The Monterey Peninsula, located just a couple of hours drive South of San Francisco, is blessed with a dramatic coastline, sprawling beaches, rolling hills and woodlands. The Bay area is home to popular tourist attractions such as the charming city of Carmel by the Sea, historic Monterey, as well as lesser known places such as Moss Landing and the Salinas Valley. Here are some highlights from our recent visit:
Salinas Valley is a 250,000-acre stretch of flat, fertile land nestled between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges. Nicknamed “America’s Salad Bowl” for its bountiful crops, it is blessed with plenty of underground water, refreshing morning fogs, and protection from the surrounding mountains. The valley’s most famous resident, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, immortalized the once rough and rugged life of Salinas’ farmers in his acclaimed novels East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. Today the valley is home to some of the largest and most successful farms in the world, many of them household names such as Dole, Foxy and others.
We start our journey with a visit to a privately owned organic farm where we learn about the challenges of growing and supplying America’s produce. We travel along dusty roads, passing by a colorful patchwork of lettuce, broccoli and strawberry fields. The monotony of the neverending farmland is broken by huge, “murals,” cut-out art, depicting the people and the farm machinery who make the valley home.
The hub of the valley is the town of Salinas where we stop at the National Steinbeck Center. Listed as one of the Top 15 California Destinations, by the L.A. Times, the museum celebrates the author’s life and work. Steinbeck fans can also visit his Queen Anne style boyhood home, now operating as a non-profit restaurant that raises funds to maintain the building. (Steinbeckhouse.com)
The town of Salinas is undergoing a rebirth and its Main Street is dotted with new stores and restaurants. Make sure to try the breakfast at First Awakening, a local institution well known for their oversized portions. For dinner and cocktails, stop at Giorgio’s, a new upscale Italian restaurant and entertainment complex located in a renovated bank building on Main Street.
The hills along the Salinas valley are home to several wineries, many specializing in the Pinot variety. We stop at the Hahn Estate to sample several Pinot Noir vintages and hop on ATVs to visit the extended vineyards. The winery practices sustainable agriculture minimizing the use of pesticides and chemicals and relying instead on falcons, owls and bats to fight the insects and rodents that typically attack vineyards. They also play the pre-recorded growling sounds of a buck in distress to keep the deer population away from the grapes.
Other Salinas Valley attractions include the Soledad Mission, one of the early settlements in the area, and the Monterey Zoo, a 51-acre facility dedicated to the rescue and sanctuary of animals — many from the entertainment industry. Tours are by appointment only and visitors are escorted through the zoo by guides trained as animal handlers. For an additional fee, guests can hand feed the African elephants, a highlight of the tour. The zoo also offers “safari” bed and breakfast accommodations overlooking the elephant enclosure.(Montereyzoo.com)
Moss Landing is a quaint historic fishing village, the gateway to Elkhorn Slough, one of the largest wetlands in California and a top destination for bird and sea otter watching.
We take a two-hour electric boat tour with Whisper Charters through the natural wonders of the Slough. As our boat glides in silence on the mirror-like water, we pass by harbor seals, nesting birds, and sea otters. We observe how the sea otters swim on their backs while breaking oyster shells with stones, and how they nurse their newborns. (Whispercharters.com)
Moss Landing is a favorite nature escape for many visitors, and there is no better place to stay than the Captain’s Inn, a charming ten-room bed and breakfast within walking distance of the beach and pier area. The original house, which is now the living room, was initially built from a Sears Catalog kit. The inn and grounds are tastefully decorated with maritime motifs and nautical antiques.
We stay in Pelican Beach, a spacious room with bay windows overlooking the sprawling estuary and far away ocean. The focal point of the room is a king size bed mounted high on a yellow catamaran, with a rudder as headboard and ropes with nautical flags as bedposts. The window shades, made of heavy canvas sails, complement the “naval” theme. An inviting two-person soaking tub awaits by the fireplace.
In the morning, as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the air, guests gather in the dining room to enjoy homemade breakfast. In the afternoon, the innkeeper serves wine and cheese in the main salon. (Captainsinn.com)
A few steps from the inn you can visit the marina area and have lunch at the funky Haute Enchilada, a restaurant serving delicious interpretations of Mexican classics. Behind the restaurant, visit the art gallery and browse the eclectic shops.
The city of Monterey, the first capital of California is now a popular tourist attraction. Visitors flock to Cannery Row, once a hub of sardine fisheries and processing plants, and the colorful backdrop of John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name. Today the street is lined with galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Steinbeck fans can visit the building that once housed the laboratory of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the author’s great friend and a character in several of his novels. (By appointment at canneryrow.org)
The highlight of the town is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, home to thousands of aquatic animals. Among the most popular attractions are the Kelp Forest exhibit and the Open Sea where visitors can watch tuna, sharks and sardines through a 90-foot window. The jellyfish and “tentacles” exhibits are also crowd pleasers. (Montereybayaquarium.org)
Carmel by the Sea
Carmel by the Sea was established in 1904 by a group of artists and writers as a bucolic retreat on the rugged Monterey Peninsula coast. The town has maintained its artistic roots and is now a charming oasis of art and natural beauty.
The downtown consists of several streets without traffic lights, chain restaurants or national retailers. Most storefronts are art galleries, independent boutiques and local restaurants. Enjoy any of the wine tasting rooms and bars or purchase a Wine Walk package that provides access to 15 tasting rooms. Explore the numerous artist studios and galleries where you’ll find mostly original works ranging in style from traditional to contemporary at all price points. Amble downhill along Ocean Avenue towards the Pacific Ocean and stop at the charming cove of white sand dunes and beaches. Rest on a bench and inhale the briny air before heading back to town.
You don’t have to go too far for dinner. Stop at The Grill, a popular California style restaurant on Ocean Avenue. Order the halibut or other fish of the day, served with mashed potatoes and veggies.
A good way to explore Carmel by the Sea is by staying in a hotel such as the Hofsas House, located a short walk from the center. Hofsas House, a family owned European style hotel for over 60 years, offers 38 one-of-a-kind rooms in several buildings. We stayed in the main building, in a spacious room with antique style furnishings, cast iron fireplace and small kitchen. Hotel amenities include a heated swimming pool, dry sauna, pet friendly rooms, and continental breakfast with fresh croissants and pastries from a local bakery. (Hofsashouse.com)
If you prefer a large resort, stay at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, a 100-year-old hotel located a short ride from downtown. The hotel is perched high on a bluff offering breathtaking views of the rugged Atlantic coast. Its rooms and suites are located in two-story buildings that hug the hilly terrain. Book an oceanfront suite and enjoy your own spacious living room, whirlpool tub, wood-burning fireplace and full size kitchen. In between the buildings are several outdoor hot tubs where guests (many of them owners of hotel residences) relax and meet friends.
One of the highlights of the hotel is dinner at Pacific’s Edge, a spacious AAA Four Diamond restaurant surrounded by glass walls and overlooking sweeping Pacific ocean vistas. The menu features locally sourced products and wonderfully prepared and presented seasonal seafood and meat dishes. Order the lush Octopus Confit served with Peruvian potatoes and Kalamata aioli the Chilean Seabass with corn coconut chowder, summer vegetables and tomato confit, or the filet mignon with mashed potatoes and yellow pepper sauce. Conclude with the mouthwatering chocolate tart.
The resort also offers many amenities such as pool, outdoor activities, live music on weekends and more. (Highlandsinn.hyatt.com)