Mention Monterey and everyone thinks of the aquarium. And rightly so—where else can you stare into a million-gallon window on the ocean? But then what? Certainly not Cannery Row—blech. You could bone up on your early-California history, but at the risk of boring your date.
For a more compelling sense of place, you’ll have to head to Pacific Grove, Monterey’s spiffier neighbor. Founded as a church camp, PG is like Mayberry on the beach—a cute little main-street town chock-a-block with grand Victorian homes—and it’s the wintertime home of migrating monarch butterflies. If architecture and insects aren’t enough to hold your interest, just turn around and look at the coastline.
Diving is huge. The Yosemite of the oceans, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary supports myriad species, and divers come from around the globe to ogle them. But even if you only bicycle or walk the shoreline, there’s something magical about being at the edge of Monterey Bay, knowing the ocean floor plummets 10,000ft, just a few hundred yards off shore, while sea lions bark unseen in the distance.
The thing that really grabs me about Monterey is the character of the light—bright, soft and warm. The sky and water look different than in the Bay Area—and make no mistake, this is not part of the Bay Area. (Culturally Monterey marks the northernmost reaches of Los Angeles’ sphere of influence, whereas Santa Cruz marks the southern wall of the Bay Area bubble.)
- Ooh and ahh at the spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium.
- Brush up on California history at Monterey State Historic Park.
- Ride bikes with the kids along the rocky shores of the bay.
- Trip out on the color of the light.
- Three hours from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Expensive accommodations; reserve early.
- Mediocre food; set your expectations low.
See & Do
The best reason (by far) to travel to Monterey is to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s premier aquaria, showcasing the bay’s richly diverse marine life, from shore birds and tide pools to deep-water pelagic fish. Standouts include the million-gallon Outer Bay tank—the world’s largest—where you can come nose to nose with sharks; and the ‘Jellies: Living Art‘ exhibit, which spotlights the filmy creatures solely for their aesthetic beauty. NB: Jellies will close on September 1, 2008. See it before then. The exhibit will be replaced by the Secret Lives of Seahorses, slated to open in April 2009. Stay tuned.
Though educational first, the installations are far from boring because they’re designed to be experiential. Like the super-smart ‘Real Cost Cafe,’ where you can push buttons on a lunch-counter menu and learn how your seafood choices affect the oceans. Giggle at the new ‘Wild About Otters‘ exhibit—otters are way more playful than sea lions—then catch a glimpse of what divers encounter when they drop into a kelp forest.
If you’re with kids, ‘Splash Zone‘ has hands-on exhibits scaled for the under-three-foot-tall set. Splurge and book them into an Aquarium Adventures program—especially cool is the Underwater Explorers program, which takes preteens on a miniature dive into a shallow tide pool.
Plan to spend the better part of a day at the aquarium. July and August are the busiest months; come midweek if you can. To avoid long lines always buy tickets online, in advance, for no extra charge. While here, be sure to pick up the Seafood Watch pamphlet to learn which species of edible fish are sustainable and which are threatened.
If you’re into history, you could easily kill an entire day exploring downtown’s early-California adobes and lush gardens at Monterey State Historic Park. Under Mexican rule in the 19th century, Monterey was Alta California’s first capital, and many of the period’s original buildings have been impeccably preserved. Gather maps and information at the Stanton Center; ask about free walking tours. Admission to gardens is also free.
John Steinbeck would hardly recognize Cannery Row, and frankly there are so few meaningful attractions that it’s just not worth fighting the hordes of amateur tourists to see them. (If you’re looking for summer reading, choose Steinbeck’s The Log of the Sea of Cortez over his more famous Cannery Row. The work is more timely because of the just-passed Marine Life Protection Act.) Cannery Row’s best adult attraction is the Taste of Monterey wine-tasting room, where you can sample six respectable, changing vintages from nearby wineries for a mere $5.
A better place to take the kids is the way-fun Dennis the Menace Playground, designed by Frank Ketcham himself. Dig those cool jungle gyms and wicked-fast slides!
Pacific Grove provides way more sense of place than Monterey. The town was founded as a Methodist church camp in 1875, which explains why the houses sit so close together: they occupy plots originally scaled for tents. PG has a rich diversity of architecture, from grand Victorians to Craftsman bungalows. For good photo ops, head to Ocean View Blvd.
Downtown PG has some fun window-shopping, but the town’s real draw is its coastline. For knock-out bay views, walk (or bike) along Ocean View Blvd from Lover’s Point to Point Piños, which sits at the very tip of the Monterey Peninsula. On a clear evening, you can’t beat the sunsets. Gorgeous.
The Point Piños Lighthouse is noteworthy for history—it’s the longest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast (1855)—but it lacks aesthetic punch because it’s surrounded by a golf course. If you’re a lighthouse freak or history buff, it’s worth a look inside; otherwise, skip it and have more fun scampering up the rocky fingers jutting into the sea just past the golf course.
Migrating monarch butterflies cling—by the millions!—to eucalyptus and pine trees just outside town (follow signs) in the Monarch Sanctuary. They’re in residence from October through February.
Like to bike? Hit the 18mi-long Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, which wraps around the bay, from Lover’s Point in PG all the way to Seaside (the nothing-special town just north of Monterey). Rent bikes downtown from Adventures by the Sea; at Cannery Row, visit Bay Bikes. Both provide maps and assistance planning a route.
Whale-watching is terrific off the Monterey Coast. Gray whales migrate December to April, blues and humpbacks from May to November. The first-choice Sanctuary Cruises operates immaculately clean vessels on its 4-hour whale-watching trips. The larger Monterey Whale Watching operates 3-hour trips.
Monterey & Pacific Grove Restaurants: Budget & Midrange
The top spot for breakfast, First Awakenings ($) is conveniently located next to the aquarium in the American Tin Cannery Mall (enter off Eardley Ave). Sit outside if it’s warm enough; expect a line on weekends.
For lunch in downtown Pacific Grove, the Red House Cafe ($$) looks like a portal to 1940s America, with checked curtains, mint-green walls, and painted wooden tables. Try the grilled fontina cheese sandwich with artichokes and roasted peppers. Save room for Bundt cake.
Exotic for vanilla Monterey, Amir’s Kabob House ($$) serves good Afghani food for lunch and dinner, and it’s walkable to the aquarium. One of the only spots in the area to serve till midnight, the Bulldog Pub makes tasty pub grub, and pours 17 beers on tap, including Newcastle Brown.
Locals don’t eat seafood at the wharf. Instead they head to Monterey’s Fish House ($$–$$$), whose recipes nod to the region’s Italian heritage—for $2 you can add picatta or Marsala sauce to any fish dish. In addition to the usual salmon and sole, there’s also cioppino, homemade seafood linguini, chops, and steaks. And there’s barely a tourist in sight. Wear jeans.
Don’t let its shopping-center location fool you: Fifi’s Cafe ($$–$$$) is a great choice for a simple, romantic meal with your sweetheart. The French-Cal menu is firmly rooted in provincial cooking—nothing is overly stylized or fussy; expect hearty dishes like coq au vin. Come before 6pm for a $16 two-course dinner; add $4 for wine. Such a deal.
Monterey & Pacific Grove Restaurants: Top End
Monterey is not a food town: there’s not a single real destination restaurant in town. And unlike San Franciscans, Montereyans seem kind of oblivious when it comes to making environmentally sound seafood choices, which is ironic considering their location on the Yosemite of the oceans. I was surprised to see how many restaurants serve threatened species. Carry your handy-dandy Seafood Watch brochure from the aquarium to select appropriate dishes.
Everyone’s top pick for dinner this side of Carmel, Passionfish specializes in simple preparations of sustainably caught seafood. The chef-owner hits locals markets to find seasonal ingredients to pair with the fish, and everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. The secret to the kitchen’s success? A minimal use of fat—you won’t feel weighted down after eating here, unlike at most area restaurants. Book well ahead for prime hours.
Sit up straight and mind your manners at Fresh Cream, the first choice for a formal, special-occasion dinner (men: wear a jacket). As the name implies, the menu is classic French. Book before dark to see the sun set beyond the bobbing sailboats in Monterey Harbor.
The Franco-Italian menu at Fandango ($$$) lists standards like veal picatta and bouillabaisse, all very good, but not unusual for around here. What’s exceptional at Fandango is the romantic look of the place. Most couples head directly for the dimly lit fireplace room in back, but it gets crowded. I prefer the little room up front, especially at lunch, because it has only a handful of tables. Make reservations.
Inside a 19th-century adobe house—one of the prettiest historic buildings in town—Stokes Restaurant is my favorite spot in Monterey. Standouts on the Euro-Mediterranean menu include pasta with housemade sausage and Manila clams, and dishes from the wood-fired oven, including a simple calzone.
The splashiest spot in town, Montrio Bistro’s dining room always seems to be packed, but truth be told, I find the cooking heavy handed, lacking in depth of flavor, and uninspired. Don’t write it off just yet, though: there’s usually a happening bar scene, and the small plates are way better than the entrees. Best of all, it’s fun to hang out here (never mind the blaring ’smoove jazz’).
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Monterey & Pacific Grove Hotels: Budget & Midrange
There are scores of motels in Monterey on busy Munras Ave. They’re nearly identical, but in various states of repair. Because this motel row provides no sense of place, I’ve not listed any of these properties here.
I prefer the Monterey Bay Lodge ($$). It’s just a motel, with rooms surrounding a central courtyard, but it’s well maintained, and many rooms are bigger than average (request a large one when you book). There’s also a pool. The motel sits right across from Estero Park and the super-fun Dennis the Menace Playground—a big plus for parents.
The Merritt House ($$–$$$) has clean, if bland, motel rooms right downtown. They’re a couple steps up from budget, and some have extras like fireplaces. And all overlook lovely gardens. Suites are in an adjoining historic house.
In Pacific Grove, near Point Piños, half a dozen motels sit just outside downtown in a quiet neighborhood walkable to the beach—they’re a great spot for family travelers. The standard rooms at the Lighthouse Lodge and Suites ($$–$$$) are a better deal than the suites; rates include breakfast and evening barbecues.
Right in downtown Monterey, the Monterey Hotel ($$–$$$) opened in 1904, and got a makeover for its hundredth birthday. The Victoriana look remains, but gone is the frill. If you like historic hotels, this one’s a good choice. NB:There’s no elevator.
Pacific Grove B&Bs
Pacific Grove is B&B central, with everything from opulent Victorians to stately Craftsman homes. Most are over-decorated, sometimes hideously so—one I recently toured had a giant teddy bear riding a carousel horse in the middle of the parlor. Good God. I have not included any such places here.
The pink Mediterranean-style Martine Inn ($$$–$$$$) overlooks Lover’s Point, and many rooms have mesmerizing ocean views. It’s my favorite formal-fancy B&B, with a jaw-dropping collection of antiques, including Edith Head’s bedroom suite in one room. Breakfast is a lavish affair, served on bone china with sterling flatware. No kids. Period.
Opened in 1889, the Centrella Inn ($$–$$$) sits a few quiet blocks from downtown PG, and has Victorian-style rooms (read: small) with floral wallpaper. Cottages out back sleep four, good for two couples or families. I like this place for its history, lovely gardens, and friendly service. Tasty cookies, too.
The Inn at 213 Seventeen-mile Drive ($$–$$$) occupies a rambling Craftsman-style home at the edge of downtown. Rooms have hardwood floors and Oriental carpets (a nice diversion in a town that embraces wall-to-wall carpeting); for maximum privacy and space, book the cottage out back. Outside there’s a small hot tub under century-old oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Sensible-shoe-wearing English tourists favor the Gosby House ($$–$$$), a classic mid-budget B&B with floral wallpaper, a few basic antiques, a full buffet breakfast, and terrific rates. I like it for its utter lack of pretension.
Monterey Hotels: Top End
The top (and only) full-service hotel in town, the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa ($$$$) has a primo location right on the water. The decor is business-class generic (think muted peach and green), but all the basics are in place—down pillows, bathrobes, good-quality bath amenities. The best rooms are those directly over the water, where you can fall asleep to the braying of sea lions. The rooftop spa is the best in town.
The 1927 Tudor-style Old Monterey Inn ($$$$) was built by the town’s first mayor, and has the city’s cushiest rooms. In a quiet residential area walkable to downtown, the house is surrounded by lush, mature gardens, the perfect spot for breakfast or dozing with a book. In the main house, I like the cozy third-floor Rookery the best, but it gets warm in summer months. The cottages out back are the most private. Many rooms have wood-burning fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs for two; ask when you book. Some of the fabrics and wall art could use sprucing up, but the new owners promise to upgrade over time.
Every room is a suite at the Hotel Pacific ($$$$), and though it looks like a two-story motel from the outside, rooms are extra-spacious, with dining rooms, wet bars, and gas fireplaces, making this a great pick for families. Choose a room that faces the courtyard, not the street, for the most quiet. Its sister hotel, the Spindrift Inn ($$$$), has rooms on Cannery Row overlooking the water. If the Monterey Plaza’s waterview rooms are full, try here as a backup.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up