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TRAVEL ADVENTURES: Reasons I will keep visiting Monterey, Calif., until I die

MONTEREY, Calif. -- 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, and fetching shiny ornaments for a reward of an abalone liberated from its pesky shell.

This made me laugh, although Paula - the expert 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 number one 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 to explore even further!

Monterey County sits two hours south of San Francisco, occupying a 100-mile swath of Pacific Ocean beauty and inland fertility. For a little perspective, the county is 1.5 times the size of the great state of Delaware. Except that it’s far more exciting than Delaware, of course!

Monterey’s 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’s not particularly gay-friendly or gay-unfriendly. It just is,” explains local resident David “Doc” Reichbaum. David is a well-traveled guy who works for the local recycling department and lives here with his girlfriend Galen.

There are no gay bars here, no clubs and 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 – you guessed it – a bunch of seals were enjoying the last drops of sunshine. It was a primal scene, just a few people, the seals and rock that had been there for millions of years. Brainy patterns had been blasted into the rocks by the sea spray, and birds were gently riding thermals overhead.

I looked around, and remembered that Robert Louis Stevenson was struck with the idea for Treasure Island while hiking in this very same spot. As the fiery sun dropped into the water, and everything held that signature California magical radiance, it was like my own private treasure, a passionate fling with nature that had me grinning.

I’m walking the grounds of the lush Del Monte Golf Course with Dave Lambert, who recently moved to do the marketing for the newly redesigned Hyatt Regency Monterey. “We moved from Marin County, and it's just fabulous. It's good living. A little bit of something for everybody." He’s gushing about his life here, and it’s easy to see why. The smooth contours of this Pebble Beach Company golf course are only a hint of the championship-level golfing available.

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 successful ran for mayor of Carmel-by-the-Valley 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.

My short trip to Monterey ends on an appropriately fruity note. "Monterey has outstanding wines, some of the best in the country. Especially the chardonnay and pinots,” explains Joel Giachetti, outlets manager at the Hyatt Regency Monterey, as I sip a sampling of Monterey’s finest.
I discover that Monterey produces more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined, and that many grapes from the Central Coast go into Napa/Sonoma-branded wines.

I learned that the cool growing season is especially amenable to pinot noir and chardonnay. I discover that there are eight soil types and 42 varietals. The soil has stellar mineral content, which makes for uniquely robust wines.

But best of all, I learned that Monterey is one of those special places that is widely popular and accessible to many, while maintaining that rare ability to make me feel like I am the only person in the whole wide world that knows about it.