Weekend Escape: Monterey : Immersion Experience : Getting hooked on the giant fish tanks at the new Outer Bay

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What we wanted was silence and solitude. What we got was crowds and chaos. But even the din and press of hundreds of other visitors didn't lessen the impact of the new Outer Bay exhibit that opened last weekend at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We drove up on Friday, the day before the March 2 grand opening. Despite the almond trees in full bloom along sections of the highway, Interstate 5 is a dreary drive. We eagerly turned off on California 46, which would take us to Paso Robles and U.S. 101. It was a peaceful trip through rolling hills and pastureland. For digs, we'd picked the Holiday Inn Resort about 1 1/2 miles from Fisherman's Wharf because it offered a package that included aquarium tickets and breakfast. It was a pleasure to walk into an airy poolside, peach-and-green room with its, count 'em, five lamps. If we'd been so inclined, we could have walked from the hotel to the wharf or to Cannery Row (three miles from the hotel) on the eight-mile Monterey Bike Path, which runs by the inn.

Starving after the long drive, we headed for Fisherman's Wharf, where we chanced upon Mike's Seafood Restaurant. It had a fireplace and harbor view, but dinner there, complete with iceberg lettuce salad, looked better than it tasted. Afterward, strolling down the pier, we spotted several other eateries that looked more promising.

Saturday morning brought sunshine and one of those postcard-perfect California days. We hurried through our thoroughly adequate hotel breakfast (ordered from the menu) so we could be at the aquarium by 9. At that hour, there was plenty of parking in the well-marked multistory structure two blocks from the aquarium. But it was filling fast and with street parking at a premium, we were glad we arrived early.

The 12-year-old Monterey Bay Aquarium is the stuff of legends. It is the brainchild of inventor David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard Co. fame), who together with his two scientist daughters, a son-in-law and several marine-biologist friends, came up with the idea of converting a dilapidated cannery into an aquarium that would focus on Monterey Bay, one of the richest marine ecosystems on the West Coast.

This, of course, was no ordinary cannery, but one celebrated by John Steinbeck in his novel, "Cannery Row." That slim volume also made a hero out of an unlikely candidate: Ed Ricketts, the biologist known up and down the Row as "Doc." Ricketts, who died in 1948, devoted his life to understanding Monterey Bay, and in one display at the aquarium, there are pictures of the Bach-loving, beer-drinking scientist and some of the specimens that he collected. But there was little time to tarry--we were there to see the new Outer Bay.

The $57-million wing that was seven years in the making concentrates on the dynamics of life in the bay's sunlit surface waters--roughly the top 300 feet. One of the designers has described it as a world without walls, crevices or corners, where nothing is fixed and there's no place to hide. The occupants of this universe fall into two categories: sleek, strong swimmers built for speed and long-distance travel and soft-bodied gelatinous drifters that float on the currents.

One of the goals of the exhibit, with its low ceilings, dark carpeting and blue lighting, is to make you feel as though you've been plunged into this world without ever donning wetsuit and air tanks, and the effect is fabulous. We entered through a round foyer, the first of three exhibit spaces. Above our heads 3,000 silvery anchovies hurtled around an oval tank, swirling in an endless circle. The tiny, glittering fish brought us to a dead stop.

But the ebb and flow of the crowd pulled us into the darkened recess of a second curving room. We could see in huge tanks on the far wall, the eerie, almost unbelievable jellyfish, aglow in brilliant oranges, delicate pinks and purple stripes, drifting through midnight blue waters. It was a sight that begged contemplation, but not on opening day. People jammed into the room, poking and prodding to get a better view; photographers backed into each other as they fiddled with lenses and light meters. And there were the kids, wide-eyed and curious, careening from tank to tank and asking a million questions.

C'mon, Bill said, and we headed for the centerpiece, the stunning million-gallon tank with its 13-inch thick acrylic window, said to be the biggest ever made. We took a seat on the benches and watched the undersea world swim by. Sleek California barracuda, with their pointed snouts, glided by graciously, while a school of Pacific bonito tuna crossed the scene, seemingly intent on another part of the tank. A huge sea turtle and bobbing ocean sunfish looked as puzzled by us as we were by them. Occasionally, there would be a flash of light and a yellowfin tuna would dart off into the deep.

The display in the huge tank is not quite as originally envisioned. At least four tuna died after smashing into the tank's walls; Pelagic stingrays were removed after they nibbled on the sunfishes' fins, and two sharks have died. Even so, the designers hope that eventually the Outer Bay tank will house up to a dozen species never before held in captivity.

Weary of the crowd, but not the display, we decided to go for coffee. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop and Soda Fountain provided the perfect antidote in the form of caffe latte and hot chocolate, sipped slowly on a small balcony overlooking the beach where school was in session: Novice skin divers practiced pulling each other out of the drink while a class of neophyte kayakers struggled mightily to get their crafts all moving in the same direction.

We poked around Cannery Row's shops--lots of T-shirts, candles, crystals and fudge factories--and had a tasty lunch of halibut with an aioli of sun-dried tomatoes and mahi-mahi with a cilantro sauce at the Fish Hopper. After lunch it was back to the Outer Bay. Again, we nabbed seats on the benches in front of the main tank, and fell under the spell of the fish.

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The Outer Bay is a tough act to follow, but if anything can, it's Montrio restaurant on Calle Principal in downtown Monterey. A bistro under the spirited direction of chef Brian Whitmer, it opened about a year ago in a remodeled 1910 firehouse, and was named Esquire Magazine's New Restaurant of the Year in 1995.

I had called for reservations several weeks in advance. On Saturday night, however, we neglected to confirm them, nor did we allow enough time to find a place to park, so we sprinted to Montrio, hoping that since we were dining at 6:30 p.m., we would find our table waiting for us. All that awaited was bad news: The hostess had no trace of our reservation and the restaurant was full. However, the patron saint of diners intervened. We were seated in less than 10 minutes, and the meal was sensational. After sharing a terrine of eggplant, roasted peppers and goat cheese, Bill tucked into wild Oregon sturgeon, served with polenta that was crisp on the outside and meltingly smooth on the inside, all in a light sauce that combined asparagus, corn and red grapes--not a mixture I would have tried in a million years but which, in skilled hands, was exquisite. I opted for lamb tenderloins with a fricassee of white beans that was delicious. As beer drinkers, we were surprised and delighted to find an unfiltered wheat beer on the menu that was as good as any we drank in Germany. We, who have almost given up eating out because it is often overpriced and underwhelming, might become believers again.

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Budget for Two

Holiday Inn Resort: $279.00

Gas: $28.27

Mike's Seafood Restaurant: $46.20

Fish Hopper Restaurant: $29.19

Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop: $5.33

Montrio Restaurant: $86.66

Parking: $8.00

FINAL TAB: $482.65

Holiday Inn Resort, 1000 Aguajito Road, Monterey; tel. (800) 234-5697.

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