In “Cannery Row,” arguably the most lyrical creation by America’s finest writer, John Steinbeck reserves some of his most evocative prose for a description of the Great Tide Pool at Point Pinos—that window into a microcosmic universe at the northernmost tip of the Monterey Peninsula, where Doc Ricketts used to gather specimens for his laboratory. “It is a fabulous place:when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef,” he wrote. “But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely…”
So let’s begin with that: When an unparalleled writer at the top of his game chose to marvel at a near-perfect example of the interconnectedness of a place and its inhabitants, he was describing Pacific Grove.
We locals call it P.G., but that’s largely just to save energy.The Chamber of Commerce touts it as ButterflyTown,USA, for the tens of thousands of Monarchs who winter here) and America’s Last Hometown (for the 15,500 folks who call it home). Back in 2002, Life magazine referred to Pacific Grove as America’s “Most Romantic City,” offering a cover photo of a pink blanket of ice plant blooming along the coast, like a love letter from Mother Nature. A few years later, a writer for Via magazine referred to this tranquil hamlet, where sidewalk smiles seem to be the currency still in fashion, as something akin to the “Mayberry of the Monterey Peninsula.”
Apt descriptions all, but not quite enough to capture my hometown in full.
An old college pal of mine came close. He visited for a spell not too long ago, briefly shedding his big-city Midwestern existence for a respite on the Central Coast. He arrived at his epiphany one autumn evening, as we sauntered into town to enjoy some local seafood specialties—maybe the lemon butter sand dabs at Fandango, or the carrot- ginger oysters at Passionfish. It was the Magic Hour, a cinematographer’s favorite time of day, and the soon-to-be setting sun cast a warm glow on the century-old Victorians, while the chimes from the City Hall clock tower began a serenade amid the serenity. My friend could only shake his head and chuckle. “It’s like you live in that town from ‘The Truman Show,’” he said, and then he added, in mock director’s voice, “Cue the bells!”
Too good to be true. That’s what he meant.
Still, for the best description, I’ll return to the Peninsula’s most eminent author, who worked on many of his masterpieces from his family’s cottage, which still stands on 11th Street in P.G. In Steinbeck’s examination of intertidal ecosystems, we can find not only limpets and hermit crabs and waving algae, but also a universal metaphor. In “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” he further expounded on “the brilliant colors, the swarming species” of tide pools. A simple study of a “small and perfect pool,” he concluded, offers an understanding that “all things are one thing and that one thing is all things.”
So there you have it: Pacific Grove is a Great Tide Pool—dense with history but alive in the moment, a great sum of its disparate parts, a little world of 2.7 square miles teeming with wonders both obvious and overlooked. Like the often-unnoticed frenzy of activity in the gaps and crevices of the rocky shore, the town is itself a bit of a hidden treasure—at least in comparison to its neighbors. Monterey, Carmel and Pebble Beach are each internationally known. Pacific Grove? It is the Zeppo Marx of the Peninsula. But history will note that the Marx brothers insisted Zeppo—not Groucho or Harpo or Chico—had the most natural good humor.
And there are underappreciated gems within this underappreciated gem. Yes, the four-mile recreational trail alongside Ocean View Avenue—from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to the far reaches of Asilomar State Beach—is a picture-perfect snapshot of wonders along the water’s edge. But what about the stroll through the forests and dunes at the Asilomar Conference Center? Or the six-block-long trail through George Washington Park, occasionally under a canopy of visiting butterflies? And yes, the Seven Gables Inn stands like a lemon-colored dream above the rocky coast. But the view from the Martine Inn is equally sublime, and when the Pacific Grove Inn is dressed up in Christmas lights, it seems part of a Dickens Village come to life.
These gorgeous paths and grand edifices recall the genesis of this place. Consider, for instance, the Gosby House Inn on bustling Lighthouse Avenue. The street was originally simply a trail cut through the forest by the Point Pinos lighthouse keeper. The inn was built as a boardinghouse for Methodist ministers who came to preach to the hundreds of people assembled for a summer church retreat amid rough tents. That’s how the community began in 1875—as a tent city of sorts on the shores of Monterey Bay. A few years later, it emerged as a West Coast branch of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. So Pacific Grove was birthed as a place promoting intellectual curiosity, as well as stern moral values (including prohibitions against “immodest bathing apparel”). The curiosity can still be quenched with a visit to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. The dress codes? Well, today’s beachwear is determined only by the whims of the breezes and the coast-hugging fog.
The tents were replaced (often on the very same tiny plot of land) by charming cottages and soon stately Victorian homes. Rumor has it, in fact, that Pacific Grove boasts more Victorians per capita than any cit y in America. So Steinbeck’s description of a tide pool dweller searching for a new home—“And now one, finding an empty snail shell he likes better than his own, creeps out, exposing his soft body to the enemy for a moment, and then pops into the new shell”—might well describe the evolution of P.G.’s humble abodes. Indeed, on occasion, modern contractors burrowing into the walls of these turn-of-the-century residences have discovered a surprising reminder of origins: canvas.
Hundreds of homes throughout town are adorned with green wooden plaques denoting the first assessed owner of the property and the first year of record. So a stroll through town can feel like an anachronistic amble. Here, on Forest Avenue, you find a plaque, “Annie L. Clayton 1891,” alongside a window containing an “I support military women” ribbon. There, on Chestnut Street, you spot a metallic green VW bug in front of even more boldly painted lavender home. “Nancy Houghton 1899,” the plaque announces. Every October, visitors and locals can discover many of these back-stories for themselves by participating in the Victorian Home Tour, complete with hostesses dressed in era-appropriate garb.
Pacific Grove is like that. It hangs onto its past, while making it currently functional, turning it into a communal celebration. So history comes alive in contemporary forms. Chinese immigrants first settled the area in 1853, maintaining a fishing village for more than half a century at China Point (now known as Cabrillo Point, the site of the Hopkins Marine Station). These Cantonese fishermen are remembered annually in July with the Feast of Lanterns, when Pagrovians (that’s what we call ourselves) decorate the city with brightly colored lanterns, enjoy a Saturday pageant-and-picnic, and ooh and aah at a fireworks show. Every April, too, the late 19th century is reborn as Pacific Grove’s Good Old Days celebration, including an old-school parade and a vintage fashion show (but also a street fair offering everything from bounce houses to Blues bands).
P.G. places evolve and adjust, as well. Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operated light station on the West Coast (since 1855), was once described by Robert Louis Stevenson as standing amid “a wilderness of sand.” Today, it overlooks the 10th fairway and 16th tee of the Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links, its back nine designed by Jack Neville, better known as the original designer of the links at Pebble Beach. Conversely, another P.G. icon, Lovers Point, was once a flurry of activity back in the city’s infancy. There was a Japanese tea garden, a merry-goround, and a concession of glass-bottom boats decorated to look like Venetian gondolas. Today, the focus of this community park has been simplified to its natural core: the leaning cypress trees, the rocky outcrop, the beach tucked away like a secret, sandy escape.
The residents of a tide pool, too, are constantly adapting to a change in environment, spending part of their time under water and part of it exposed to the air. “A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool,” Steinbeck wrote in “Cannery Row,” “and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely…again.”
So it is in Pacific Grove, where the weather can change in an instant and where the most celebrated nonhuman residents are the sea otters gamboling in the bay and the Monarch butterflies that arrive en masse each October from as far north as Alaska and take up a five-month residence in the pine and eucalyptus groves. “One of those happy accidents of nature that gladden the heart,” Steinbeck wrote in “Sweet Thursday.”The temptation is to compare the orange-and-black-winged beauties with the tourists who come and go—many of them, in fact, enjoying the soundless splendor of the Monarch Grove Sanctuary.
Every October, the entire community gathers to watch the Butterfly Parade, a celebration of its children, in which each class from the city’s two elementary schools is dressed in its own historical or ecological costume. The kindergartners march through town adorned in brightly painted orange-and-black wings, as if just escaping their cocoons, the smiles on their faces as wide as their wingspans.
So this is Pacific Grove: an ideal blend of history, scenery and community; Victorian charm coexisting with California whimsy; a traditionbound place with a talent for adaptation; a town defined so much by its natural environment, but even more so by the people who call it home.
Despite all the remarkable sights—the Asilomar Beach sunsets and ice plant explosions and cypress canopies and kelp dances—my favorite P.G. place happens to be my backyard at night. When the wind is right, I can hear the waves crashing rhythmically against the beach. When the breezes shift slightly, I can listen to the sea lions bellowing to each other at Cabrillo Point and the foghorns calling from the bay. When they change once more, I can make out the notes from “Taps” being played at Monterey’s Defense Language Institute.
But most common is the best sound of all: silence. Quite often in Pacific Grove, there is a stillness, a quietude that inspires.You can ponder life’s riddles without the obstruction of background noise. It is like peering into a tide pool of the mind. As Steinbeck wrote, “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”