Breathtaking seaside Monterey, Calif., is much more than its aquarium

NICK VIVION | Contributing Travel Writer


As I lay there all tied up in knots, with my right leg piercing the air near my ear, all I could think about was sea otters. Never mind the fact that my rational mind was screaming, “Your leg does not belong near your ear!” My creative mind was off with the sea otters, frolicking, swimming backwards, fetching shiny ornaments for a reward of an abalone liberated from its pesky shell.

This made me laugh, although my masseuse, targeting my tension with a force not unlike a sea otter slamming a rock on fresh food, hardly notices. I’m blissed out at the Spa on the Plaza in Monterey, Calif., and my wandering mind is exploring my earlier visit to the expansive Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Aquarium is by far the biggest draw for travelers to Monterey County, as it is consistently rated the No. 1 aquarium in the U.S., and occasionally even the world. The tanks are full of shimmering fish, giant octopi, and furry sea otters, not to mention a healthy share of rambunctious children mammals. The aquarium’s popularity is also a bit of a curse, because the first thing that people say when you mention Monterey is usually, “Oh, that’s where the aquarium is!”

Lucky for us all, Monterey County has heaps more going on to whet the traveling whistle. So much so, in fact, that it keeps me coming back at least once a year.

The huge county of Monterey — one-and-and-half times the size of Delaware — sits two hours south of San Francisco, occupying a 100-mile swath of Pacific Ocean beauty and inland fertility. Its magnificence has made it world famous, and it’s hard to think of a chunk of earth that inspires more awe, respect and superlatives from most who pass through it.

There are no gay bars here, no clubs — no nightlife to speak of. This is a romantic place, where you come and frolic amidst the backdrop of natural grandeur. Kayaking, diving, horseback riding, biking, fishing and sailing provide a direct channel to beauty at every angle.

I started off my whirlwind tour of solo romancin’ with a sunset hike in Point Lobos State Reserve, also known as the crown jewel of the state parks. This is only one of a baker’s dozen of sickeningly gorgeous hikes nearby.

For the committed hiker, the Ventana Wilderness behind Big Sur is chock-full of remote camp sites. Day hikes range from the easy Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which takes you to the spectacular waterfall dropping from cliffs into the water, to the robust Ollason Peak in Toro Park, where you gain 1,800 feet of elevation. Other trails include the Pinnacle National Monument, 20 miles of beach trails at Andrew Molera State Park, and, perhaps the best kept secret of the area, the steepest coastal canyon in the continental U.S. that features abandoned limestone kilns at Limekiln State Park.

As the sun was setting, I set up my tripod and captured the sun dropping beyond Seal Cove, where seals were enjoying the last drops of sunshine. Briny patterns had been blasted into the rocks by the sea spray, and birds were gently riding thermals overhead. Robert Louis Stevenson was struck with the idea for Treasure Island while hiking in this very same spot.

The glamour of Pebble Beach is one of the primary features of Monterey County, with it’s exacting fairways, crashing waves, and bazillion- dollar homes that loom over the greens. There is also the Concours d’Elegance, where high-end car collectors from all over the world descend on Pebble Beach like bears to Sidr honey.

The elegance of the architecture in Pebble Beach trickles out to many corners of coastal Monterey, enticing movie stars, musicians and billionaire moguls to settle here. Clint Eastwood is the most infamous resident of the area, having served as mayor of Carmel in the late 1980s. Rupert Murdoch, Doris Day and countless others in the vaunted upper crust have purchased homes here.

Of course, this means that this can quickly become an expensive vacation as Michelin-rated restaurants and $500-per-night hotels have sprung up to cater to this wealthy clientele. Check out the plush L’Auberge in Carmel, and be sure to melt with a massage at one of the world-class spas like Accista Spa or the Spa on the Plaza.

One especially fruity note came in my glass — Monterey is known for its outstanding wines, especially chardonnay and pinots noir. The county produces more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined, and that many grapes from the Central Coast go into Napa/Sonoma-branded wines. The soil has stellar mineral content, which makes for uniquely robust wines.

Monterey is one of those special places that is widely popular and accessible to many, while maintaining that rare ability to make someone feel like they are the only person in the whole wide world that knows about it.

Oops. Secret’s out now.


7 steps for staying fit on the road

All of us have priorities when we travel. For gay men, staying healthy while relaxing and over-eating in local cuisines is often high up on the list.  Unfortunately, the two don’t always go hand-in-hand.
Here are a few tricks for keeping that beach body even when temptations abound.

Plan ahead. When staying at a hotel, inquire ahead about its gym facilities. Ask about the equipment and browse pictures on the website; and inquire whether access to the gym is 24/7 and free to all guests or comes with an additional fee. A lot of hotels claim to have gyms, but actually offer little more than a glorified storage closet with a few barbells that look borrowed from the Flintstones. If staying at a house or other single-family property, search online for any nearby facilities. Call those and ask about short-term rates and make a game plan. Get your ducks in a row.

Remember that there’s no such thing as “vacation” calories. You’ve probably heard people try to justify an unhealthy meal by saying, “It’s OK — I’ m on vacation.” Bullshit. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, it’s important to remember the obvious: Your body doesn’t process food any differently when you’re on a vacation than it does while you’re at home. Calories are calories. And the more you travel, the more important this rule becomes.

Stay hydrated. It’s easy not to get your daily requirement of water while traveling — on the road, it’s much easier to opt for soft drinks, alcohol, etc. Make an effort to drink water. It provides a ton of great benefits including boosting your metabolism and curbing your appetite.

Use your feet. One of the best ways to explore a new city and get the most out of what it has to offer is on foot. That’s also great way to exercise.  Push yourself to walk instead of taking buses and cabs everywhere. It will help counteract some of those extra calories we tend to consume while traveling — and you’ll probably discover a few hidden gems along the way.

Be flexible. Exercise doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing. Maybe your typical gym routine at home is a 60-minute intense cardio burner, but you only have 30 minutes of free time each day. As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work.” Do what you can with what you’ve got! A half hour of exercise is better than none.

Stock the mini-fridge. For the record, there is nothing “mini” about this bar’s caloric content. If possible, squeeze some of your own grocery items into the space between the candy bars, chips and booze. Stock up on fresh cut fruit, veggies and sandwiches. Making smart choices with the mini-fridge will help you cut down on killer restaurant meals.

Exercise in your room. If your accommodations don’t include a fitness facility — or if you’re not adventurous enough to use it — you can still get a great workout in the comfort of your room. Browse some aerobic videos on YouTube to get some cardio, and use your bodyweight as resistance for strength training. There are a million possibilities.
Being a frequent traveler doesn’t need to be a death sentence for your fitness program or a prescription for obesity. Keep your game face on and you’ll be pleased with the results: More energy, better sleep and increased immune system performance, just to name a few.

— Davey Wavey Jacques

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.