To celebrate my 33rd birthday last week, my mother, sister and I convened in the region where my my mother was born and raised and my sister and I spent many summers growing up. The northern California coast, from San Francisco south to Monterey, kept us happily busy for a week straight: We kayaked in an estuary among pelicans and sea otters, walked along a beach littered with elephant seals and made intense eye contact with an albatross. We ate artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern in the tiny town of Pescadero, scallops at Passion Fish restaurant in Pacific Grove and Spanish tapas at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco. We slept in a redwood forest one night and soaked in a hot tub on a cliff above crashing waves the next. It's good to be 33.
PIGEON POINT LIGHTHOUSE
At 115 feet tall, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, 50 miles south of San Francisco near the town of Pescadero, is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast. It's still responsible for keeping ships from crashing into the shore.
We stayed in hostel located in former Coast Guard buildings at the base of the lighthouse (above, to the right). $75-85 a night for a shared kitchen and bathroom and private room. We were the only ones in our house.
My sister Laura was stoked to be there. Here, she's headed out to take in the view from the deck overlooking the water.
The Frensel Lens, a 10-foot-tall beehive design comprised of 1,008 glass panes, once projected light 24 miles out to sea. Now, it's awaiting the lighthouse's restoration in one of the outbuildings (a friendly ranger invited us in to see).
A major hostel perk: the outdoor hot tub on a deck overlooking the Pacific. In after dark, we could hear the waves crashing and see the lighthouse beam periodically scanning the water.
ANO NUEVO STATE PARK
The last time I visited Año Nuevo State Park, I was 7 years old and cranky (i.e. I didn't want to walk and my mom ended up having to carry me on the hike. Fun times for her!). I had a much better attitude this visit.
Though elephant seals look blobular on land, they're forces to be reckoned with in water. They swim with power and finesse — and log more than 20,000 miles through the ocean every year.
When you're shaped like a cigar, lugging your body up a 6-inch shelf in the sand is an almost insurmountable challenge. After much maneuvering, this juvenile male made it up and joined his friends in just lying there.
The alphas will eventually develop giant elephant-like noses and grow to the weight of Chevy Suburbans. But for now, they rest.
Some very neatly.
The more driven practice their fighting skills out in the surf. Fake fighting helps them perfect their moves and develop protective callouses on their chests for real fights later.
CANNERY ROW John Steinbeck captured the essence of the street in the first lines of Cannery Row:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. It's inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole, he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing.
Admittedly, now Cannery Row in Monterey in California is home to Dippin' Dots, T-shirt shops, mirror mazes and fortune tellers. But if you look up, you can still see remnants of the old canneries, and several of the structures in Steinbeck's novel remain.
Like Doc's marine biology laboratory.
And Lee Chong's grocery store.
We hiked to a waterfall in the quiet redwood canyon where my mother's cousin and her family live, and where my grandmother resided for a few years as a child.
KAYAKING THE ELKHORN SLOUGHWe kayaked through the 7-mile-long tidal estuary near Monterey. V's of pelicans flew overhead, dipping down into the water to catch fish; cranes and herons stood on the banks; otters — sometimes solo, sometimes in large groups (called "rafts," apparently!) — spun and twirled through the water, splashing each other and flipping onto their backs to eat. The tide was against us going in, with us going out.
Me, my mother and personal flotation devices.
SAN GREGORIO GENERAL STORE
The fence around the San Gregorio parking lot does not welcome fish.
But the store itself is quite friendly to cat lovers.
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM
Since my mother works at the natural science center in Greensboro, NC, she was able to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium with a very knowledgeable fish and invertebrate expert named Marcus. I have a new appreciation for invertebrates and the people who know and love them. And, after sharing a magical moment of intense eye contact with the albatross the aquarium uses for its public programs (the only captive bird of its type in the world), I also have a new appreciation for the large ocean-dwelling birds. Peering at us from her cage on the aquarium's roof deck, she seemed very friendly and attuned to humans.
Above: Jellyfish in a blue-backed tank. Below to the right: the blue-backed tank from behind. To the left: the clear tanks in which aquarium staff culture new jellyfish. They have rounded edges because jellyfish get caught in squares, and nobody wants that.
The rooftop pump that generates the waves in the giant kelp tank.
The pump house that pulls in water from the Monterey Bay and cycles it through all the the aquarium tanks before filtering it and returning it to the bay.
Napping sea otter. So buoyant! And so adorable!
OCEAN DRIVE, PACIFIC GROVE
Laura and I ran seven miles along this ocean-side path, which starts in Monterey and stretches down to Carmel. It was spectacular.
Mavah, who took the opportunity to walk the path.
LAND'S END NATIONAL PARK, SAN FRANCISCO
Located along the water at the northwestern corner of San Francisco, Land's End National Park contains trails that parallel the ocean (and offer views of the Golden Gate), as well as the remnants of the Sutro Baths.
Built in 1894 on the edge of the Pacific, the Sutro Public Bathhouse used to contain seven pools of varying temperatures that could hold 10,000 people at a time and offered slides, trapezes, a springboard and a high dive. PLUS, the place hosted talent shows. Can you imagine?! The place was not commercially successful in the 20th century and was demolished in 1964. Now it looks like the type of crumbling stone ruins you'd see in Rome.
His dogs were interested in the tunnel. He was interested in the view.
The top floor of the De Young Museum is housed in glass, offering 360-degree views of San Francisco and all sorts of cool reflections. Worth the trip up, even if you don't have the time to partake of the gallery.
CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS, SAN FRANCISCO
In Golden Gate Park, the Conservatory of Flowers is an exotic plant museum in an old, glass-roofed Victorian structure. The plants against the architecture make for interesting juxtapositions in all sorts of nooks and crannies.
My mother, drinking a cup of Trouble coffee on a sand dune in Outer Sunset. It's crazy you can step off a city block and onto a beach surrounded by sand dunes and surfers.
Streets so steep the sidewalks need steps.
The oh-so-trendy Blue Bottle Coffee Shop in Hayes Valley. The line is perpetual.