Winter in California: Cracking Crab, Watching Whales, and Learning About Mushrooms
Sunny and mild most of the time, California is a big envying point in winter for our back East relatives and far away (Midwest) friends.
In fact, our Pacific coast is much clearer in winter months, since the cold ocean water doesn’t heat up enough to evaporate and form marine layers of fog. And so, from November to March on long weekends we take short trips to the most picturesque coastal locations on the Central Coast to indulge in their many delights.
In winter, Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay is bustling with holiday activities. Big and small companies, conferences, and families have their celebrations and reunions in and around the vast hotel lobby, decorated with a myriad of tiny lights, trees, and ornaments.
At night, the ocean breeze picks up, and there is chill in the air. It’s a great time to have a Portola signature aged Manhattan at Jacks Restaurant on the premises. The wood-paneled, clubby restaurant with a nautical theme, fireplace, and leather upholstery serves California coastal fare and is the best place to try the first Dungeness crab of the season.
Mine arrives in all its beasty glory: shell and claws intact, sautéed in butter with shallots and garlic, and garnished with charred lemon, fingerling potatoes, and crostini. This is not a dainty ladies’ food, but oh well; my utter enjoyment is worth a few specks of hand-cleaned crab shell landing on my cashmere sweater!
Oysters, mussels, and other local seafood on the Jacks menu compete with solid steakhouse staples, such as Colorado lamb Porterhouse served with crispy polenta cake, braising greens, and oven-dried tomatoes.
Jacks desserts are equally solid and satisfying. The Chocolate Raspberry Bomb presents brightly colored tart raspberry sorbet with vanilla bean ice cream layered over a dark chocolate brownie and incased in chocolate ganache.
If dinner at Jacks proves too indulgent for a drive home, we stay overnight in a beautifully appointed Portola’s guest room with a view of the bay, a private balcony, and a comfy bed, upon which sits a stuffed sea otter, a local celebrity animal, surviving today in the wild due to an enormous preservation effort made by his human fans.
In the morning, after a substantial breakfast at Jacks, which includes made-to-order omelets, pancakes, and waffles, we drive along the 17-Mile Drive, one of the most famous scenic routes in the world. Stopping often, we jump out of the car trying to absorb the unbelievable lazuli and turquoise glasswork of the crushing waves, the Lone Cypress—a 250-year-old landmark, perched on a rock above the sea—and harbor seals and sea lions vying for space on sun-drenched outcrops.
Back to Monterey, we take a short walk to the nearby Fisherman’s Wharf, surrounded by historical adobes and gardens.
Abalonetti Bar & Grill (operating since 1951!) on the wharf is a great place to try local Monterey calamari. They are served here fried; marinated; flash-fried with chips; fileted; in cioppino; sautéed in white wine, garlic, and parsley; and grilled in a steak. Tender rings and tentacles in Siciliano sprinkled with chili flakes don’t need much more than a squeeze of lemon to make it a happy hour star, paired with a Monterey Mai Tai or Abalonetti Pale Ale. Oh yeah, happy hour at Abalonetti is all day, every day!
We don’t leave Monterey without a full-body massage at the Marilyn Monroe Spa at the Hyatt Regency Monterey. The new, tastefully designed facility in a red and white color scheme is decorated with the glamorous superstar’s photographs smiling at us from every wall. Plush white robes, a light and bright ambiance, and attentive service create a feeling of a perfect place to relax and rejuvenate.
Body treatments, facials, manicures and pedicures, shampooing and styling, make-up sessions at a Marilyn-inspired makeup bar, and an extensive line of Marilyn Monroe Spa’s skincare, hair care, makeup, lips, and nail products are all available in the spa for big bridal parties, girlfriends’ getaways, and couples’ retreats.
No matter how many times we visit Carmel, we always start with a short drive to Point Lobos State Reserve, just two miles to the south. A vast expanse of cypress groves, mossy oaks, and ancient pines on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific can’t leave anyone unmoved by its rugged beauty. Hiking the trails of Point Lobos and resting on benches and boulders above its coves and lagoons, we see the most picturesque wildflowers and all kinds of wild animals, from harbor seals and whales to deer and rabbits, allowing us to share their space.
Migrating southward in winter, gray whales make a frequent appearance in this part of the Pacific. From any cliff, we can see three, four, five fountains simultaneously in different places, indicating exhaling giants moving in groups to their breeding and calving grounds off the Baja California coast.
We can see a tiny fountain in the middle of the sea even from our balcony at Hofsas House Hotel in the toy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Family-owned for three generations, Bavarian-inspired Hofsas House is identified by its European charm; genuine art by Maxine Albro; super-convenient rooms with luxurious beds, kitchens, fireplaces, and decks; and fresh pastries from a neighborhood bakery for breakfast. It fits right in with the quaint little town, where there are no street lights, billboards, and numerical addresses but plenty of space for walking hand-in-hand honeymooners, playing children, and happy dogs.
From Hofsas House we can walk on foot to everything Carmel has to offer, including a long sandy Carmel Bay beach, fine restaurants and boutique shops, wine tasting rooms, and art galleries.
For a Spanish-inspired dinner we head to Mundaka, a popular new restaurant, where locals mingle with out-of-towners and various musicians show off their talents.
Our server pours “no name” house red from a giant bottle and brings our tapas, charcuteria, patatas bravas, croquetas, and baked-in-a-ceramic-pan coliflor—cauliflower gratin with horseradish and Gruyère.
The next day, after several hours spent outdoors in the sun and wind of California winter, we devour a Southwest-inspired lunch at Rio Grill in the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel. Highly energetic, large, friendly, and festively decorated with works by local artists, Rio Grill has been the place for family gatherings, birthday parties, and cocktails with friends since 1983.
Exquisite libations, such as the Blood Orange Rita and Last Word with Bombay Sapphire precede an array of enticing appetizers.
Menu items include Dungeness crab cakes with roasted red pepper, cumin vinaigrette, and spicy cucumber salad; daily quesadilla with different stuffing and avocado salsa; lamb meatball sliders with house-pulled mozzarella and fried shishito peppers; and house-smoked half-chicken with mild smoked chili butter, baby artichokes, and red potatoes.
For Rio Grill dessert, Inga’s house-made olallieberry pie is filled with bursting-with-flavor rich berry preserve. We would doubtless travel again and again to this blessed part of the world.
Mid-January, despite this year’s bone-dry winter, we travel to the wild and dreamy Big Sur for the annual Forager’s Festival, a popular fundraiser for the community’s non-profit Big Sur Health Center.
At the Pfeiffer State Park, densely populated with redwoods, oaks, and bark-shedding madrone trees, we join an early morning foragers’ walk with two mushroom experts, Dennis Sheridan and David Krause.
After a highly informative lecture on the Kingdom Fungi, we venture into the woods only to make sure that there are no mushrooms yet, with the exception of some insignificant molds and lichens.
We are fully rewarded for our patience at the “Fungus Face-Off,” a friendly chefs’ competition at Ventana Inn, where the best chefs of the Big Sur area present their exquisite and elegant creations paired with the amazingly rich selection of wines and beers from the regional wineries and breweries. Mushrooms, even though delivered from the neighboring states of Oregon and Washington this time, are presented in their best form by the notable California chefs.