Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Head Out to Monterey

Monterey, California is a seaside town that manages to be quaint and sophisticated at the same time, and is inhabited by everybody from artists to anglers and WASPs to Buddhists. In short, it is the kind of microcosm that makes for an ideal vacation destination.

It was very unlike Erika and I to arrive somewhere not having done any research, and not having any real idea what to do while we were there, and not having reserved a place to stay – but that’s exactly what we did when we went to Monterey. It was during our “San Francisco trip,” a phrase I put in quotation marks because we stayed in San Francisco for only two of the trip’s seven nights. The only reason we were even in California is that we decided to go wherever Southwest Airlines was flying for the cheapest fare out of Tampa, and this resulted in us flying into the smallest of the Frisco Bay area’s three international airports.

We wanted to see more than just the city of San Francisco while we were there, and since I was vaguely aware that Monterey is located about an hour to the south, I thought it would be easy to get to. Plus, I knew it hosts a renowned jazz festival every year, so I figured it must be a cool place to check out. And when I looked at the map and realized it sits at the north end of the Big Sur Coastline, which is considered one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery on the entire planet, we decided we had to go.

We got a great deal on lodging because of the simple fact that small inns and bed-and-breakfasts – unlike hotels – rarely get walk-in business. This means that they often give you a significant discount if you show up on a day when they have unreserved rooms that would otherwise sit vacant. We spotted the Merritt House Inn (pictured below) within minutes of driving into town, and when I walked inside and inquired if they had anything available, they knocked 60 percent off the nightly rate without even being asked. We got to spend a couple nights in a large room that had a fireplace, refrigerator, and vaulted ceiling. It overlooked lushly gardened grounds across from the Common Room where complimentary continental breakfasts were served every morning. All that, for less that the price of a cookie cutter room at a Holiday Inn.

One thing that becomes clear soon after you arrive in Monterey is that it is an excellent place to find a good meal. Maybe that is because of the availability of fresh seafood, or the availability of fresh produce from the Salinas Valley, or maybe it’s simply because the people here have good taste and high expectations. At Montrio Bistro, I dined on succulent lamb, Erika reported that the margaritas were superb, and we both agreed it was worth the splurge.

In the northwest part of town, Cannery Row – which was once an industrial strip made famous by the writing of native son John Steinbeck – has been transformed into a tourist-friendly destination comprised of shops, galleries, a blues bar, and all manner of restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Monterey Bay Aquarium appeals to adults and children alike and is home to animals ranging from Giant Pacific Octopus to blackfooted penguin. It offers a host of daily activities ranging from shark feedings to otter training.

If you bring the kids, be sure to take them to the Dennis the Menace Playground. It was built with funds from the comic strip’s creator in the 1950’s, and has been updated several times since. Among its many features are an old steam engine, a climbing wall, a suspension bridge, and a slide that travels all the way down a hillside.

But as neat as the town itself is, you’ll be missing out if you don’t drive south for a day to explore that beautiful coastline I mentioned earlier. When Erika and I did that, our first stop was six miles away at Point Lobos State Reserve, where we watched a harbor seal poke his head above the water in an inlet called Whaler’s Cove. Farther into the reserve, we hiked down to the Pacific and witnessed its crashing waves:

As you continue south on the Pacific Coast Highway, breathtaking views are seen after every twist and turn as mountains rise above oceanfront cliffs. As we neared the Bixby Bridge 15 miles from Point Lobos, I told Erika she might recognize it because it has been the setting for countless movies and car commercials – and lo and behold, when we got there a worker waved us to a stop because they were filming an Audi commercial at that very moment! After we drove across, I took this picture looking back to the north, and even though it was foggy you can still tell how beautiful the coast is:

We stopped at the Big Sur River Inn Restaurant, where we ate lunch surrounded by pristine forest. With our stomachs full, we then moved on to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, about 10 miles from the Bixby Bridge, for our last stop before turning around. While there, we worked off our lunch by walking beneath the redwoods, and Erika took this picture of me appearing very small before one of the ancient giants:

The morning we were to leave town, we decided to take a walk on Old Fisherman’s Wharf before departing. The sky was blue, the air was cool, we saw a sea otter floating on his back – and on the spur of the moment we decided to go whale watching, since there are so many companies on the wharf that will take you for a sail at very reasonable rates. Before long we were standing on a boat with a family from England, a schoolteacher from Canada, and a couple people I only assume were Americans.

The boat carried us past a jetty covered with sea lions, and out into Monterey Bay’s open waters where hundreds of dolphins skipped among the waves on both sides of the bow. We went up and down rolling swells that were big enough to write home about, and eventually a pair of humpback whales came to the surface emitting steam from their blowholes. We got close-up views of their sides and tails, and even though this picture is not as good as the ones in stores, I love it because it’s of the same whale that I saw with my own two eyes:

Just imagine how many memories you’ll be able to make in this place, considering that we arrived not knowing what to do but left with memories that will last a lifetime.