Vacation highs and lows in Monterey, California

Monterey, California

Happy 50th Cannery Row! In 1958, the city renamed a chunk of Ocean View Avenue in honor of John Steinbeck's namesake novel. A new hotel--the Intercontinental Clement Monterey--opens in June along with a new Imax theater. Here's the skinny on having a fun family visit to this coastal town.


On the tip of a small peninsula that forms the southern enclosure of Monterey Bay is an irresistible seaside town surrounded by rugged coastline and white-sand beaches. Some 4 million annual visitors come to relish the region's good weather (despite the occasional fog), the many attractions and the rich literary and artistic legacy. Monterey has historical relevance, too: Established in 1770 by Junípero Serra, it was California's capital for more than 70 years while the state was under Spanish and Mexican rule.

Age Appropriate

Kids of all ages will love it here.

Too Much Fun

Historic waterfront attractions like Old Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row evoke beachside towns of yore while delighting kids and adults with a variety of upbeat restaurants and stores. Cannery Row, immortalized in John Steinbeck's eponymous novel, is home to Monterey's world-class aquarium (see below).

Best Adventure, or THE attraction

Monterey's most famous attraction, hands down, is the unequaled Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened in 1984, a $55-million gift from David and Lucile Packard. Not only is it one of the premier organizations fighting to save our oceans from overfishing and pollution, it is also a haven for marine life lovers eager to gaze at playful otters, undulating jellyfish, waddling penguins, respect-inducing sharks – and faithful re-creations of local underwater habitats. A favorite among children are the touch tanks into which they can dip their hands and find out what, say, a ray feels like. In all, 550 species are represented here and 1.8 million people visit annually.

Keep 'em Happy / No Museums, Dad!

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, just east of Monterey, pays homage to native son John Steinbeck, who wrote about the region in many of his books, including Tortilla Flat and East of Eden. The entry hall honors the Nobel-winning author with a life-size statue and a massive map of the land he loved. Elsewhere, interpretive exhibits bring Steinbeck's tales to life with photos, words and scenes from epic works like The Grapes of Wrath. There's also a 10-minute film about Steinbeck's life, a Model T truck that kids can climb on and a reconstruction of Steinbeck's writing studio.

Timing Is Everything

Low season starts mid-September and ends in mid-May. The months between, plus late November to early December, represent high season, when crowds are present. Summer brings beautiful weather.

Avoid the Crowds

Take a guided kayak tour of Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve to get close-up views of otters, harbor seals and many bird species. The 1,439-acre saltwater reserve is about 20 miles north of Monterey. Marine biologists lead tours for reputable local companies like Kayak Connection and Elkhorn Slough Safari.

Can't Miss

Two nearby towns are must-sees: Carmel, with its cute cottages, high-end retail stores, and gorgeous beaches and endearingly eccentric Moss Landing, a fishing village which has a quirky collection of shops stacked with antiques, collectibles and other bits of nostalgia.

Bargain Lodging/Dining

Asilomar, a conference center designed by maverick architect Julia Morgan in the early 1900s, embodies seaside serenity. Owned by the state parks system since 1956, its primary guests are conference groups, but the center is also a good, often overlooked spot for leisure travelers. Its simplicity, reasonable prices and good location make it a perpetual draw.

Inside Track

The region's most famous road is 17-Mile Drive, a two-lane paved path accented by crashing waves, rocky bluffs and the unmistakable Monterey pines. At its entrance, you'll get a brochure that guides you along the stops; they include Seal Rock, Spyglass Hill and Shepherd's Knoll.

-- Avital Binshtock, Hugo Martin, Vani Rangachar, Christopher Reynolds