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Monday, July 28, 2014

CLASSIC TRIP - Monterey, California


Interstate 5 is generally acknowledged to be the quickest route from the southern half of California to the northern half. It’s a no-nonsense, straight arrow, 70 mile-per-hour stretch of freeway through the Central Valley. It’s also one of the more boring drives in the state.

I much prefer highway 99 through the valley or the 101 along the coast where scenery and small towns at least pique your interest now and again. But today, we’re trying to minimize our driving time so it’s up the 5 we go until we get to the pass over to Hollister and then along a busy country road to the coast. Our final destination is Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and our time to get there is 6 hours, including a gas stop and a Burger King stop in Kettleman City.


Home for the next two nights would be the Doubletree Hotel (now the Portola Hotel - Ed) adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey. This would cost us the advertised $89 per night, plus tax and parking...not a bad deal for the location.

It does take some effort to find the driveway to the hotel. The highway dips into a tunnel under it and then offers no place for a U-turn for a mile. Once we double back, the one-way streets that make up the downtown area keep us circling the block until we can arrive at the proper place to turn in. Since the valet only costs an extra two dollars a day, we opt to pull up to the door and let someone else worry about the parking.

I ask, but no accessible rooms are available when we arrive...I was also told this when I made the reservation, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. What we did get was a beautifully decorated room with two double beds, a view of the courtyard, with plenty of room for the chair but none of the usual accessible features such as grab bars. Since it was roomy, we compensated fine. Also, at check in we receive those delicious Doubletree chocolate chip cookies.

The next morning we head over to Cannery Row and have breakfast at the Culinary Center of Monterey, a combination cooking school, kitchen gourmet store, and restaurant. Their all-you-can-eat gourmet breakfast buffet is $12.95 per person with kids paying one dollar per year of their age. The restaurant is on the second floor but the main entrance (in back) is nicely ramped.

The tables here have a spectacular, if drafty, view of the bay and the food is very delicious. A very subtle chorizo and egg dish (the chef has a secret source in Salinas for the sausage), salmon crepes, cornbread french toast, and a fresh-fruit parfait are just a few of the delectable offerings today. We load up on this great food and head out for our day with tummies full.

It’s a forty minute drive north to the beaches of Santa Cruz. The last classic boardwalk amusement park sits on the sand here (Pacific Park in Santa Monica is a new version of these old beachfront parks but doesn’t count as a classic...yet). Admission is free and crowds of people are taking advantage of it this morning.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the Giant Dipper
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Larry Pieniazek under CC-BY-SA license

Our goal today is the 1924 vintage, Arthur Looff built Giant Dipper roller coaster. This classic woody is lovingly maintained and is on many coaster fans top ten lists. It’s also appeared in such diverse movies as The Sting and The Lost Boys.

We buy our tickets and check the access. Wheelchair riders enter through the exit where a button can be pushed to summon a ride operator to let you in. You get your choice of seats...we take the front. As usual, you must bring your own help for transferring out of your chair and into the seat, but the seat was just a bit roomier than most modern coasters and therefore just a bit easier to get into.

On Board the Dipper

Although the ride is exciting, the speed and elements seem quaint and tame compared to today’s monsters but it has one element that’s a doozy. When your train leaves the station, it immediately drops into a pitch-black tunnel featuring two very quick u-turns before coming out into the daylight and engaging the lift chain. No other coaster I’ve yet been on gives you such a quick scare and thrill before even starting up the lift.

The rest of the ride is medium fast (top speed 55 mph), with lots of curves integrated into it’s drops. The head-chopper effects are kind of minimal compared to such coasters as Ghostrider, Scandia Screamer, and the Cyclone. It’s a solid minute and a half ride, with one really all-star element...that tunnel drop out of the station.

Afterward, we munch on a mundane order of garlic fries. Not nearly as good as the garlic fries we got at the Date Festival in Indio or at Cajun Way restaurant in Monrovia, but better than nothing.

That’s it for us and the Boardwalk. Classic amusement park ride fans may also want to check out the circa 1911 Looff Carousel here too where you can still grab for the brass ring and get a free ride.

Next, we head over the hills, inland to the little town of San Juan Bautista.

For California history, you need to start with two things. The Gold Rush had a huge impact on the state (see our gold country and Yosemite reports for more), but before that, the Spanish set up a string of missions that every good Californian must visit at some time or another. Missions are special places for us and our family has visited several of them. Heck, my wife and I even got married in one.

The missions were churches, of course, but since the church and state were pretty cozy in those days, they were also forts with garrisons of Spanish soldiers stationed at each one. Each mission was built one day’s horse ride apart from each other in a string up the coastal side of the state. This mission road is El Camino Real. The padres were there to convert the heathens while the soldiers kept the peace and protected Spain’s interests in California.

History lesson over.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Robert A. Estremo under CC-BY-SA license

Here in San Juan Bautista, the mission still sits in a nice, rural setting across the lawn from the old stage coach stop, the livery, and of course the hotel. The hotel even boasts of such modern conveniences as a two story outhouse (what’s it like to be in the bottom one?).

The mission...still an active parish...is a beauty with wide aisles, an ornate altar, and a lovely garden. We wandered around the grounds and found some barn owls living in a palm tree and a young chicken attached itself to me and followed me around like a puppy until one of the nuns spotted us and put the bird away.  Apparently, it had escaped its coop and she wanted to put it back before it became a meal for the local wildlife.

One thing that always gets me when I visit these old missions is the Indian graveyards inside. Usually, a small plot of land will contain the remains of thousands of Native Americans. Here in San Juan Bautista, a plot about a hundred feet long by about fifty feet wide contains approximately 4,300 natives in the soil. It’s kind of a testament to the devastation wrought among the indigenous population via the European explorers and settlers.

Afterward, we have some ice cream over on the town’s main street while many Harley riders loudly start their machines as they leave town. On a side note, why do so many Harley riders take the mufflers off of their bikes? Why is it that they have to impose such a noisy thing upon everybody else? What is so cool about being so loud? Really, I want to know...if there is no reason, please do us all a favor and be quiet!
Back to Monterey...

Attached to the Doubletree Portola is Peter B’s, a brewpub and bar. It was four o’clock and the daily happy hour was starting. Peter B’s has a modern decor with a nice fireplace, a pool table, and many TV’s for the sports fan. We got a cozy table next to the fireplace and ordered some drinks.

The happy hour prices are just a nick lower than the regular prices. A 22 ounce beer was $4.50 compared to $5 regularly, so a screaming bargain this wasn’t. However, the popcorn was good and free and we could charge it to our room so we knocked back a few before dinner. For you whiskey drinkers, they specialize in the stuff along with the very good handcrafted brew.

It’s a very short walk to Fisherman’s Wharf from the hotel. In fact, you don’t have to even cross a street as the hotel sits on a viaduct connecting to the wharf while the highway goes under in a tunnel.

There are several restaurants here and all were gladly giving samples of their food. My wife chose tonight’s place, Rappa’s Seafood, I think mainly because it sat on the end of the wharf offering spectacular views.

Murphy’s rule on restaurants with a view: The better the view, the worse the food. In this case the seafood, at least, was very good with my wife ordering a seafood sampler with many kinds of ocean denizens on her plate. So Rappa’s breaks this rule

Murphy’s rule on seafood restaurants: Other than seafood, everything else will be less than par.

Unfortunately, Rappa’s keeps this rule with a New York steak that needed a healthy dose of A-1 to have any taste at all...a good steak should need nothing else to prop up its flavor. My son’s burger was also a bit less than overwhelming.

After our dinner, we come out to a wharf filled with fire trucks. It appears that the giant trash compactor that serves the wharf has a slow-burning fire deep within. I talk to one of Monterey’s firemen who tells me they will try to get it out but it’s looking doubtful. He’s not looking forward to what comes next: hauling the whole compactor off of the pier and dumping its foul-smelling contents in the parking lot to find the blaze.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the truck, the battalion chief has arrived and is handing out stickers to all the kids wandering by in a bit of impromptu PR.

We walk around the wharf a bit after dinner, checking out the sea lions on the buoys and rocks, a family of otters floating on their backs, and the usual tacky souvenirs on sale at the wharf’s general store.

All those tacky souvenirs makes my head spin!

We contemplate visiting the hotel’s pool and spa but nix that idea when we find it’s in a separate building and we’d have to do quite a bit of walking in the chilly outdoors in our swimsuits to get there. Instead, we visit a jewelry shop where my wife purchases some earrings as a souvenir.

The next morning, we head across the street to the Marriott to have breakfast in their cafe. Due to a quirk in the layout of the land, the Marriott’s coffee shop is actually closer to our room than the Doubletree’s Portola's. After a very nice last meal, we pack it back up and head home down the very scenic highway 101.

Funny, it only took us five hours to drive home on the scenic route when the quick route took longer...

-Darryl
Copyright 2003 - Darryl Musick

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