We’re lucky to live in the Bay Area for many reasons, one of which is the ease of weekend or day-trips to incredible places, like the Monterey coast. Before you head down to Monterey or the Carmel Valley for a quick getaway, here are some amazing places to eat, sleep, and have fun that are a must-do:
What to Do
Visit Carmel Beach. This beach is popular for a reason: it’s gorgeous. During the summer or any sunny weekend, the cars line up to get down to the beach. Our advice is not to try for an up front parking spot, but for one a few blocks away off the main entry point, and walk in. The beach is incredibly dog, bonfire, and wine friendly, which is the perfect mix for watching a sunset on the beach. Pack a s’mores kit for the kids, bring a blanket or two (it can be windy) and relax as you watch the sun go down.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row, of course. It’s easy to spend a whole day within a three-block radius on Cannery Row. Start with a few hours at the aquarium including the new Tentacles exhibit, walk up the row for shopping, lunch, and some history, then walk along the water looking for life. There are plenty of sea lions and otters to observe in the wild, making the natural environment feel like an extension of the aquarium.
Take the Fast Raft Marine Eco-Tour. This is rip-roaring fun for all ages and it’s beautiful and educational, too. On it’s face, it looks like a fun, fast boat ride around the bay and out to the ocean, and the surprise is the quality of boat steward. We learned so much during our tour thanks to our smart and passionate crew, who really showed a deep love for the sea life. Our tour was led by Captain Kate, who has a marine background, previously working for the Smithsonian, and she filled us with all kinds of mind-blowing information. Everything was new to me, but a know-it-all in my family said they already knew some of the facts I repeated (like how otters wrap themselves in kelp to kept themselves anchored while sleeping). I was fascinated. For instance, pinnipeds (flipper-footed mammals) keep a fin out, as pictured above, to help stay warm because the air is warmer than the water. The boats hold a maximum of six, not including the crew, and the seats are in such a way that everyone had a great view. There is a minimum age of 12 to take the tour.
Hike Pt. Lobos. Trails crisscross Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel, with light, paved walks or more intense up-down climbs appealing to all activity levels. Pt. Lobos hugs the ocean and because it is so protected, marine life flocks to the area. We saw harbor seals with very young pups, in fact two looked like they had only been born hours before. We were able to spy on them in secluded beaches while it appeared the mothers wanted to recover while the waves gently tossed the pups around on the beach. Also, because it is a protected zone, this is an incredibly popular area for scuba divers. Some of those black spots in the water weren’t otters, but the tops of the scuba divers coming above water. A Whaler’s Cabin, built around 1850 is a fun, but brief stop along one of the gentle paths. There is a fee for parking, however the locals’ trick to avoiding that is to park on the road outside of the entrance and walk in.
Take a short drive south to Big Sur. The highway to Big Sur is filled with some of the most quintessential California images. If you haven’t seen photos of the Bixby Bridge, then you’ve certainly seen it in car commercials. This stretch of coastline is widely photographed for a reason: it is incredible. Take your time and pull off the highway a few times to really take in the beauty. You may just take your own postcard-worthy photo.
Unwind with a massage. Spa on the Plaza is in the heart of Monterey and within walking distance of so much. After walking Cannery Row or hiking Pt. Lobos, loosen up with a massage or another spa treatment at Spa on the Plaza. If this is a couples weekend, book their popular couples massage. If you are traveling with family, send your spouse off with the kids while you get an hour or two to unwind in peace.
Where to Eat
Big Sur Roadhouse. Seriously, stop here. We’ve camped in Big Sur since I was a child, but we’ve never stopped to eat. It felt like after we left Carmel, there wasn’t anything until the general store next to the Big Sur gas station, which wasn’t a place for real food. Last week my daughter’s class went camping in Big Sur and I wanted to volunteer to drive just to stop at Big Sur Roadhouse on the way home. It’s California cajun, which means it tastes like New Orleans, but with kale. Okay, maybe only in the incredible kale caesar salad, but it is really good, high quality food. Not to mention, the place is gorgeous, inside and out.
Peter B’s Brewpub. It’s family-friendly, not only in decor, but in price. This is a great sports bar, a great place for pub food, and a great place for kids, which means it appeals to almost everyone we want to hang out with. The beers are awesome and supremely fresh. The Jumbo Bavarian Pretzel is no joke. It’s so good, comically large, and it comes with a warm cheese sauce that is perfect. Don’t forget to order the fried pickles and the Portola Burger to round out your meal. My favorite beers were Stout Resistance and Fort Ord Wheat, but get a sampler to try them all, then follow up with a Growler to go of your favorite brew.
C Restaurant + Bar. When you need an upscale break from the aquarium, this is the place, even if it’s only to sit at the bar for a drink or two. The atmosphere could not be nicer, with an incredible view and good food. No surprise, there is plenty of fish on the menu, but if you’re feeling guilty, get the veggie sandwich. This is a great place without kids, but don’t shy away if you’re with kids, too. We saw a few families while we ate, but the crowd was mostly kid-free. The bar is awesome, but of course that is sans kids.
Beach House. This is casual spot that’s been around forever and is loved by locals for their great prices, especially on their early bird menu. It’s near Lovers Point beach and public pool in Pacific Grove, which is a good, but not difficult, walk from the aquarium. You can eat outside on their back deck overlooking the water or inside if it’s too nippy out (but they have heaters, which make the deck work in almost all weather).
Passionfish. Passionfish is amazing. Their food is a work of culinary art. This is the place where we’d go without the kids. It’s lovely and the place to linger with wine and conversation. The food looks incredible, and tastes even better.
Where to Stay
Quail Lodge. I want to do more than stay at the Quail Lodge, I want to retire there. I’d own a little golf cart and sit on my back patio enjoying the warm tranquility every day. The Quail Lodge is affordable luxury. The rooms are beautiful – mine was spacious enough that it would easily hold my family of four – and while they make it hard to find a reason to leave your room, the grounds are even better. There’s mini golf – also real golf, but the mini course with complementary clubs and golf balls was a fun surprise – plus a pool, gym, and a bridge over a pond. It’s calm, relaxing, and the perfect place to curl up with a book. I loved staying at the Quail. For those who don’t want to leave, great meals can be found at Edgar’s, which is on the property, but a slight walk away, close to the driving range. There are a few restaurants not associated with the lodge that are across the street, and for farm stand goodness, Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand is a very short walk away.
Bernardus Lodge. Bernardus Lodge & Spa not only is a place to stay, but also eat and visit. Stop for something because it’s not to be missed. The setting is gorgeous, including a pool, spa, and a bocce and croquet courts. Heaven is a room overlooking the croquet and bocce greens. While we saw kids while visiting, this is the place I’d reserve for a romantic getaway. First, the rooms are cozy – though they are adding on a new addition that will be more conducive to groups, and second, it’s utterly peaceful. You can dine outside, next to the bocce court or inside, in a more formal setting, including a chef’s table, with a front row seat to all the action.
Disclosure: Visits were a part of a familiarization by the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. All opinions are my own.