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Sweet solace

PACIFIC GROVE -- This scenery-kissed town on the Monterey Peninsula is a place that instantly kick-starts my dream machine. To visit is to imagine living here -- if not in a grand Victorian with peekaboo views of the sea, then at least in a gingerbread cottage within walking distance of the magnetic, waved-crashed shore.

Alas, with even the teeniest cottages selling for a zillion dollars these days, our family can afford only temporary residence. But whenever we come to Monterey, regardless of where we stay, we make a point of driving over to Pacific Grove, parking the car at Asilomar State Beach and spending a few hours tidepooling, chasing waves and trekking the miles-long recreation trail that skirts the continent's edge.

For us, the region's enduring appeal (golf, aquarium and fabulous food aside) is rooted in the restorative pull of the Pacific.

The irony is that it took so long to discover the ideal place for families like ours, on a modest budget, to put up for a few days.

Asilomar Conference Grounds, tucked into the trees on the north side of the deluxe Inn at Spanish Bay, had flashed on our radar screen for years without us seeing it. We'd driven past the gates on many an occasion, but the word "conference" in the name always had discouraged us from pulling in for a look-see.

Turns out the 107-acre complex, with its 312 guest rooms, is part of the California State Parks system - and as open to the public as the glorious beach across the road.

True, Asilomar functions primarily as what the name implies: It's a conference center, hosting groups of people gathering for everything from training seminars to weddings and family reunions.

"We get every kind of group you can imagine -- one day it's people doing genetic research, the next it's "Wizard of Oz" collectors and the next it's Scottish clansmen. We get over 500 groups a year," said Bill Wolcott, the state park ranger who gave me a tour.

What's not generally known is that any rooms not taken up by folks wearing name tags on strings around their necks are available to "leisure" guests - meaning you, me and your Aunt Sue.

Just don't expect anything fancy. Asilomar's guest rooms are furnished in a bare-basic style that does not include telephone or television. Location, location, location are the key words here: This is a place to breathe deep, soak up the beguiling scenery and let your car sit for a day or two.

The spacious grounds are steeped in a sense of history and serenity. Guest rooms and meeting facilities are spread among about 50 buildings shaded by the region's distinctive Monterey pines and eerily sculpted cypresses. Black-tailed deer roam the lawns, acorn woodpeckers knockety-knock in the trees. In winter and spring, monarch butterflies by the thousands flit over from the nearby Monarch Grove Sanctuary, where they congregate on their migration from British Columbia.

If you sit still and watch awhile, you might spot a red-shouldered hawk soaring over the last undisturbed sand dunes on this side of the peninsula. Listen from your bed at night and you'll hear the surf shooshing like a heartbeat in the distance.

If Asilomar feels a bit like a summer camp, that's because it started out as one. The place began at the turn of the 20th century as a YWCA retreat built on land donated by Phoebe Hearst, the mother of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had befriended Julia Morgan, California's first licensed female architect, through her Berkeley sorority, and brought her in to design a camp that would complement the natural setting.

According to camp lore, the name "Asilomar," fabricated from the Spanish words for "asylum" and "sea," was submitted by a Stanford student in a naming contest that drew 300 entries.

One of Morgan's first projects had been to design a replacement for the Fairmont Hotel destroyed in San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. She would go on, in the 1920s, to lay the groundwork for one of California's most iconic landmarks, Hearst Castle at San Simeon. At Asilomar, Morgan embraced the Arts & Crafts style to design what eventually became a cluster of 16 buildings completed between 1913 and 1928. (Thirteen remain, and are on the National Register of Historic Places.)

To meld landscape and architecture, Morgan integrated cobblestones from local beaches and redwood beams from Big Sur into the construction. The architecture is further defined by shingled exterior walls, decorative motifs drawn from nature and lots of windows to let in outside light.

One of the first buildings to go up, in 1915, was the graceful Grace H. Dodge Chapel Auditorium, still used for weddings and other functions. Carved into the woodwork, adding mood to the building's elegantly simple style, are words from a Psalm, "Above the voice of many waters, the mighty breakers of the sea."

Another original is the administration building, where today's guests come to register, relax by the fireplace or perhaps try their skill at a game of billiards or table tennis. Just down the path is the Crocker Dining Hall, dating from 1918, where meals are served family style at tables for six to 10. The most architecturally distinctive building, perhaps, is Morgan's final construction at Asilomar, the gothic-style Merrill Hall, completed in 1928 and utilized for meetings and receptions.

Guest-room complexes designed by Morgan and still in use include the fancifully named Stuck Up Inn, named for female camp counselors who embraced their snooty reputation; and Pirate's Den, where male staff members once were housed.

"Most people who come here probably don't realize the historic significance of the buildings," Wolcott said of what remains the largest concentration anywhere of Morgan's work.

Asilomar came into the state park system in 1956, a decade in which the state moved to acquire great swaths of coastal property. Today, it is managed by Delaware North Parks and Resorts, the same company that manages lodging and other concessions at Yosemite.

Over the years, the complex has had to expand to earn its keep. New guest-room complexes were added in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, many designed by another well-known architect, John C. Warnecke, in a more modern style.

The newer buildings, most with fewer than 30 rooms, haven't aged as well as the ones of Morgan's design. But like the historic buildings, they share the delightful feature of a common living room with fireplace where guests can meet and mingle in the evenings.

During our stay in March, several of these public areas were occupied for a few hours each evening by members of the Golden Gate Chamber Music Players, who set up shop and played until after dark, the lovely strains of their music casting a spell over the grounds.

One often-missed building at Asilomar is a three-bedroom cottage called the Guest Inn, which once belonged to John Steinbeck's sister. The author worked on "Log From the Sea of Cortez" there in 1941. Today, it's a rental unit especially popular with families.

Families also will appreciate the plentiful picnic tables, heated swimming pool and easy access, via a scenic boardwalk over the dunes, to Asilomar State Beach, one of the peninsula's finest.

We rented bicycles at the lodge ($15 for a half-day) and flooded our eyes with scenery during an hourlong ride along the coast to Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, where we lunched on clam chowder in sourdough bowls.

Given another day, we might have cycled 17-Mile Drive, which begins just a few hundred feet from Asilomar's gate and leads past the fabled golf course at Pebble Beach and some of the glitziest homes in the United States, not to mention more of that dramatic coastal scenery.

Asilomar's rates include a hearty breakfast in the dining hall, where "leisure guests" eat separately from the conference crowd. Set-price lunches and dinners are available, but with so many tempting places to eat in Pacific Grove and vicinity, most choose other options. The Fishwife restaurant, within walking distance, is a fine alternative for those who can't bear to break Asilomar's spell by starting up their cars.

For all its charms, Asilomar isn't for everyone (those who want room service or can't live without TV need not apply), and it's not always easy to get a booking. The place often is booked solid with group business, and leisure reservations can't be made more than 90 days in advance. Your best bet might be to try for a holiday period, when not many conference-goers are about.

One piece of advice: Plan to arrive during daylight hours. We drove in after dark and spent more than half an hour circling around before locating the building to which we were assigned. It's easy to get lost - even on foot - at this enchanting refuge by the sea.

For more information on Asilomar: (831) 642-4242, (888) 733-9005 or Rates range from about $105 to $155 double, including breakfast; seasonal specials as low as $69 (in winter) are posted on the Web site. There's an extra charge ($11 for children 3-12, $20 for teens and adults) for more than two people in a room.