant alert: 1833