MONTEREY, Calif. -- No matter how many times I visit the Monterey Peninsula, there always seems to be a new golf course, hotel or attraction to be discovered.
I've made the hour-long trek to (arguably) golf's most celebrated address nearly half a dozen times since moving to the Bay Area from Michigan in 2014. Each time I feel like golf's Christopher Columbus, an explorer wide-eyed and full of wonder. My heart melts every time those glorious sand dunes lining the Monterey Bay appear along Pacific Coast Highway 1.
There's so much to do I almost wish I wasn't a golfer (emphasis on "almost"). That would give me more time to hike the rocky coastline or unwind on the beach or stop by a wine-tasting room I never knew existed.
I came for a golf tournament called the "California Cup" -- an event for travel and tourism-industry professionals -- and left with a profound understanding of what makes the Monterey Peninsula so special. Each of the three official tournament days had a theme -- the spoils of Pebble Beach Resorts, the beauty of the Monterey Bay and the secluded splendor of Carmel Valley.
I didn't play any of the region's headliners -- Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Golf Course or Cypress Point -- and still came away feeling inspired. It only takes one hand to count the golf destinations in the continental United States that are this good.
Day 1: Pebble Beach Resorts
It's always good to visit Pebble Beach Resorts with a newbie. Their jaws literally drop, and their eyes bulge when they walk inside the Lodge at Pebble Beach and see the famous 18th green for the first time. I had forgotten how grandiose the setting is without grandstands from the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am surrounding it.
After time to explore the shops for souvenirs and watch players tee off on one of the scariest first holes in golf, our group toured the new Pebble Beach Golf Academy prior to a round at the Links at Spanish Bay. The new academy and practice facility, which debuted in 2014, really filled a void at the resort. Golfers can take a lesson, get fit for new clubs or hook up to the futuristic-looking robotic swing trainer inside its three studios. Outside is a massive range and chipping and putting greens.
I was hoping my third round at Spanish Bay would be a charm, but unfortunately, the steady diet of approach shots over wetland hazards to wild greens still pummels my meager game. I still haven't figured out how to score during such blustery afternoon conditions. The golf course is gorgeous, though, especially when the 14th hole climbs out of the Del Monte forest and returns to the ocean. The sounds of the nightly bagpiper and a drink tend to release all concerns about the scorecard anyway.
The banquet-style meal -- paired with wines from Napa Valley, inside the Inn at Spanish Bay -- couldn't have been more exquisite. Any banquet chef at the resort could easily be an executive chef somewhere else. The day ended with a bold dessert combination -- a chocolate coffee chiffon with pistachio oatmeal crunch lathered with brown butter vanilla ice cream and paired with an "Oatmeal Stout." Pebble Beach can wine and dine with the best.
Day 2: Monterey Bay
My favorite discovery of the trip came at the breakfast buffet the next morning hosted by Monterey Tides, the only hotel in Monterey directly on the beach. The hotel just completed a multi-million-dollar renovation that refreshed every guest room and the lobby. The view attracts vacationing families and brides for dream weddings in the sand.
The Tides sells golf packages to Bayonet/Black Horse, where we played that afternoon. Bayonet is the course for horses -- narrow and challenging -- so we rode, instead, with Black Horse, a more playable track featuring better views of the bay.
Both layouts used to be military courses before Fort Ord was decommissioned. Architect Gene Bates designed their flamboyant bunkering during a massive overhaul in 2007-08. Talk of a resort hotel being built on site remains just that. For now, construction is limited to a handful of new homes. For your money, any combination of Bayonet/Black Horse might be the best value on the peninsula.
That night we dined with 1,000-pound tunas (noticed I didn't write "on") at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, heralded among the best aquariums in the world. It was built into California's rocky coast. Viewing glass walls showcase actual kelp forests swaying in the waves. Its best exhibits are interactive, allowing children to "pet" sea creatures such as sting rays. It is the centerpiece of Cannery Row, a haven of bars, restaurants and shops. If the kids are in tow, this is a must go.
Day 3: Carmel Valley
Heading inland away from the ocean can be a downer, but I think this is where Monterey goes extraordinary. The feel and climate can be dramatically different at the Quail Lodge & Club and the Carmel Valley Ranch than what's near the shore, even though both golf resorts are less than 10 miles from the beach. The marine layer, if there is one, burns off quicker, leading to more fun in the sun.
Both resorts have spent millions of the dollars in the last five years to keep up with the likes of Pebble Beach, upgrading menus, adding family and children's programming and updating accommodations.
In 2015, a $20 million project at Carmel Valley Ranch added 30 indoor-outdoor suites and a new adults-only pool. A new farm-to-table restaurant uses fresh produce from the resort's organic farm and honey produced by its bee hives and serves the first-ever wine releases from its vineyard. A stay might feel like adult summer camp without the curfew. I haven't played its Pete Dye-designed golf course yet -- another discovery waiting for next time. It looked quite magnificent from the higher elevations driving in.
The story of the $28 million revival of Quail Lodge is even more compelling. The 90-room resort went into hibernation for three years before reopening in 2013. The final piece of the puzzle, a complete redo of the original Robert Muir Graves-designed golf course, was completed last summer. Todd Echenrode, of Origins Golf Design, tinkered with a few holes and built eye-popping bunkers lined with fescue. Pray your misses find the sand not the treacherous lies in these crosshairs.
The breakfast at Carmel Valley Ranch and dinner at Quail Lodge were equally memorable.
By the end of the week, there was no consensus on a favorite course. Some international players loved Spanish Bay for its views and unique topography near the shore. Other golfers favored the tranquil setting and rolling hills of Quail Lodge, even after several downpours soaked our outing to the bone. I think everybody agreed about one thing: The Monterey Peninsula throws one heck of a party no matter where you play.