≡ Menu

Monterey, California

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.

California Coast

California Coast

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.

....and I love pie.

….and I love pie.

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.

Hawaiian food-yummy!

Hawaiian food-yummy!

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.

My first Sea Otter!

My first Sea Otter!

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.

Snack time!

Snack time!

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?

Not a bad view to wake up to

Not a bad view to wake up to

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. 

Carmel by the Sea at night

Carmel by the Sea at night

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.

See that brownie??

See that brownie??

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.

Making rainbows out of rain

Making rain into rainbows

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.

The Jellies Experience at Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Jellies Experience at Monterey Bay Aquarium


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.

Not all sharks are like Jaws

Not all sharks are like Jaws

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.

And what great dinner guests!

And what great dinner guests!

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.

I guess that bobcat sign wasn't a joke.

Notice the spinal remains bottom left….I guess that bobcat sign wasn’t a joke.

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.

Photo courtesy of dametracafe.com

Photo courtesy of dametracafe.com

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).

Eggs Benedict and Fried French Toast at 10am? Don't mind if I do!

Eggs Benedict and Fried French Toast at 10am? Don’t mind if I do!

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.

Spectacular coastline at  Point Lobos

Spectacular coastline at Point Lobos

Opportunities for tide-pooling, birding, and overall appreciation for natures beauty are abound, and this was one of my favorite spots to visit.

One of the exhilarating bridges as we traveled south.

One of the exhilarating bridges as we traveled south.

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.

Final payoff

Pfeiffer Falls

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.

Pacifics's Edge Restaurant

Pacifics’s Edge Restaurant

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.

Lobster appetizer

Lobster with fennel puree

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.

The Sea Wolf's first mate

The Sea Wolf’s first mate

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.

The baby appears orange since he doesn't have any blubber just yet.

The baby appears slightly orange since he doesn’t have any blubber just yet.

Two kinds of Albatrosses with 6 foot wing spans trailing the boat.

Black footed Albatross

Black footed Albatross

Grey whales repeatedly displaying their flukes and fins.

This whale was being "harassed" by the nearby dolphins

This grey whale was being “harassed” by the nearby dolphins

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.

About 1/4 of the Blue Whale's total body length- up to 100 feet

About 1/4 of the Blue Whale’s total body length- up to 100 feet

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.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • harvson3 March 16, 2014, 6:18 pm

    That’s some good luck on the oceanic megafauna sightings!
    Enjoyed the review, would love to visit again soon.

  • Elaine March 17, 2014, 2:49 am

    Another terrific trip report! Sure sounds like you had a great few days. I am quite taken with the jellies photo. And I feel full just reading about all that fabulous food. We have friends who live in the area half the year (the other half they are here in PDX). Maybe it is time to plan a visit!

  • Elaine March 28, 2014, 1:42 am

    Hi Allison,

    I thought of you just now while I watched a public TV show called Oregon Field Guide. They profiled Crystal Springs Creek in Reed Canyon, an area smack in the middle of the city of Portland. During the last ten years, they restored the creek and removed invasive species on the banks, and now salmon, steelhead and even river otter swim there! Wild salmon is a big deal in Oregon, but I never knew we had salmon in the city. Monterey it’s not, but my husband and I now plan to do a walking tour of the area one day soon.

    Matt sure seems to be getting great attention and lots of new readers for the blog. I think he is doing wonderful things for the travel hacking/finance blogging communities. I surprised myself when I decided to sign up for the DO in Charlotte. Once my husband and my kids confirmed that they wouldn’t mind it if their mother/wife was MIA on Mothers Day, I was in. I imagine you won’t be flying at that point, so I will miss meeting you too.

    Best regards!

  • Leslie H (tripswithtykes) July 6, 2014, 12:20 pm

    Found this post a little late (fairly new to the site), but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. My husband and I did a Big Sur babymoon as well with our first child over 5 years ago. Was pretty proud of my wobbly 7 month pregnant self braving all the hikes! Congrats on the new addition.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Next post:

Previous post: