MONTEREY PENINSULA

This area of rugged beauty and startling contrasts is a brooder's paradise

Because there are four exotic-sounding California coastlines beginning with M (Mendecino, Monterey, Montecito, Malibu), the following father-daughter exchange heard recently here is forgivable:

"How do I remember which rocky, romantic coastline is Monterey?" queried a pig-tailed 11-year-old outside a restaurant on Cannery Row.

"It's the one with the lone cypress, sweetie," came the reply.

The pedagogic pop might have added: "and deer on the golf greens, sea lions on Bird Rock, and the sardine wharf town made famous by native Nobel prizewinner John Steinbeck."

It's easy to see why this region fascinated its most well-known resident, one of the world's great literary champions of the disinherited. Remote, and as geographically exposed as a tiny fist jutting into the world's largest ocean, the woody hills and craggy cliffs are a brooder's paradise.

W.B. Yeats's apt oxymoron to describe his native Ireland - "terrible beauty" might here be recast as the "frightening grace" of Monterey. Witness the capriciousness of diaphanous mists over jagged pines, the tide-tossed clashes of soft sea creatures against coral-sharp shoals, and the chiaroscuro of sunlight and clouds. Such plays of opposites produced a magnetism that early drew visitors and settlers.

Fifty years after Columbus sailed into the Bahamas, Don Juan Cabrillo, a Portuguese seaman, anchored in La Bahia de los Pios (The Bay of the Pines), which he claimed for Spain's King Phillip II. Officially named Monterey on June 3, 1770, the peninsula became the military and ecclesiastical center of Alta California, capital during Spanish and Mexican regimes until insurrections in 1846 culminated in an American takeover.

Now that populations have flocked to bigger ports north and south, this area that lies 350 miles north of Los Angeles and 110 miles south of San Francisco is a bastion of international studies, language training, and ocean research. The offshore sea-shelf is home to more types of flora and fauna than are found anywhere on the West Coast.

Visitors know little about the area's expanding educational community, which currently includes 22 schools, along with the foreign population that feeds them.

Still holding a higher profile for most is the 17-mile peninsula-perimeter drive that leaves worldly concerns behind. Viewers can watch colliding sea currents off Point Joe, catch world-class equestrian events at the Bird Rock Hunt Club, or picnic beneath swooping gulls at Seal Rock. Several golf courses here - including world-famous Pebble Beach - use the ocean as the world's largest water hazard.

The most memorable visual here has its own name, numbered turnoff, and parking lot: "Lone Cypress."

Clutching bare rock on a remote promontory, the gnarled trunk, topped with small, compressed needles, has become one of the state's most recognizable landmarks. Besieged by the elements, the imperturbable evergreen is a wordless affirmation to camera-wielding crowds below: Do not toil, do not spin.

Tourist shrine or California metaphor, the tree is an arresting punctuation mark. More than just "Be still," it says: "Come to a full stop."

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