Although I have driven from Southern California to Northern California more times than I can count, I had only been to Monterey once prior to our family trip this spring. As an avid fan of aquariums, however, I have long wanted to take my husband there and when I started researching options for things to do in Monterey, I quickly realized that it would be a wonderful place to spend the week with the kids. In Part I of this series, I discussed the logistics of our flight from DC to Los Angeles and our decision to spend the night in Santa Barbara and take our time driving up the Coast. In this post, I’ll describe the activities we packed into a seven day trip to Monterey.
What did we do?
My Fourth Grade year was spent studying California history, which included an exhaustive series on California missions. I spent a lot of time as a child wondering about the missions and intrigued by their history. Although I did not get a chance to visit many as a child, my husband and I have explored many together through the years.
If you spend any time driving up and down the California Coast, you’ll invariably see signs indicating that you are traveling on the Historic Camino Real, the road connecting the 21 Spanish missions.
Happily for me, the house we rented was just a short 25 minute drive to the San Charles Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, or the Carmel Mission, and it was the perfect location for our Easter morning mass.
The mission was built in 1770 and many parts of it show its age. Luckily, it is now the home of a vibrant parish and school. The early morning mass we attended (7AM) was completely full, with seats in the courtyard for the overflow. Since I had a defiant toddler with me, we ended up exploring a lot of the grounds during mass. Unfortunately for me, a Southern California native, it was much much colder than I expected so I was freezing by the time my son and husband were done. Definitely do not underestimate how much colder it is in Northern California than it is in Los Angeles!
Juniper Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded the first missions in California is actually buried in the sanctuary floor. My then-seven year old, who had learned about the Spanish missionaries during Spanish class was intrigued by the historical significance of the Mission and we stopped by the gift shop to purchase some items to bring back and share in class.
Being that it was Easter, we, of course, did an Easter Egg Hunt for the kids. The garden at the vacation house provided the perfect spot for hiding eggs.
As you might expect, we spent a lot of time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This was the driving force behind our decision to visit Monterey and we visited every single day for a few hours at a time. The house we rented came with two guest passes to use for the duration of our stay and children under 3 are free, so we really only needed one more ticket. One day admission is $49.95 for an adult, so we decided to go ahead and purchase a $95 annual membership for my husband to use. Had our house not come with the two guest passes, we would have purchased a family membership which, at $250, is a bargain for a week of entertainment.
Many of the days ended up being rainy, so the aquarium was the perfect place to let off some steam and get some toddler energy out. My seven year old never got bored and my toddler loved the playspace.
The only downside to the experience is that my husband and I didn’t learn a single thing while there! We were too busy chasing our toddler (who thought it particularly fun to run like a maniac through the dark aquarium gallery). I did catch this video of the sea gooseberry, which was probably my favorite organism at the aquarium.
My kids loved the sardines swimming in an endless circle. I remember being fascinated by this very aquarium as a child, so it was neat to see my kids experience it as well, even if it is much smaller than I remember it being!
Monterey happens to be home to the Dennis the Menace Park. Unfortunately, our stay occurred while it was under construction, so we did not get a chance to actually experience the park. The park, however, is adjacent to Lake El Centro, where you can rent paddle boats from El Estero Boating.
We took advantage of a sunny afternoon for our first family paddle boating experience.
The water was calm and as we were there in the middle of the week, it was not crowded. I believe we were the only people on the water that day. Now that the Dennis the Menace Park has reopened, this is an easy place to spend the afternoon with kids.
Our vacation rental was only a 15 minute drive from Asilomar State Beach, which turned out to be a surprisingly delightful place to visit. Across from the beach is the Asilomar Dunes Natural Preserve:
where a landmark stile stands at the gateway to this preserve and the Asilomar Conference Grounds. A ¼ mile boardwalk meanders through 25 acres of restored sand dune ecosystem where visitors can discover the native plant greenhouse where more than 450,000 plants, representing 25 species, have been grown and planted in the effort to preserve the dunes and coastal bluffs. Several boardwalk outlooks provide panoramic views of Asilomar State Beach and the blue Pacific Ocean.
Both my kids enjoyed the boardwalk and so did we! It was not crowded and the wooden pathways were easy for my toddler to manage on his own. Although it would be a bumpy ride for a stroller, it is certainly manageable – the bigger concern would be sand from wind. My seven year old had a blast playing army on the walk with his cousin while my toddler enjoyed stopping and throwing sand every few feet.
Later that week, we returned to the beach for some play time in the sand and despite the stiff wind, both kids had a great time.
My husband and I are avid hikers and there was no doubt that we would try to sneak in as many walks as we could. Of course, it is necessary to adjust your expectations when hiking with kids and we try to find small walks that they can enjoy. Jacks Peak Park fit the bill. Although there is a nominal fee to park (I believe it is $5/car), it was well worth it.
The trail was well maintained such that my toddler had no trouble walking most of the path himself.
Although this is not a stroller friendly spot, it is a relatively easy walk without too much elevation change and the path is maintained such that I would not hesitate to bring a child in a carrier. Most of the walk was shaded and cool – especially with the ocean breeze coming in from the west.
Being in Northern California, there were many days in which it rained too much for us to do anything other than go to the Aquarium. One day, we took the kids to the Aquarium in the morning, but were desperate for indoor activities for later in the afternoon. My brother (who was visiting with his wife and two kids) ended up taking all the kids to Jump-N-Around, a local chain bounce house. My kids had a great time and it provided them with some much needed jumpin’ around time (pun intended).
Although we did not intend to do much, if any, wine tasting while in Monterey, we spent one afternoon exploring the Monterey tasting scene after we discovered there were a number of tasting rooms all centrally located in one area, thus saving us from having to drag the kids to and from wineries. One of the tasting rooms we visited was Georis, located in nearby Carmel.
The day we visited was pleasant enough to be outside and there is a little garden where kids can play without disturbing others (although there are cacti, so be careful)! Georis also has a limited menu, which we did not take advantage of, but it would have been easy to get a snack for the kids and keep them entertained while we sipped. Many of the other wineries we visited had similar set ups and it was definitely a more laid back environment than Napa. I would not hesitate to bring my kids along for some wine tasting next time we are in the area.
Reading through this post, it sure does surprise me how much we managed to work into a week long stay in Monterey! My husband and I each worked in a few visits to the Monterey Sports Center, where we paid a nominal fee for a day pass so that we could get some exercise in and we also spent plenty of time sitting around and just enjoying the cool, ocean air from the comfort of our rented backyard. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by how much there was to occupy ourselves with and we never got bored. We tend to focus on big, exciting places to visit – London, San Francisco, DC, New York – visiting the sleepy town of Monterey was a nice change of pace and there was plenty to do while also providing us with some much needed down time.
And just like that, it was time to pack up the car and the kids and head back to Southern California. Continue to Part III – Driving Back Down the California Coast