Though we’ve visited Monterey several times, it never ceases to amaze us how each time we’re drawn to it like moths to a flame.
Perhaps it’s the grey marine layer that often smothers the California coastal peninsula like a cool wet blanket or the azure blue waters-waves crashing over jagged rock formations. But one thing is certain, coming to Monterey always feels like we’re grabbing life by the moment.
Where to Stay
There’s something very special about staying in a boutique hotel with a fascinating history. And our favorite Monterey retreat has to be the authentic Casa Munras Garden Hotel and Spa.
Constructed in 1824, the original residence of the enchanting Spanish-inspired property was one of the first residences to be built outside the walls of the old Monterey Presidio. The individual handmade adobe bricks used in building the historic home still remain on site in a portion of the original structure
Located just a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, everything about Casa Munras exudes warmth, tradition, and a true sense of hospitality. A large seating area with leather sofas, pillows, and a roaring fireplace welcomes guests entering the lobby. Staff is friendly, engaging and more than helpful with area recommendations.
Our 505 square-foot junior suite was charming and elegant with a king bed and full bathroom with a marble sink top. An alcove, sitting area with a queen sofa, and wet bar made it feel more like a villa. And to our absolute delight, we enjoyed the warmth and ambience of a three-sided gas burning fireplace. Our first thoughts were “why would anyone want to leave this room?”
Exploring the picturesque property is a must. Its heated pool and outdoor seating area with a fire pit are extremely popular with guests when the cool Monterey air begins settling over the peninsula.
Though the downtown area and Fisherman’s Wharf are within easy walking distance, bike rentals are available from the hotel. Guests can also enjoy biking along scenic paths that run from the wharf area to historic Cannery Row and Pacific Grove.
Where to Play
No visit to Monterey is complete without a rendezvous at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Since it was constructed in 1845, the pier has seen whaling ships, Navy cutters and fishing boats by the score dock nearby.
Whale watching and other ocean activities still line the wharf. Harbor shops along both sides carry sea-inspired gifts, jewelry, clothing, and even a general store offering that timeless boardwalk treat, salt-water taffy.
But, there’s no doubt the main reason people come to the wharf. It’s the fresh seafood for sale on the fishmongers’ tables and the myriad of restaurants that feature crab, lobster and fresh catches. All feature the number one food Monterey is renowned for, Clam Chowder.
Famous author John Steinbeck immortalized the gritty lives of the working class in his 1945 novel Cannery Row, when Monterey was undeniably the sardine capital of the Western Hemisphere.
In Steinbeck’s words “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
Remains of those canneries still exist along the fabled waterfront, a telling ghostly consequence of overfishing that brought economic collapse to the area after World War II.
Cannery Row fell into ruin and was resurrected in 1968 by two restaurant managers with strong family ties to the fishing industry. Today, the area is vibrantly filled with tourists enjoying the Row’s myriad of restaurants, shops, wine-tasting rooms and breweries.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Cannery Row sports a number of attractions, but its superstar has to be its world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. With a world-class reputation, this unique non-profit aquarium happens to be one of our favorites.
Located on the site of a former sardine cannery, the aquarium is like walking into and under a magical indoor ocean. Its mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean.
Home to over 700 varieties of marine animals from the Monterey Bay, its exhibits feature sea otters, sharks, rays, penguins and mesmerizing jellyfish. The aquarium’s towering 28-foot-high 333,000 gallon tank spectacularly displays California coastal marine life and its giant kelp beds. Here visitors can view the underwater sea life of the kelp forest from several levels in the building.
Monterey State Historic Park
As history buffs, we admit we loved following Monterey’s “Walking Path of History.” The two-mile trail took us to the site where Spanish explorers first landed in Monterey in 1602.
We meandered along the same streets that famed author Robert Louis Stevenson strolled in 1879. Twelve historic homes and buildings are located along this trail through time, including the oldest government building in California, the Custom House.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Monterey coast sports the largest U.S. national marine sanctuary with an impressive shoreline length of 276 miles. One of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems, the sanctuary is home to numerous mammals, seabirds, fish, invertebrates, and plants in a remarkably productive coastal environment.
The best way to experience this water wonderland is by kayak. Harbor seals swam alongside our boat as otters rolled and frolicked nearby in the kelp beds.
The peace, serenity and sheer natural beauty brought to mind a quote by Henry David Thoreau “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Known as the “Butterfly Capital of the World” dreamy idyllic Pacific Grove is located on the tip of the scenic, rocky tree-shrouded Monterey peninsula. Just two miles from Monterey this picturesque town with its Victorian mansions and vintage architecture exudes an ambience of charm, grace and timeless beauty.
Among its visitors are brightly colored orange-and-black Monarch butterflies, who overwinter among the town’s Monterey pine and eucalyptus tree groves after traveling up to 2,000 miles. These beautiful delicately winged insect aviators arrive by the thousands beginning in October, peaking around Christmas and departing by March each and every year.
Visitors love to tempt fate by venturing out on the massive rock formations overlooking the Pacific where at times dangerous waves from ocean swells crash over the rocks. Lucky adventurers only get soaked.
Where to Dine
Crepes of Brittany
The line waiting to get inside says it all. Crepes of Brittany located in the heart of Old Monterey was so popular in its original location on Fisherman’s Wharf that the owners had to move to better accommodate its loyal patrons.
One bite and we knew why it’s been a favorite for years. I had no doubt I was going for the Strawberry Cream Cheese. My hubby chose Apple Cinnamon Caramel. Full of fresh fruits and topped with plenty of real whipped cream, one word of caution here. Order your own. You won’t want to share.
Dining on the Wharf
What you see is what you get when viewing the fresh seafood displayed at Old Fisherman’s Grotto, a mainstay of the wharf for over 50 years.
The historic restaurant is the originator of the world famous “Monterey Style” Clam Chowder. Served piping hot in a sourdough bread bowl, it’s easy to see why the chowder became such an iconic staple of the wharf.
And since crab was in season, we had to try the Dungeness Crab Cocktail. Meaty, melt-in-your-mouth fresh, this dish is just another reason we love coming to Monterey for seafood.
The Fish Hopper
Perfect location, fabulous food and impeccable service. We call dining at The Fish Hopper the trifecta because it is ocean view dining at its best.
A definite waterfront hot spot on Cannery Row, this popular eatery with spectacular views of Monterey Bay is always packed to the gills.
Deciding on an entrée isn’t easy here so instead we chose some tantalizing appetizers to share. Oysters Rockefeller and Dungeness Crab Stuffed Mushrooms were divine, followed by Crispy Coconut Prawns served with a zesty apricot sauce. Dining in coastal California doesn’t get any better than this.
The Magic of Mother Nature
With its spectacular water wonderland, marine sanctuary, colorful flower-studded state parks and spectacular vistas, there’s no doubt that Mother Nature worked her extra-special magic in Monterey.
A framed picture in a shop window read “You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint paradise, then in you go.” I’ll bet that artist was thinking of Monterey.
More to see on the Monterey Peninsula – Carmel’s Mission Ranch