You've heard of bird watching and whale watching and even girl watching. But butterfly watching?
Every fall, thousands of monarch butterflies return to coastal roosts in Central California's seaside village of Pacific Grove, where they flutter and flaunt their wings for droves of adoring fans.
It's an amazing spectacle, mainly because these quivering creatures are so numerous and so colorful. As hundreds cluster together for warmth, blanketing the trees in flaming orange garlands, it's easy to see why the Mexicans believe that monarchs embody the tender souls of departed children, bound for heaven. They are fragile and beautiful and seem not of this earth.
Monarchs are commonly sighted throughout North America during the summer months, flitting from flower to flower, feeding nectar and morning dew. As autumn approaches and temperatures plummet, monarch populations east of the Rockies begin an annual mass migration to Central Mexico's Transvolcanic Range, while groups to the west return to California, congregating in small groves of Monterey cypress, pine and eucalyptus. Some fly as far as 4,000 miles, rivaling North America's migratory seabirds, and have been spotted by glider pilots at altitudes of 10,000 feet.
For scientists, the monarch's migratory behavior is still somewhat of a mystery. Finding the perfect microclimate is essential to the species' survival. Temperature, wind velocity, on must coexist in perfect balance, and for reasons that still puzzle the experts, ancestral roosts in Pacific Grove have maintained this delicate ecological harmony for decades, perhaps even centuries.
In 1914, resident Lucia Shep- herdson was the first to document the annual appearance of thousands of butterflies in Pacific Grove -- a quiet, Cape Cod-like village nestled at the northernmost tip of the Monterey Peninsula. Today, the Grove is better known as "Butterfly Town U.S.A." Practically every business is named butterfly this and monarch that, and the townspeople are protective of their colorful winter visitors and primary tourist dollar. A $500 fine for "molesting a monarch in any way" is strictly enforced.
Since 1939, the monarch's annual return to Pacific Grove has been marked by the Butterfly Parade, scheduled this year on Oct. 10. Dressed in elaborate monarch costumes, Pacific Grove elementary schoolchildren participate in a celebratory march through the downtown area.
Although the monarchs begin to trickle into town in October, peak butterfly-watching season is between November and the end of February. In Pacific Grove, dense clusters are frequently spotted in Washington Park off Pine Avenue, but most of the monarchs gather on eucalyptus trees off Central and Lighthouse Avenue near the Butterfly Grove Inn.
The best time for butterfly watching is during the morning and late afternoon, when the air is cool and the monarchs cluster together for warmth, seldom leaving the roost. Monarchs can't fly when temperatures dip below 55 degrees, so chilly, overcast days make for prime butterfly watching conditions. When it's sunny and warm, many leave the roost but can be seen flying around town, flitting from flower bed to flower bed. At monarch migration sites, keep as quiet as possible. Monarchs are nervous creatures, easily disturbed by excessive noise and commotion.
There are about 50 spots in California where monarchs are known to congregate annually, but residential and commercial real estate development has caused the decimation of at least seven of these sites over the past five years, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to designate monarch migration a "threatened phenomenon." Although the monarch is one of America's most common butterflies, the species' future remains tenuous at best.
Last year, Pacific Grove residents voted down a subdivision plan that would have allowed the owner of the 2.7-acre migration site adjacent to the Butterfly Grove Inn to build five single-family homes and a multi-unit dwelling on this prime waterfront land. After months of heated debate, the residents approved a $1.2 million bond issue that raised property taxes but enabled the town to purchase the land and set it aside as a permanent and protected monarch butterfly sanctuary.
If you want to learn more about monarchs and their migratory behavior, stop in at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, (408) 372-4212, on Forest Street. Just look for the life-sized cast of Sandy the Gray Whale out front on the sidewalk. Voted the best natural history museum of its size in the nation, the museum is open free to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and also features California Indian artifacts, an extensive shell collection, native fish and mammal exhibits, and a mounted bird display of more than 400 specimens.
Be sure to check out the giant relief map of the Monterey Peninsula on the far wall. Pacific Grove's northern coast borders Monterey Bay, one of the most diverse and productive marine ecosystems in the world. Offshore, the bay floor drops 8,400 feet below sea level, and the depths of this underwater Grand Canyon nurture a mysterious ocean realm where new marine species are still discovered and creatures thought extinct suddenly emerge.
Once the butterflies leave town, most of the tourists follow, and while the neighboring resort towns of Monterey and Carmel boast a year-round flow of RVs, sightseers and well-to-do weekenders from the San Francisco Bay area, Pacific Grove settles into a state of off-season anonymity, where peace and quiet are the main attractions.
Founded as retreat
Ironically, Pacific Grove was founded as a retreat in 1875. Members of a Methodist congregation gathered every summer in tents and cabins built of local timber to think and exchange ideas. Disgusted by the non-stop evening merriment in Monterey's flophouses and bars, the founders of Pacific Grove-by-God built a massive wall around their community and established strict ordinances that regulated swimwear and prohibited waltzing and drinking. As a result, the Grove was known as California's last dry town until residents voted to allow the sale of alcohol in 1969.
The wall has since been torn down, but the shady village streets are lined with elaborate Victorian homes built during the late 1880s. Many are now elegant bed and breakfast inns. Along the coast, shoreline parks border Monterey Bay on Ocean View Boulevard. Sunset Drive meanders along the tempestuous Pacific Ocean and the Grove's white sand beaches to the west.
The entrance to Monterey Bay is marked by Point Pinos Lighthouse off Ocean View Boulevard at the Grove's northernmost tip. As California's oldest continuously operating lighthouse, Point Pinos has warned mariners of the treacherous currents just offshore since 1855. Visitors can tour the inside of this historic land mark on weekends and holidays from 1 p.m. to 4 pm. From October to February, the Point Pinos bluff top is a favorite whale-watching spot. The California gray whale passes ideally close to shore during the species' annual 6,000-mile migration south to tropical waters off Baja, where they breed and calf.
Few visitors realize that the rocky cove at the base of Point Pinos served as the setting for Doc's "Great Tide Pool" in John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." In fact, Steinbeck wrote some of his best works, including "To a God Unknown," "Tortilla Flat," "In Dubious Battle" and "Of Mice and Men," in the three-room, vine-covered cottage at 147 11th St. in Pacific Grove.
Located along the Grove's west side, Asilomar is a rustic yet highly acclaimed meeting and conference center. The grounds were originally established in 1913 as a YMCA meeting site, and funding for several of the buildings was contributed by Phoebe A. Hearst, mother of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
In 1956, Asilomar (meaning refuge by the sea) became a unit of the California State Park system. The conference center, with a number of oceanfront rooms available to travelers at extraordinarily reasonable prices, is currently administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and a board of Pacific Grove residents, intent on maintaining the historical integrity and ecological future of the grounds.
Delicate beach plants, reintroduced by a park restoration program, blanket the sand with a protective carpet of beach primrose, lizard tail, mock heather and sand verbena. Wooden boardwalks twist between the dunes, ending at Asilomar State
Beach just across the street.
At $5.50 a car, the 17-Mile Drive is well worth the toll fare. This shoreline trek begins off Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove and winds along the Pacific Coast through the Del Monte Forest and groves of Monterey pine and cypress, featuring panoramic views of Monterey Bay and the San Gabilan Mountains from the highlands. Much of the drive meanders through Pebble Beach, a swanky neighborhood of architecturally magnificent homes, where lavish villas and mansions with multimillion-dollar ocean views cling tenuously to rock cliffs and overhangs.
Along the shore, cormorants and pelicans catch the ocean updrafts, as sea lions and harbor seals sun their blubbery bodies on the white sand beaches off Seal and Birds Rocks. Inland, the Crocker Monterey Cypress Grove is comprised of 13 acres of the world's oldest and largest Monterey cypress in existence.
An inspiration for countless artists, the "Lone Cypress" sits high atop a massive rock throne along the 17-Mile Drive. Nearby, Robert Louis Stevenson described the mangled remains of dozens of ancient cypress trees, stripped smooth by fierce ocean storms, as "ghosts fleeing before the wind" because of the eerie shadows these bleached and twisted skeletons cast in the moonlight.
Pacific Grove is located about three hours south of San Francisco off state Highway 1. The adjoining village of Carmel marks the southernmost point of the Monterey Peninsula, although Monterey County continues down the coast to Big Sur. Carved into the hills and bluffs, this 26-mile cliff road snakes along the Pacific like a never-ending carnival ride. At times, the guard rails disappear, and the only thing that separates you from the surging waves below is a hundred-foot drop-off.
If you go . . .
For more information on the sites mentioned in this article, contact the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 167, Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950; (408) 373-3304, or stop in at the office located in the blue Victorian at the corner of Central and Forest streets, across from the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Information for all of Monterey County may be obtained from the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Convention Bureau, 380 Alvarado St., Monterey, Calif. 93940; (408) 649-1770.
The Monterey Peninsula Airport, (408) 373-3731, is located on state Highway 68 and Olmsted Road, three miles east of the neighboring town of Monterey. Several airlines offer connecting flights to Monterey from San Francisco: United, (800) 241-6522, and US Air, (800) 428-4322, among them. The American Eagle Commuter (American Airlines) flies direct from San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles; (800) 252-0017. Dollar Rent a Car, (408) 373-6121; Budget, (408) 373-1899; Avis, (408) 373-3327; National, (408) 373-4181; Thrifty, (408) 393-3000; and Hertz Rental Car, (408) 373-3318, have branches in the Monterey Peninsula Airport.
There are dozens of moderately priced family hotels, rustic cabins and cozy bed and breakfast accommodations in Pacific Grove. When it's not completely booked with conference guests, the Asilomar Conference Center, 800 Asilomar Blvd., P.O. Box 537, Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950; (408) 372-8016, features a number of oceanfront rooms available to travelers at $66 to $85. "Deluxe" rooms overlook the ocean and the Asilomar dune system, and some offer fireplaces.
The Gosby House Inn, 643 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950; (408) 375-1287, is an authentic Victorian bed and breakfast. Spending the night at the Gosby has been compared to going home to Grandma's. There's a teddy bear tucked into every bed, and hot spiced cider served in the parlor next to a roaring fire in the afternoon. Rates vary from $85 to $130.
Built in 1904, the Pacific Grove Inn, 581 Pince Ave., Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950; (408) 375-2825, is an elegant Queen Anne Victorian bed and breakfast, designated a National Historic Landmark. Most of the rooms feature fireplaces, and suites are available. Rates run $70 to $150.
The Butterfly Grove Inn, 1073 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950; (408) 373-4921, is situated next to the butterfly trees. There's a heated pool and spa, and the 28 rooms feature in-room coffee and HBO, some with fireplaces and kitchenettes. Rates average $45-$130.