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Cliff walks and Victorian architecture entices visitors to America's ''Butterfly Town"

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. -- There's something uncommonly sweet about a place that goes bonkers for butterflies.

Pacific Grove is one of several coastal communities in central California where legions of monarch butterflies migrate each fall. They fly thousands of miles on those delicate wings, heading south from Alaska and Canada and west from the Rocky Mountains to winter in Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach, as well as Pacific Grove -- areas that all provide the protective microclimate they need. None of the other towns, however, gets quite so carried away about it all.

In Pacific Grove, the town flag has a butterfly on it. Street signs identify ''Butterfly Crossings" and ''Butterfly Zones" where the monarchs typically hang out. A local ordinance decrees a $1,000 fine for anyone who ''molests or disturbs" the butterflies in any way. Large wooden or plastic butterflies perch on local homes and businesses, and butterfly decals decorate shop windows.

The Pacific Grove School District holds a Butterfly Parade every October, when schoolchildren and their teachers dress in butterfly garb and march through town, escorted by police with butterfly wings and antennae on their motorcycles, to celebrate the annual return of the monarchs. Throughout the year, merchants sell butterfly calendars and pins, as well as all sorts of clothing adorned with butterfly likenesses. Bakers sell butterfly cookies. At the lodge where I stayed, one of the maids even had perfected what might be called Butterfly Origami, which she practiced on Kleenex tissues and toilet paper rolls in my room.

From October through early March, Pacific Grove's cherished flitters can be viewed at the aptly named Monarch Sanctuary off Ridge Road, where they cluster mainly in Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees that bloom in winter, providing a convenient source of nectar. The hanging butterflies look like long fluttering veils or masses of dead triangular leaves, depending on your view.

Pacific Grove calls itself ''Butterfly Town, USA" and ''America's Last Hometown." With a population of 15,500, it spans 2.8 square miles on the scenic Monterey Peninsula. It's an affluent community but less chi-chi than nearby Carmel and more compact than Monterey. Streets are clean, homes are well manicured. Locals boast that the town is safe, wholesome, friendly and family-oriented.

And so it has been, right from the start.

Pacific Grove was founded in 1875 as a ''Christian Seaside Resort," a religious campground where Methodists, mainly, came ''to praise God in the open air," as they put it.

By law in those days, Pacific Grove excluded ''all disreputable, unruly, and boisterous characters, and all unwholesome and demoralizing sports and pastimes." The use of intoxicating beverages, gambling, card games, billiards, dancing, swimming, fishing on Sunday, even fast buggy-riding were forbidden. Bathing suits were required to have ''double crotches or a skirt of ample size to cover the buttocks." No one under 18 was allowed on the streets after 8 p.m. in winter or after 9 p.m. in summer. All lights were to go out by 10. The entire community was gated.

Eventually, real estate development began to supplant religious influences. At least one hotel opened to the secular public. A YMCA conference facility and a Farmers' Institute came to town, as well as a School of Music. Fine Victorian homes and small cottages appeared.

Through the years, ''PG," as locals call it now, kept some of the original spirit. It remained alcohol-free until 1969, making it the last dry town in California.

The town's 3-mile seaside walk is one of the nicest of its kind anywhere. A sculpted dirt path, landscaped with native flowering plants, it meanders along ragged cliffs by crashing waves -- a great combination of the sophisticated and the wild. The path also passes through a lovely park called Lovers' Point, originally Lovers of Jesus Point, where an old bathhouse is now a restaurant.

PG is an easy place to visit because most of the shops, restaurants, and lodgings are on Lighthouse Avenue, the town's main street, or within easy walking distance of it. With no high-rise buildings in sight, the town center has an old-fashioned, homey feel. Locals boast that it's ''a Donna Reed kind of place," where the crime rate is low, and courtesy and decorum are high.

''I have left merchandise outside accidentally and it's always there the next morning," said Jeffrey Erickson, who owns the Home Sweet Home gift store with his wife, Jennifer.

If there's a downside to all this gentility, it's that Pacific Grove can feel a bit staid. Other than walking along the cliffs, exploring tidal pools, shopping, eating, and enjoying the architecture, there isn't a lot to do.

A Museum of Natural History has a comprehensive collection of plants, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, rocks, and seashells found in the area, as well as some Native American baskets and other artifacts. It also has a butterfly exhibit explaining the life cycle of the town's beloved Danaus plexippus and offering assorted theories for why and how the monarchs migrate here each year. (They hatch in October and head south, seeking just the right mix of temperature, protection from wind, moisture from fog, and nectar for food, the exhibit says. They rely on the Earth's magnetic field, the position of the sun, or perhaps some genetic instinct to guide them to where their ancestors thrived.)

On weekends, tourists can visit the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast. It has marked the entrance to Monterey's harbor since 1855. There is also a self-guided driving tour of sites related to author John Steinbeck, who for a time lived and wrote in Pacific Grove.

''When we were growing up, we were always bored," said Amy Walmsley, 23, a PG native working the front desk of the Lighthouse Inn and Suites. She suggested that restless youths might venture into Monterey for the club scene.

Other locals recommended the Monterey Aquarium, which boasts a million-gallon indoor ocean full of sea creatures found in the Monterey Bay area, the nation's largest jellyfish collection, and a three-story kelp forest. There's also the famous 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach, past some of the region's most elegant mansions and its even more stately Monterey cypresses, although some visitors balk at the $8 toll. The fee is refunded if you eat lunch or dinner at a restaurant on the drive.

Probably the nicest things to do, however, are to saunter down Lighthouse Avenue and along the Ocean Walk, gaze at the Victorian architecture and the sea, and hang out with the butterflies in their sanctuary. The enormous clusters of orange-and-black monarchs are unforgettable. As one visitor remarked, ''They're like little stained glass windows, thousands of them!"

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