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A RETREAT BY THE SEA IS REFRESHING INDEED.

Byline: MEREDITH GRENIER

Staff Writer

PACIFIC GROVE -- Romantic Asilomar on California's Central Coast seemed the perfect place to celebrate my husband's birthday. Off the beaten track from touristy Monterey, this 103-acre jewel, on the shore of a windswept peninsula, has been a retreat for Southern California recluses for nearly 100 years.

Until a few years ago, the property was used as a conference center for corporate training sessions, professional seminars and reunions. But now it is open to individuals, couples and families as well as to larger groups.

After checking in we drove around the wooded grounds to our rustic room in a two-story building with a sweeping view of fog rolling in over sand dunes and ocean. With the thunder of breaking waves and a wood fire crackling in the stone fireplace, we poured a glass of Central Coast chardonnay and melded into the setting's serenity.

It was easy to see how the area's natural beauty inspired acclaimed architect Julia Morgan to design the buildings for the YWCA conference grounds from 1913 to 1928.

Morgan was the architect for the Hearst Castle. In fact, Phoebe Hearst, William Randolph Hearst's mother, donated the original 30 acres of coastline for the Asilomar site. The retreat's name combines two words, asilo, meaning retreat, and mar, meaning sea.

Morgan designed the administration building, a dining hall, a chapel, housing for guests and employees and a large auditorium in addition to the signature stone gate entrance and the roads around the property. It's not surprising that this redwood and stone complex -- the largest ever built in the Arts and Crafts style -- was named a California state monument in 1958.

Individuals can rent an excellent two-hour, self-guided audio walking tour for $5 that highlights Asilomar's history, architecture, wildlife and ecology.

As the sun set, we ventured out in search of dinner and wound up walking to the Fishwife Restaurant, just across the street on Sunset Drive.

Known for "award-winning California cuisine with a Caribbean accent" and voted "Best seafood on the Monterey Peninsula" by locals, we had to try their clam chowder (delicious), followed by a very fresh and tasty seafood combo of calamari, sole, scallops, shrimp and oysters ($17.95), accompanied by a glass of Roundhill Vineyards chardonnay. And, for dessert, there was an excellent classic creme brulee.

Pacific Grove was started as a summer Methodist camp where several hundred parishioners gathered to worship among the fragrant pines and fresh sea air.

In time it attracted writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, who in November 1879 said he had never been in any place "so dreamlike." John Steinbeck and his wife lived in the Steinbeck family cottage from 1930 to 1936, when they moved to Las Gatos.

One morning we explored Cannery Row in Monterey and had a tandem kayak lesson with an instructor from Adventures by the Sea.

After changing into wet suits and life preservers in the company's locker room, we met our guide, who launched our kayak into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary below the Monterey Plaza Hotel.

Paddling rhythmically is Zen-like, and soon we were off to explore the bay from the eye level of sea otters, who love to play in the kelp beds.

We also saw sea lions, seals and fish in the water, which is so clear you can view 20 to 30 feet deep. There also are 30 different kinds of birds that live in the area.

That night, we joined some new friends in Asilomar's dining lodge for a farewell dinner of herb-baked salmon. And we toasted -- as a deer wandered by the window -- a place we'll return to often for renewed spirit, inspiration and the pleasure of enjoying nature in a timeless sanctuary.

IF YOU GO

ASILOMAR: 800 Asilomar Blvd., Pacific Grove. Room rates from $124. www.visitasilomar.com; (888) 733-9005.

FISHWIFE RESTAURANT: 1996 1/2 Sunset Drive, Pacific Grove. www.fishwife.com; (831) 375-7107.

KAYAKING: Adventures by the Sea offers kayak instruction and rentals; 299 Cannery Row, Monterey. www.adventuresbythesea.com; (831) 372-1807.

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Asilomar has been a retreat on the Central California coast for nearly 100 years. John Steinbeck used to live in the area.

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IF YOU GO (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 11, 2007
Words:704
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