By Cheryl Crabtree
Redwood groves, stunning beaches, incredible wildlife and fresh food and wine at every turn—with so many attractions, it’s no surprise that Monterey County is one of the world’s most desirable tourist destinations. It’s a relatively short drive from Santa Barbara—less than four hours by car via US 101 or legendary Hwy. 1. Or board the daily Amtrak Coast Starlight train and leave your car at home. The train travels along the coast—much of it inaccessible to cars— for nearly 60 miles. Feast on some of the best views in California and relax in the first-class parlor car or coach lounge, or read a book or work on your laptop. The Starlight stops in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Salinas—where an Amtrak Thruway bus awaits to take passengers to various stops in downtown Monterey and environs. Apart from the Starlight route, other train/bus combinations are available every day.
Here’s a brief overview of things to do and where to eat and stay in Monterey County in 2014.
Monterey & Pacific Grove
Don’t miss Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid and Cuttlefishes—a thrilling new exhibit at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Humans rarely encounter these captivating creatures in their ocean habitats, and the aquarium’s living collection of cephalopods is the largest and most diverse ever on exhibit anywhere in the world.
Get up close and personal with giant Pacific octopus, Hawaiian bobtail squid, wunderpus, cuttlefishes and other amazing animals that rotate through a dozen display tanks. Many of these creatures are “masters of disguise,” and you can learn all about their ability to change shape and color and swim with jet propulsion via interactive multimedia activities.
Also check out Minoan pottery, Roman tiles, Victorian-era illustrations, tattoos and other art pieces that chronicle 4,000 years of human fascination with octopuses, squid and cuttlefishes. Tentacles is included with aquarium admission ($25 to $40) and will run at least through September 2016.
Zip out to the deep sea and secluded coves aboard Fast Raft Ocean Safaris’ speedy 33-foot, rigid-hull inflatable boat. Naturalists operate regular whale watching adventures and sightseeing tours of Point Lobos, Elkhorn Slough and coastal Monterey Bay, leaving from Monterey and Moss Landing (maximum six passengers, minimum age 12, rates from $140 per person).
Where to Stay and Eat
InterContinental The Clement Monterey. From $210 A full-service hotel across from the aquarium, the Clement straddles both sides of Cannery Row. The C Restaurant + Bar has ocean-view seating and a new terrace with heat lamps.
Portola Hotel & Spa. From $240 Walk to Fisherman’s Wharf and other major downtown attractions in the heart of historic Monterey. The complex includes nearly 400 rooms and suites, a bar and restaurant, and Peter B’s Brewpub, a lively local hangout and craft brewery.
Beach House at Lover’s Point Come for panoramic bay views, cocktails and casual meals with a French-California twist.
Passionfish Sustainably caught seafood is the focus at this popular Pacific Grove restaurant, delectably prepared by local culinary legend Ted Walter.
Bay of Pines This eclectic new restaurant fuses local history and culture with international flair, from murals depicting the region’s native habitats to organic ingredients matched with spices from around the world.
Cindy’s Waterfront Savor celebrity chef Cindy Pawlcyn’s seasonal dishes and watch otters play from an ocean-view seat at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
A tiny village that oozes charm, Carmel-by-the-Sea packs a slew of attractions into its one-square-mile city limits. Browse the galleries and shops, dine at dozens of restaurants and join a walking tour through hidden courtyards and historic sites. Buy a Wine Tasting Passport ($65 for nine stops, never expires) and follow the wine trail to a dozen downtown wine tasting rooms. Head to white-sand Carmel Beach with a picnic dinner and a bottle of wine and watch the sunset. Then light a bonfire and savor s’mores. Note: If you’re traveling with the family dog, this is one of the few beaches where he’s allowed to run around off leash.
Where to Stay
La Playa Carmel The “grande dame” of Carmel was built in 1905 and completed a $3.5 million renovation in 2012. From $249
Where to Eat
Vesuvio Feast on Southern Italian fare in a huge dining room and sip cocktails at the downstairs bar or the rocking rooftop lounge.
Head east from Carmel-by-the-Sea to explore the pastoral Carmel Valley, with vineyards, ranches, wineries, golf courses and resorts flanking hills and meadows on both sides of the Carmel River. Carmel Valley Road leads to charming Carmel Valley Village, filled with small shops, galleries, restaurants and cafés (13 miles east of Hwy. 1).
Stop at Earthbound Farm in the heart of the valley to pick up fresh produce, groceries and farm-fresh meals, sniff through an aromatherapy labyrinth and let the kids touch away in a special garden designed just for them.
Where to Stay and Eat
All three of these sprawling, full-service resorts have restaurants and bars frequented by locals and visitors alike.
Quail Lodge & Golf Club. From $150
Bernardus Lodge. From $455
Carmel Valley Ranch. From $300
Big Sur Coast
One of the world’s most spectacular roads, California’s legendary Hwy. 1 stretches 26 miles from the Carmel River south to Big Sur. Stop along the way to hike the scenic coastal trails at Point Lobos State Reserve and to snap photos at the roadside pullout at iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
Glen Oaks Big Sur Built in 1957, Glen Oaks emerged from a 2011 remodel into an upscale, eco-friendly complex with rustic-modern rooms and cabins near the Big Sur River. From $175
Big Sur Roadhouse New Orleans meets California in a bold reincarnation of a popular local restaurant, now owned by Glen Oaks Big Sur and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pull off Hwy. 1 at Moss Landing, a tiny fishing village north of Monterey, to connect with nature and wildlife. Board a pontoon boat and learn about the area’s ecology on a two-tour guided tour with Elkhorn Slough Safari. Rent a kayak and paddle in the harbor, or hike the trails at Elkhorn Slough Natural Marine Estuary. The village streets are lined with shops, galleries and restaurants.
Where to Stay
Captain’s Inn The main building of this B&B was built in 1906 and has four rooms; the newer annex out back has six plush rooms overlooking a tidal river channel. From $155
Where to Eat
Haute Enchilada View local art in two galleries and feast on fresh seafood and eclectic dishes made from locally sourced ingredients.
Salinas is the birthplace and childhood home of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, and the National Steinbeck Center—less than two blocks from the Amtrak station—is a must-see attraction. The multi-sensory complex traces Steinbeck’s life story and legacy, and also includes exhibits on working-class people in the region.
Join a tour at the Monterey Zoo at Vision Quest Ranch, home to more than 180 wild and exotic animals. Tours daily at 1 pm; additional tour at 3 p.m. in summer, $10 adult.
Travel along River Road south of town and taste your way through Salinas Valley wine country, with more than two dozen wineries.
Where to Stay
Vision Quest Safari B&B Spend the night in an authentic African safari bungalow, where an elephant delivers your breakfast basket in the morning. From $175
Cheryl Crabtree has worked as a freelance writer since 1987. She is a regular contributor to Fodor’s California, covering the Central Coast and Monterey Bay regions, and to Fodor’s National Parks of the West. Her articles have appeared in many regional and national publications, including US Airways Magazine, Santa Barbara Seasons, and Montecito Magazine. She also authors travel apps for mobile devices, including Big Sur & Monterey Bay (Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo) and Santa Barbara—Ocean to Oaks.