Monday, November 13, 2017

Where to Travel: Monterey, CA

There’s surely no shortage of quaint coastal cities and towns spanning the California coastline, and I had the opportunity to visit one of these places during a recent Fall weekend adventure: Monterey!

A five-hour drive from Los Angeles, at first glance, Monterey looks like a sleepy little town. It’s hard to imagine that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the capital of Alta California, part of Spanish colonial territory, and that at one point, it was also home to the state’s first-ever newspaper and public building.

But lo and behold, Monterey has a very rich history and better yet, a lot of present-day attractions that are close enough to one another that you can see several within a day.

Plus, being so close to Monterey Canyon (the largest and deepest Pacific coast submarine canyon) and to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (a federally protected area thriving with an abundance of marine life), many points of interest in Monterey are related to the sea. Whether it’s venturing off on a wild whale watching excursion, passing by former sardine canneries on Cannery Row or opting for seaside dining, you’re never far from the majestic, deep blue Pacific Ocean.

I literally can’t wait to get back and should you ever find yourself wondering if you, too, should visit, the answer’s yes, and here’s the #WilsonsGuide Top List of Monterey to know what to do when you’re there! And if you've already been, leave your suggestions for what to see here, in the comments section below!

Not more than a mere several blocks long at most, this main drag of New Monterey is packed with touristy attractions — restaurants, hotels, gift stores — many which are housed in former industrial and canning buildings that have been renovated and painted in bright, crisp colors. Walking down the street, you get a sense of what it must have been like at the height of Monterey’s fishing industry boom, right at the turn of the century. Make sure to also go behind the buildings on the east side (pictured below); not only will you get incredible views of the water, but you can see remnants of the old docks and buildings that haven’t been torn down yet.

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I got a lot of raving recommendations to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and prior to going there, I really didn’t understand all the hype. I mean, it’s just a bunch of animals behind glass walls, right? Wrong! This place is teeming with diverse marine life — more than 550 types of species to be exact, ranging from penguins to crabs, sea otters, jellyfish and sharks. You’ll be able to get up close and personal to the tiniest of invertebrate sea creatures to massive turtles. Better yet, you can definitely sense the care and substantial amount of knowledge that the staff has about the animals. When checking out the afternoon feeding for the sea otters, the staff gave so many interesting tidbits about the lifestyle and diet of these little creatures. Tip: Set aside at least 3 to 4 hours for your visit here. I went for two hours and it still didn't feel like I got to see everything!

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5) Where to Be Merry: Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf is tiny compared to wharfs in other cities, say like San Francisco, but it still has old-fashioned charm and a special magic all unto its own. There’s something serene about wandering up and down it, in the early morning, before all the stores and restaurants open, inhaling the strong smell of raw seafood and feeling the crisp, chilly air gently glide across your face. By midday and the afternoon, it’s wide-awake and action-packed, humming with tourists and restaurant workers hollering at people to try free samples of clam chowder and confectionery stores tempting kids of all ages with sweets like candy apples, cotton candy and salt water taffy. As the hub to access many marine activities — such as whale watching, sailing and fishing — you may certainly find yourself coming here, so make sure to spend time looking around and even having a meal at one of the eateries (yes, it’s touristy, but totally worth it). There are lots of picturesque views, including of the nearby marina.

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Domenico’s right on Fisherman's Wharf is delicious, reasonably affordable and offers a hard-to-beat view of the nearby marina (check out the view from our table, pictured above!). The clam chowder was by far the best on the wharf — and we tried a lot of free samples from other places. Domenico’s free calamari appetizer (pictured below) and its cheap happy hour with surprisingly decent wine and tasty margaritas make stopping by here feel like a good value. Recommended entrĂ©e: the lobster ravioli. With so many restaurants on the wharf, it can be hard to figure out the best one to try, but my bet would be on Domenico’s!

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Located right on the edge of Cannery Row, Schooners features spectacular seafood and stunning views of the Monterey Bay. While its bright and colorful bar is beyond inviting, it’s really on the outdoor patio where you want to be. It’s here that you’ll have sweeping views that stretches for miles and miles. It’s so peaceful and calming, you just may find yourself kicking back and relaxing for a few hours, like I did. Aside from a priceless vista, Schooners offers a wide selection of seafood, from appetizers like the Steamers, pictured below — Chardonnay-steamed clams swimming in a garlic, lemon, butter broth — and entrees such as the Seafood Salad, a staple that’s never left the menu since the restaurant first opened, and includes Dungeness crab, shrimp and seared tuna, all tossed in a creamy mango sauce. Also, throw in an order of the Baja Style Tacos, topped with guac. You won’t regret it!

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2) Where to Drink: Starlight Rooftop Lounge @ Vesuvio Bistro Italiano

I had asked a Monterey local for a good place to grab a cocktail, and he suggested I head over to Vesuvio. Technically not in Monterey but in Carmel instead (which is like a 15-min. drive away), Vesuvio is this charming Italian restaurant right in the heart of Carmel’s tiny town square. But here's the catch: once you enter the restaurant, the key is to act like you know where you’re going, head directly past the hostess stand and take the stairwell that leads up to Starlight Rooftop Lounge — a dazzling space decked out in hanging lights, roaring fire pits and a small bar. Apparently, this is the place where locals go to drink and it’s the only rooftop lounge in Monterey County. While there were certainly people dapperly dressed, it has a very low-key vibe and is a tranquil place to grab a nightcap. While I didn’t try any of the food, it is available from the restaurant below.

1) Where to Be Merry: Discovery Whale Watch

There are a handful of different whale watching companies to select from, but Discovery Whale Watch most certainly sets itself apart from the crowd for a few good reasons: 1) the maximum number of passengers they take out is 30, while a lot of other places can take out way more 2) there are always two marine biologists / naturalists onboard each excursion and 3) hands down, this is one of the liveliest, rowdiest, most fun crews around! Discovery Whale Watch offers morning and afternoon tours that last about three hours long. We had the incredible opportunity to see a pack of humpback whales chasing off a team of orcas, who were busy “playing” with a bird they severely injured and simply wouldn’t kill off (these orcas had noooo chill). Aside from whales, there’s literally so much wildlife to see, from the seals sunbathing on rocks in the marina to the thousands — and I do mean thousands — of jellyfish floating in the ocean. The crew made sure to point out that each trip is different, and sometimes there may be no activity at all and other times there will be a lot, but they always try their hardest to get up-close-and-personal to the action. A trip to Monterey simply isn’t complete without a whale watching excursion. And as a tip, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium before going whale watching; it’s a great way to quickly get familiar with all of the different sea life that resides within the bay and that you may see while you’re out!

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Quietly tucked away from all of the action in downtown Monterey, the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa is a sprawling hotel right on the edge of the Del Monte Golf Course. A wide variety of amenities are available here, including the Marilyn Monroe Spa, tennis courts, two pool areas, several restaurants and a lounge, which features live jazz bands on weekend nights. Surrounded by looming California pines and buildings painted in a rich forest green, the grounds really offer a calm ambiance — a great getaway for couples and for families. Stay in one of the View King rooms directly overlooking the golf course; it's cozy and affords beautiful views of the golf course.

The hotel also has worthwhile points of interest, if you're staying there or not: 
  • TusCA Ristorante - Led by Chef Logan Sandoval, this casually upscale restaurant has a big focus on sustainability, working with local vendors like the Carmel Honey Company, the Twisted Roots winery and the famous Niman Ranch. With a focus on fall, TusCA dishes out simplistic, but still homely dishes. For more info 

  • Knuckles Sports Bar - While much of the rest of the hotel might be snazzy, Knuckles is quite casual, with a plethora of TV screens streaming all sorts of sporting events and popcorn kernels freely strewn all over the tile floor. Expect much more than standard bar food, though; gourmet burgers and other American faves are as hearty as they are flavorful. Definitely opt for the wings. They're crispy and come in zesty flavors, like Thai chili and Honey-Sriracha. For more info
  • The Lobby Lounge - A hotel lounge may not be the first place in mind as a weekend evening destination, but this isn't any ordinary lounge. It transforms into a swanky hangout where jazz bands that take special requests rotate in and out. Bartenders also whip out cocktails that are creative with a gorgeous aesthetic. For more info

Disclaimer: Courtesy complimentary services were provided by Discovery Whale Watch and the Hyatt Regency Monterey; all opinions are still my own. 

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