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WEEKEND ESCAPE: MONTEREY COUNTY

Surfside Sanctuary

On the stark, wind-swept sand dunes north of Monterey, a new resort aims to showcase the coast's natural beauty rather than transform it

August 20, 2000|SHARON BOORSTIN | Sharon Boorstin is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills

MARINA, Calif. — Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Well, Mr. Twain must not have visited Monterey in early July.

The Saturday morning I arrived, the sky was the color of gunmetal, and the chill sent me diving into my suitcase for a sweater.

"Sometimes we don't see the sun for weeks this time of year," the car-rental agent said, explaining that the Monterey Peninsula's microclimate means the coast can be shrouded in fog while the sun is shining five miles inland.

I've been to the Monterey Peninsula in the fall--and the spring too--when the weather has been glorious. This time, though, I was eager to visit in summer. I was checking out what was touted as the first new oceanfront development in Monterey County to be approved by the California Coastal Commission in more than 20 years: the Marina Dunes Resort, about 10 minutes north of Monterey in the town of Marina.

Fog or no fog, my husband, Paul, and I were determined to enjoy the area's varied scenery, charm and history without driving from L.A. Paul had already flown in for business, so I hopped a plane to Monterey and, thanks to some car-rental coupons, still managed a stay within our budget.

On Saturday, after we'd made a stop at Cannery Row for peel-and-eat shrimp and a trip through the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the sun broke through the fog. Eager to take advantage of the good weather, we hustled north on California 1 to the Marina Dunes Resort.

The landscape here is quite different from that of the Monterey Peninsula--no groves of pine trees and craggy cypresses. No trees, period. This is stark, wind-swept sand-dune country. The site had been a quarry supplying fill for sand traps at Pebble Beach and other golf courses.

Set on 19 acres just 200 feet from the ocean, Marina Dunes was approved by the California Coastal Commission only after the developers, King Ventures, agreed to maintain the surrounding sand dunes and protect the rare Western snowy plovers, Smith's blue butterflies and California legless lizards that call the area home. Because of these endangered or threatened species, no cars are allowed beyond the resort's main lodge and restaurant, an A.J. Spurs steakhouse that opened after our visit.

The resort began welcoming guests in January, but all 30 of the guest rooms and suites weren't open until April. (The resort also has 33 time-share units.) A Marina Dunes representative says construction work remains to be done on the spa, and finishing touches such as robes and slippers for the rooms need to be added before the official grand opening.

The rooms and suites are spread out among 21 one- and two-story buildings done in a style the brochure calls a "modern interpretation of the California bungalow." With khaki clapboard walls and green roofs, the bungalows reminded me more of those at the former Ft. Ord across California 1.

The interiors, however, lean toward Ralph Lauren. Our room had a king-size bed outfitted with fine cotton sheets and a down comforter, a granite wet bar and mini fridge, a spacious bathroom and a gas fireplace below a cabinet housing a 27-inch TV.

The second-floor location meant we had an ocean view. When I opened the sliding door to the porch, we could hear the crashing surf and the whistling wind.

The beach at Marina Dunes is good for walking, contemplating life or flying a kite--not, as a sign clearly warns, for swimming or even wading.

The beach is also good for something else: As I walked, digging my feet into the fine white sand, a huge winged shadow overhead blocked the sun. This was no pelican; I looked up to see a hang glider hovering silently 100 feet above me. I scrambled up the dune for a better view.

Nestled beneath the wings, in a harness that looked like a sleeping bag, the pilot worked his hands on a bar to maneuver the contraption, catching the wind that sweeps in off the ocean and up the sand dunes. When he saw Paul snapping away with his camera, he swooped closer and showed off some figure-eights. Then he drifted away, calling out, "See ya later."

Exhilarated from our close encounter, we drove to Carmel, a 10-minute trip south on California 1, then another 10 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic to a parking space.

We strolled down Ocean Avenue, shunning the tchotchke shops but admiring the charming (and now million-dollar) cottages that date to the early 1900s, when Carmel was developed as an artists' colony.

At the Mediterranean Market, a high-priced but hard-to-resist shop that has been selling fancy cheese, crusty bread, gourmet goodies and wine for 40 years, we picked up two nights' worth of takeout.

Later, back at Marina Dunes, I braved cold winds and swam in the heated pool, then spread a towel out on the lid of the hot tub on our porch. (The tubs remain empty while the resort applies for health permits.) It made a fine spot for a sunset picnic.

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