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Monterrey Magic

For sheer beauty and peace, look no further than Monterey, California
Thomas Matthews
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

The late afternoon sun lies on the Pacific Ocean like beaten silver. Hawks circle tall Monterey pines. The scent of wood smoke rises from cedar-shingled bungalows tucked into the steep hillside. Breathless sighs mingle with the sound of crashing waves. Some happy couple, I think, is enjoying another perfect day at the Highlands Inn.  

From the balcony of my suite, sun-warmed even in February, I watch the waves crash, the birds soar, and I can trace the bright line where the ocean meets the sky. The inn's staggered rows of two-story buildings are so skillfully set into the landscape that the viewer and the view remain completely private, leaving my neighbors a mystery, or perhaps even a dream.  

In this combination of grandeur and modesty, the resort is a faithful reflection of its site, the California coast between Monterey and Big Sur. The dramatic encounter between restless sea and rugged cliffs provides an endless interplay of sound, light and scent, somehow at once exhilarating and deeply peaceful. It's no wonder that artists have been drawn to its natural beauty for decades, and no surprise that the wealthy have followed their lead, replacing cottages with mansions that still, for the most part, strive not to dominate but to marry the incomparable landscape.  

This sympathetic partnership can be seen in the splendor and drama of Pebble Beach Golf Course on the Monterey Peninsula, or in the picturesque perfection of quaint Carmel, or in the way vineyards caress the hillsides by the flourishing wineries of Carmel Valley. It's an alluring combination of natural beauty and first-class comfort, the ability of money to create a place where wealth seems beside the point. When it comes to this Monterey magic, few places can match the Highlands Inn.  

Located four miles south of Carmel on a wild stretch of coastline between Point Lobos and Big Sur, the Highlands Inn has been coddling Californians since 1917. Back then, guests were met at the train station and brought over a rutted, one-lane road to modest lodgings in small cabins scattered across the steep hillside. Those guests enjoyed electricity, heat and running water--extraordinary luxuries at the time. In 1983, the present bungalows were built. Yet the inn's essential character of luxurious modesty remains intact.  

Today the inn, which became a Park Hyatt hotel in 1999, offers 142 rooms, including 105 suites. They nestle into small, cedar-shingled buildings, linked by brick stairways and lush gardens, above a main lodge that serves as the social center of the resort. The front desk, restaurants, gift shop and services are grouped here; athletic young men bound back and forth from the lodge to the bungalows to deliver luggage, room service, or anything else the guests might require.  

Most of the suites have balconies with views of the ocean; inside, they feature wood-burning fireplaces, kitchens, and large bathrooms with spa bathtubs and showers. Sliding panels allow the various areas to be closed off for privacy, but the basic layout is open and airy, with clean modern lines emphasized by wood details, muted colors and functional furniture. The decor favors comfort over opulence, and while renovations are scheduled to refresh and upgrade the rooms, the ambience faithfully reflects the legacy of the inn's original cabins.  

If you can tear yourself away from the balcony views or the cozy fireplace, outdoor activities abound. On the property, a heated pool and several small whirlpool spas refresh the weary; complimentary bicycles make it easy to explore Point Lobos State Reserve, with its rocky cliffs and tidal pools, sea lions and otters, vivid light and endless views. Tennis, horseback riding, whale watching, fishing and golf are all available nearby, and the cheerful Highlands concierge staff can arrange for entrée almost anywhere.  

Desires to explore and acquire can also be satisfied by less demanding pursuits. Carmel is home to dozens of art galleries and upscale shops, while Monterey offers one of the state's most renowned aquariums and the cheerful tackiness of Cannery Row. Wine lovers can explore this emerging region's bounty at A Taste of Monterey on Cannery Row, or enjoy the scenic route through the vineyards of the Carmel Valley, where tasting rooms make enjoyable stops at such wineries as Chalone, Lockwood, Galante and Jekel.  

The region is also distinguished by its abundance of fine dining and an extraordinary concentration of award-winning wine lists. Four area restaurants have earned Wine Spectator's highest honor, the Grand Award--Monterey's Sardine Factory, Carmel's Casanova, Sierra Mar in the Post Ranch Inn in the heart of Big Sur, to the south, and Pacific's Edge in the Highlands Inn itself.  

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