By Nina Kokotas Hahn
For a recent family vacation to California’s Monterey Bay, my husband and I decided to do something a little crazy: We planned our visit in the winter. Most folks gravitate to California during the warmer months, and I’d say we’re like most folks in this regard, but our trip had to happen in the winter this year and I had my heart set on taking the kids to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We focused on the positives and figured we’d beat the crowds, catch a whale watching excursion and a jaunt to Carmel, all the while not even noticing the cool air (it would take more than a brisk ocean breeze to make these tough Chicagoans shake in their boots).
I’m glad for the unconventional planning since this California trip ended up being one of our best family vacations so far. A visit to the Aquarium was our top priority, so we opted to stay right next door on Cannery Row at the Intercontinental The Clement Monterey. The Clement Monterey proved an instant win as it wasn’t just convenient and right on the ocean, but also quite beautiful, sleek and complete with a very friendly staff. From there, the entire trip fell nicely into place and we left feeling even more in love with northern California.
Here are the highlights from our trip to Monterey Bay:
Magnificent sights at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
On our first morning, we grabbed breakfast at a cozy cafe outside of the hotel and took a five-minute walk to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Once inside the doors, we happily discovered we were among a very small crowd — definitely different than the very-crowded experiences we’d had on previous summer visits. We grabbed our map and off we went to explore one of the world’s most amazing and respected Aquariums.
Perfectly situated on one of the largest Marine Sanctuary’s in the U.S., this ocean wonderland has more than 35,000 animals and plants in over 200 exhibits and galleries, including an amazing Kelp Forest, ocean-view decks on the Open Sea exhibit (literally right on the Pacific) and one of the world’s largest jellyfish galleries. I’m kind of a shark geek, so I’m also fascinated by the Aquarium’s history of keeping great whites in captivity. We stood awe-struck in front of the giant 28-foot high Kelp Forest with all variety of Monterey Bay marine life and more, including Leopard Sharks and Giant Sea Bass (which can grow to 500 pounds and swallows it prey whole).
Our 7-year old enjoyed every inch of the museum, but was really on cloud nine when she saw her beloved giant octopus and then got to touch starfish, anemones, rays and more in the aquarium’s Touch Pools. Our 3-year old loved the many interactive exhibits — some of the best I’ve ever seen in a museum setting. We all enjoyed the live feedings, which you can catch for the Blackfooted Penguins, Sea Otters and in the Kelp Forest.
Runner’s high on the Monterey Bay Coastal Rec Trail
I’m an avid runner so I couldn’t miss the chance to run the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. On our second day, I snuck out of the room before anyone was awake and jumped on the trail just across the street. The 18-mile trail starts in Castorville and ends in Pacific Grove, weaving through Monterey and along the rugged coast and places like Lovers Point Park. Try as I might, I actually found it hard to run with all that stunning scenery (nearly tripped a few times with my mouth gaping open). I would have gone on for miles and miles that day, but our next adventure was calling and I headed back to our room with whales on my mind.
Whale watching and wishing
At the end of Fisherman’s Wharf 1, we found the Monterey Bay Whale Watch Center and boarded our boat at 10 a.m. for a morning of whale watching. It was a balmy 45 degrees, which is pretty brisk — even for Chicago folks — when you factor in the ocean breeze. But we hardly noticed; my daughter and I were beside ourselves at the thought of seeing real whales in the wild, and the outlook was promising. So far that week, previous excursions had seen Humpback Whales, Orcas, Risso’s dolphins and Northern Right Whale dolphins.
Our guide shared that there’s a giant canyon close to the shore known as the Monterey Submarine Canyon, and it’s exactly what brings deep-water species like whales to the area. We set out for the Canyon and trolled the coast for several hours. While we did see Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Risso’s Dolphins, and the illusive Black-footed Albatross, we sadly didn’t spot any whales. The guide and captain were at a loss as this was very unusual. (Ok, so there’s part of me that blames myself for casting bad juju on the day since I so desperately wanted to see a whale). But here’s the upshot: we got a rain check. Apparently anyone who books a Monterey Bay Whale Watch trip and doesn’t see a whale gets a raincheck, too. I also heard that Blue Whales make frequent visits in the summer. Our group was bummed, but me and the kids got excited at the idea of returning for another visit. (And next time, I’ll be sure to take the Dramamine before I even step foot on the boat.)
Carmel-By-The-Sea for my sweethearts and me
About a 15-minute drive from Monterey, Carmel-By-The-Sea is a must-see for us anytime we’re in the Monterey area. My husband and I were married there years ago and couldn’t wait to take our children to the places that made that day so special. Our first stop was The Carmel Mission, founded in 1771 as the second mission in upper California and also the church where we tied the knot. The grounds are both gorgeous and slightly odd — there’s a museum inside where the founding father’s remains are entombed. Next, we walked Ocean Avenue to shop the many stores (the candy stores and Think Toys were a big hit with our kids) before heading to Casanova Restaurant for some amazing French and Italian country-style dining.
Carmel, like the rest of the Bay, is cool in the evenings and yet dining al fresco is still popular at many restaurants. Equipped with warm layers, we headed for the back of the restaurant to dine under a giant tree laced with lights. The feast was unbelievable, as it always is at Casanova — spinach gnocchi with cream sauce, ravioli stuffed with sirloin, breadsticks with tomato tapenade, and more deserts than our children could possibly handle.
We ended the day with an early evening walk on the beach. The sun sank into a crisp sky. Kids in winter coats at the beach is not what I would have pictured for the perfect California vacation, but I stood corrected, watching them wide-eyed and laughing, chasing the water as if it were a summer evening.
Nina Kokotas Hahn is a contributing travel writer and editor. Globetrotting since infancy, she’s the daughter of a travel agent and knows a thing or two about finding great travel deals.