Majestic Monterey

History, culture, and scenic wonders await along California's Central Coast

Bright, Sunday morning light floods through the windows of the mission church of San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey as the 7:30 mass gets under way. I’ve come to the church, the oldest building in Monterey, to get a close look at one of the California city’s most recent preservation projects.

Prayers and songs swirl around me as I sit quietly in a wooden pew, trying to concentrate on the words and rituals. But I’m unable to focus on anything other than the church’s remarkable beauty. Instead of the dull, drab colors one expects to see in a California mission church, San Carlos Cathedral has brightly hued arches, red tile floors, vibrant decorative borders, and a pale blue ceiling.

The church, founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra on June 3, 1770, underwent two resurrections before the present sandstone structure was built in 1794. Time took its toll, and when the building was deemed to be unsafe in the mid-1990s, the congregation acted, beginning a restoration project that took nearly 14 years.

I’m jolted back to the present as Father Peter Crivello directs parishioners to turn to the “prayer for parish stewardship” that is pasted onto the cover page of their song and prayer book. I hear congregants ask for spiritual guidance “as we seek to care for and conserve our treasured house of worship.”

After mass, I learn they’re still paying the bill for the church’s renovation—$8 million—three years after completion of the project. But as Father Crivello says, “If one were to open the treasure chest of historic California, one of the greatest jewels inside would be our cathedral.”

Monterey, onetime capital of Alta (Upper) California under Spanish, Mexican, and American flags, reveres its ancestry, even when it means giving until it hurts. Nowhere is evidence of the state’s Hispanic heritage richer than here, and the city has dotingly restored adobe buildings from the Spanish and Mexican periods, offering visitors a pass to its past.

Monterey offers other enticements to visitors, too, including spectacular golf courses, high-end shops and galleries, a scenic coastline, and a world-class aquarium that puts Monterey Bay on display. The bay, aquarium visitors learn, is one of the world’s richest and most varied marine environments, home to the planet’s third-largest marine sanctuary and a playground for dolphins, otters, whales, elephant seals, and a host of other underwater creatures. Vast submarine canyons, which plummet to nearly 11,000 feet, are found offshore. They encompass dense forests of giant kelp, and their cold upwelling currents carry nutrients that feed the bay’s diverse range of marine life.

More than the sea is protected here; the region contains dozens of state parks, beaches, and preserves—places to hike, bike, walk, or jog. A strong component of the area’s appeal is its natural beauty: I sense it everywhere I go, whether kayaking on the bay, biking the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, or exploring Carmel or Pacific Grove, two of Monterey’s neighboring cities.

But the history of this ruggedly handsome place is what has drawn me here. The story of California’s first capital is equally as dramatic as the landscape, full of intrigue, pathos, and humor.

I hear tales of the region’s extraordinary past from Kimberly Wright, a guide with Monterey State Historic Park, as I join a morning walking tour. The seven-acre park, at the edge of the bay and close to tourist-clogged Fisherman’s Wharf, preserves the historical and architectural heritage of Old Monterey. Within its boundaries are the Pacific House, the museum where our tour gets under way, and five other historic buildings.

Wright begins with the peninsula’s earliest known residents, the Rumsien People who lived here for thousands of years before Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo charted the California coast in 1542. Cabrillo missed the fog-shrouded entrance to Monterey Bay, and it was 60 more years before Sebastian Vizcaino entered the bay, claiming it for Spain.

Another 167 years passed before Spain finally began colonizing the region, Wright tells us. In 1770, Captain Gaspar de Portola, with Father Serra, established the Presidio of Monterey and Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey, the second of the Spanish missions in Alta California. A year later, Serra moved the mission to its present site in Carmel, and the Monterey church came to be called the Royal Presidio Chapel and, later, San Carlos Cathedral.

Our little group has now moved from the Pacific House Museum to the Custom House, the oldest government building in California. Wright picks up her story in 1776, when Monterey was named the capital of California. It held the title for nearly 50 years under Spanish rule, and then under Mexican rule after the country obtained independence from Spain. Mexican rule jolted the sleepy community; trade restrictions were removed, and British, American, and South American traders jockeyed for a chance to sell their wares.

The Custom House became a busy place, Wright says, explaining that it was used by the Mexican government to collect duties on the foreign goods brought in by merchant ships. She motions toward stacked crates, sacks, and tools—replicas of trade goods from the 1840s—that fill the building. Wright is dressed in period costume, and as she stands in the middle of the warehouse-like Custom House, I can almost hear the bustle of the booming 19th-century port town.

On July 7, 1846, the flag above the Custom House changed again, this time to the red and white stripes of the United States, which realized manifest destiny: a nation that stretches “from sea to shining sea.” But Monterey’s dominance in the region would soon end. After gold fever struck in 1848, many residents argued for statehood, and San Jose was chosen as the first seat of government.

Monterey didn’t prosper again until the early 1900s, when it became the center of a thriving fishing and canning industry. John Steinbeck memorialized the period with his novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, describing the area as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light.” The streets groaned under the weight of “silver rivers of fish,” he said. The industry eventually failed, and today’s Cannery Row proprietors “fish for tourists,” Steinbeck said pejoratively in 1960 when he visited after a long, self-imposed exile.

We continue to follow Wright as she leads us through gardens and historic buildings, including an old whaling station, a theater, and a well-stocked store. During her narrated journey, we follow golden medallions that are sunk into the concrete to create a Path of History walking tour. The three-mile walk encompasses most of Monterey’s historic sites. After Wright departs to lead another tour, I continue on the trail, taking up where she left off. For details about the sites along the route, I use the parks department’s cell phone tour line.

I walk past several historic adobes, many of which are still in use. I also see the weathered remains of quartermaster and 1847 adjutant general William Tecumseh Sherman’s quarters, and visit the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a National Trust Historic Site that offers a tranquil respite in the center of the city.

The restored home of a Yankee sea captain, the Cooper-Molera walled estate includes a two-story Monterey colonial adobe casa grande (big house), plus sunny gardens, huge trees, aged rock fences, a barn, and a gifts and books shop. When I enter the courtyard, I see some people strolling through the expansive gardens, and others sitting on benches enjoying the afternoon sun. “It’s nice for locals and out-of-town visitors alike because we’re able to be open seven days a week,” says interpreter Lisa Bradford. “In these times of budget cuts, that kind of access is something special. We have our volunteers to thank for it.”

I continue along the Path of History, eventually reaching the far end of the tour, and realize I’ve now come full circle. The mission church of San Carlos stands in front of me, the late-afternoon sun casting long shadows on its Spanish colonial facade. The Diocese of Monterey calls it “a true jewel unmatched by any of the California missions.” It is indeed a jewel, like Monterey itself.

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