Ensconced in the blur of one of the craziest times in our lives, we fled the bitter cold of New York to a four-day “babymoon” in Monterey (as if we needed an excuse). Flying into San Francisco, we grabbed a rental car and began our drive down the California coast. We had heard many dreamy stories about Route 1, and hoped that this short road trip would properly introduce us to the land and seascapes we would enjoy for the next few days.
The vistas were truly stunning, and for fear of overdosing on beauty before we’d ever begun, a quick pit stop: The Pie Ranch off the Cabrillo highway in Pescadero. Their delicious fresh pie lured me to pull over our Prius (when in Rome, right?), but their mission is the thing that truly impressed. Besides their farm stand and sustainable practices, the farm teaches high school students about food systems and teach apprentices how to farm. I asked one of the women if I could move in, and she didn’t turn me away.
We continued south with windows down, like dogs snuffing at the abundance of fresh air. The sun was playing hard to get, but we chased it along the water towards Santa Cruz, passing surfers, bikers and boarders at every turn. The pie had long been digested, so we stopped at The Aloha Island Grill for another quick snack. This is where I ate my first Spam Musubi, alongside Kalua Pig, Coconut shrimp, and local beer for Matt.
Closer to our hotel, I noticed a sign for Moss Landing off the road, and remembered that this was a top-recommended location for otter spotting. What looked like a large piece of driftwood further down the dunes turned out to be a large, recently deceased male sea lion. We turned right back round towards the harbor in hopes of spotting wild-life.
Success! We approached a group of conservationists observing a Sea Otter hauled out on the beach, to be pushed back to the required 50 meter distance (we were just following their lead!) No worries, turn around and there are more otters drifting in the water and cracking clams on their tummies. More Sea Lions barked from the pier, and signs warned trespassers off the dunes as they sheltered Snowy Plover nests. As Matt said, welcome to nature’s Disneyland.
We arrived at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands just before sunset. After a quick tour of the hotel, we retired to our room- with an ocean view, fireplace, and binoculars for spotting whale spouts. Still feeling taxed? How about fluffy white robes and the smell of mountain laurel in the air?
We freshened up and drove into Carmel-by-the-Sea proper, which had mostly gone to sleep by 7 pm. We ate a quick dinner at the completely empty Marie’s Garden Cafe, where the food was fresh and tasty. The unfinished puzzle on one of the back tables made me feel a bit like an intruder in someone’s house who hoped their guests would just leave already.
The rest of town sports gallery after gallery chock full of tacky art that only the very rich seem to enjoy, dotted with bakeries and patisseries that appealed far more than the paintings. We loaded up on flaky confections for the morning (with a turtle brownie for dessert in bed), and officially said goodnight to day 1.
Given the drought conditions throughout California, we had planned on a dry couple of days. We were not expecting the patter of hail against the window to wake us the next morning. We took that as as excuse for a slow start by the fireplace (as if we needed one), and sure enough- the rain and hail tapered off around 10, yielding clear blue skies and even rainbows over the ocean.
Today would be devoted to downtown Monterey; first stop, the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. This facility is truly special in not only their commitment to conservation, but the delivery of their messaging. Aquarium staff facilitates animal demos and feedings throughout the day, interactive learning stations invite visitors to learn more, and the push to conserve the ocean’s resources are embedded in every exhibit.
I felt like an awe-struck little kid watching the massive Sunfish get target trained and the sardines form bait balls at the Open Sea exhibit, then imagined those same creatures exploring the Pacific ocean surrounds. We also saw leopard sharks being fed by a mic’d diver in the Kelp Forest exhibit, a Laysan albatross training, and a film about Luna, a rescued sea otter pup. If there is anything better than sipping a salted caramel hot chocolate from Ghirardelli while watching an otter pup get combed, I haven’t found it.
Still raining on an off, the Old Fisherman’s Grotto at Fisherman’s Wharf served up heaping fisherman’s platters and clam chowder in bread bowls, along with a respite from the cold. The wharf, while touristy, provided a fun way to pass a day.
Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve offers easy day hikes, opportunities for birding, and even kayaking for those so inclined. We took a peaceful 1.5 round trip walk, though the only wildlife we saw was (again) no longer with us.
Passing a restaurant we had seen the night prior in Carmel, we happened to overhear some people saying that it had been voted top #6 on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the US. Though still swimming in clam chowder, how could we pass up such a fortuitous eavesdrop? Dametra Cafe provided us with one of the most bizarre eating experiences I can remember. The fresh bread, greek salad, and chicken kebabs were all solid, but the ambiance was the confusing part. Everyone seemed to know everyone else- or if they didn’t when they came in, they did soon enough. Kissings, blessings, and professions of admiration filled the restaurant. The chef came out of the kitchen to serenade his patrons, who joined in singing and dancing. Why is this weird, do you ask? I guess I am too city-jaded to understand this kind of universal familiarity, but I hope to understand it someday.
We had big plans for wildlife the next morning, so we stopped to refuel at Em Le’s Restaurant. Voted best breakfast in Carmel, their french toast is a truly sinful experience. Though more zeppole than breakfast, eating at Em Le’s will definitely fuel you for the day (assuming you can stand up after eating).
Luckily, the sun came out while we were eating, so we decided to stop at Point Lobos State Reserve, which we had passed daily on our way to town. The first stop- Sea Lion Point, and easy trail which looped around close to the water and displayed the ocean’s true strength.
Opportunities for tide-pooling, birding, and overall appreciation for natures beauty are abound, and this was one of my favorite spots to visit.
On the way to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the trees got bigger and the sky got grayer. After waiting out a few downpours, we made a break for Pfeiffer Falls. This 1.5 mile hike would usually be a breeze, but my big baby belly affected my balance as I wobbled up the hill. It felt great to work off those waffles, and the falls made a nice payoff.
Since our flight was scheduled for early the next morning, we chose Pacific’s Edge Restaurant for our last meal since it was in our hotel, and overlooked the beautiful vistas we had grown to love.
Our waiter used to be a sommelier, and with some probing questions and trials and error, managed to find a new delicious jewel- the Rubissow 2010 Merlot. I think this was more memorable than the food, which was tasty but not overly spectacular. The tasting menu does change daily, so try your luck and hope for the best.
Waking early the next morning, we received an email that one of our three connecting flights home had been cancelled, so Matt got on the phone to work some magic. What could have been an annoying start to the day ended up exceedingly well- putting us not only a later flight that evening, but on a much newer plane in 1st class (read the review of both planes here). This would give us an extra 7 hours in Cali, and a hopefully more restful return to NY.
How to spend all this bonus time? After renewing our car rental for an extra day, we drove straight to Fisherman’s Wharf for a 10 am whale watch tour aboard Monterey Bay Whale Watch’s Sea Wolf.
Over the three hour journey, we saw: a pod of Risso dolphins with a baby so new, it still had “fetal folds” from being inside its mother.
Two kinds of Albatrosses with 6 foot wing spans trailing the boat.
Grey whales repeatedly displaying their flukes and fins.
And the grand finale: a Blue Whale. This creature was so massive, the roll of its body as it went to dive seemed to last forever. We managed to see it surface twice before it descended on one last deep dive, at 8-10 minute intervals between surfacing. This is the single most humbling interaction with wildlife I have ever had, and how you could have anything but utmost respect for a creature that immensely beautiful is beyond me.
Overall, a surprising and completely exhilarating three hours. We celebrated with one last meal of fish and chips back on the pier, and bid a sad farewell to Monterey.
*Note: Please excuse the overwhelmingly food-centric content, as I am pregnant and am working on forming my own orbital pull.