My family's go-to weekend escape — Monterey — has become a true memory maker. Whether it's walking along Old Fisherman's Wharf, exploring the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium or toasting s'mores at a beachside bonfire, this coastal city captures the essence of California. In its rich past, Monterey was the capital of historic Alta California. Now famous for its annual jazz festival and other cultural events, Monterey never lets us down. The tab: As repeat guests at the newly named Monterey Tides (formerly known as Unscripted Monterey Bay), we received a promotional rate this winter of $180, which included pizzas delivered by room service (for comparison, a garden room with two queen beds in mid-May will run $299 a night); we paid $71 for dinner at the Big Fish Grill and $44 for lunch at the aquarium's cafe.
My wife, daughter, infant son and I stayed at the Monterey Tides (2600 Sand Dunes Drive,  394-3321, www.jdvhotels.com) just off Highway 1. The recently remodeled rooms are decorated with classic black-and-white surf photos. (The renovation of the hotel's pool and lobby should be completed sometime this month.) We had a ground-level room steps from the sand, which was ideal for a sunset beach walk followed by a nighttime bonfire and s'mores. The hotel sells kits for $20 with wood, cardboard and matches to start a fire. For $5 more, you can buy graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows to make the campfire treat.
We ate dinner at the Big Fish Grill (101 Fisherman's Wharf,  372-7562, www.bigfishmonterey.com). Our meal included fried calamari, grilled crab cakes and a steamed artichoke from nearby Castroville. The s'mores didn't satisfy our sweet tooth, so the next day we indulged at Paris Bakery (271 Bonifacio Place,  646-1620). For $20, we enjoyed hot drinks and a variety of pastries, including our 9-year-old daughter's favorite — an Eiffel Tower-shaped cookie.
No visit to Monterey is complete without walking Cannery Row and discovering its world-famous aquarium with its displays of jellyfish, sea turtles and much more. To balance the expense of the aquarium (tickets cost $39.95 for adults and $24.95 for children ages 3 to 12), check out the free Dennis the Menace Playground (777 Pearl St., www.monterey.org). It can occupy children (and parents) for hours with its play structures, climbing wall and even a suspension bridge. Plus, it's right across the street from the beach.
The lesson learned
At Monterey Tides, guests can choose the "garden" (a nice way of saying highway) side or the "ocean" side. Book ahead and spend the extra money to get an ocean view and hear the sound of waves rather than traffic.