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Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
400 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA, 93940
831-646-1700, 800-368-2468

Chasing the Ghost of Steinbeck on Cannery Row
By Rubin Carson

Sweeping views

A spectacular ocean setting, historic Cannery Row and the spirit of John Steinbeck … these are the elements that provide the backdrop for Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. And despite its setting in a major tourist destination, it is one of Northern California’s best-kept secrets, with its sweeping Monterey Bay views.

Steinbeck's novel, Cannery Row, examines blue-collar life, but the author personally favored luxury and would have approved of the 300 guestrooms and suites with their Biedermeier-style furnishings and grand marble bathrooms with double vanities. Décor is striking, with bold orange and green striped fabrics. Among the amenities are 27” TVs, three phones and custom-designed refreshment centers, and many of the guestrooms have private balconies. Those staying here enjoy access to a state-of-the-art rooftop fitness center. There is also a full-service spa on-site, offering massages, hydrotherapy bath treatments and more.

Room with bold orange and green accents

In 1945, when Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row, the magnificent Monterey Aquarium was yet to be built, and four thousand workers canned 237,000 tons of sardines annually. When he returned years later, the canneries were shut down due to over-fishing and pollution. Huge platters of crisp sardines fried in tempura-like batter used to be a staple in local restaurants, but alas, no longer. On our last visit, the hotel’s staff and GM tried in vain for days to locate one fresh sardine to fry on the entire Monterey Peninsula. Although this was a disappointment, it didn’t indicate the death of seafood on the menu.

The 21st century has seen a resurgence in Monterey’s agricultural and aquatic produce, which is showcased at the Duck Club, overseen by Executive Chef James Waller. Trained in San Diego (with eleven years at Hotel Del Coronado under his toque), he has prepared state banquets for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Bush and Clinton. His philosophy is to keep food simple but to also be daring, as was evidenced in our meal, which was delicious and served without pretension. Among the dishes we sampled were seared diver scallops wrapped in pancetta, with herb and stone fruit salad with mustard oil and cherry tangerine reduction, and grilled Harris Ranch rib eye steak garnished with crispy fried onions. We dismissed the béarnaise sauce and opted for the creamy spinach with aged yellow Gouda. Desserts were appropriately outrageous.

Duck Club

Separated from the Duck Club by just a few feet is the less formal Schooners Bistro on the Bay. Featuring exotic woods, polished brass, romantic outdoor dining and countless draft beers, this gem is everything a nautical hideaway should be---try the fish and chips in beer batter. Along with the sound of breaking waves, a highlight of both dining areas is that the use of cell phones is a strict no-no.

Of course, no stay here would be complete without a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Built in 1984, it has far exceeded its mission to preserve the marine life of Monterey Bay. Adults as well as kids thrill to the sight of shark feedings and marvel at tidbits such as the fact that sea otters eat one-third of their weight every day. The bad news is that the ten-minute walk from the hotel to the aquarium is a tribute to jelly bean emporiums, yogurt vendors and hawkers of T-shirts bearing the likeness of Steinbeck. The good news is that the hotel’s complimentary shuttle whisks you past the tourist traps... and as a guest of the hotel, you’re a VIP and don’t have to sweat the line.

(Updated: 06/26/08 HC)

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