Three-Day Weekend: Monterey, CA
Approaching Monterey from the north remains one of my all-time favorite travel experiences.
My wife, Michele, and I spent part of our road trip honeymoon in Monterey years ago, and the trip down from San Francisco still gives me a thrill: I love everything about the drive - from the top of Monterey Bay near the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz, southward through the agricultural vistas of the Salinas Valley, and into the bustling coastal city that inspired literary heroes of mine, including Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck.
We visited Monterey this past July, and it was all the more special because we’d been away for more than a decade and were essentially introducing both of our daughters, now 10 and 14, to this special community, bursting with local history, incredible seafood, local wines, and the opportunity to drink in the gorgeous Monterey Bay (mysteriously misty in the morning, shining bright turquoise at midday, achingly beautiful at sundown) at every turn.
We were among the first guests to stay at the just-opened Wave Street Inn, conveniently located (as the name “Wave Street” might suggest) near the water. We loved waking up to views of Monterey Bay, the songs of seagulls, and the friendly, attentive hotel staff. The design of the hotel was so eye-popping, a playful homage to the industrial and maritime spaces in downtown Monterey, that my daughters, who don’t normally notice such details, were tossing around phrases like “exceptional interior design” and “imaginative architecture.”
WHAT TO DO
Our comfy, design-forward room was also just a few minutes’ walk from Cannery Row. In the first half of the 20th century, “Cannery Row” was a nickname for the hub of the sardine fishing and processing industries that made Monterey the busy, culturally diverse city that it remains to this day. Cannery Row is also the title of a hilarious, touching John Steinbeck novel, which famously opens, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise…”. A far cry from those noisy, smelly cannery days, the street is now the epicenter of incredible fresh-from-the-bay seafood, local wine-tasting, unique shops, family-friendly activities, and exhibits devoted to the history of the region’s Native peoples, Spanish colonists, and 19th- and 20th-century settlers.
Start with a walking tour along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, with stops along the water to savor what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” The trail is easily walkable from Cannery Town down toward Fisherman’s Wharf or up toward neighboring Pacific Grove, offering frequent overlooks, unbeatable photo opps, and (often) sightings of sea lions, sea otters, and even porpoises and dolphins. If you find yourself staring a bit too long at the water, don’t worry - it really is that beautiful and, no, it can’t really be captured in photographs. You’ll carry the memory home with you, I promise.
Of course, if you’re visiting with kids, they’re eventually going to ask you to stop staring at the bay and “do something.” Cannery Row obliges with a seemingly endless array of unique shopping - way beyond the customary T-shirts and sweatshirts you’ve come to expect in other destinations, Monterey’s shops offers quality arts and crafts, jewelry, and a great selection of literature and local history books too. For a deeper dive into local history, book a visit to the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum. My younger daughter and I also enjoyed the Monterey Mirror Maze - we “escaped” the maze in minutes on our first try, then got more and more (pleasantly) lost in the maze on each subsequent visit. My only advice to newbies is to hold hands, but that’s (almost) always good advice, right?
Getting out on the bay is more ambitious, and very rewarding. Adventures by the Sea offers the chance to explore the water and waterfront. Founded by local Frank Knight, the company has several locations around town where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, bicycles, and surreys. I recommend that you book a kayak tour, in which a knowledgeable guide will take you out on the bay and talk about the wildlife and history, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting up-close-and-personal (safely) with sea lions, seals, and sea otters. You may find the sea lions lounging on the decks of fishing boats, as my wife and daughter did, while the seals love to hide in the seaweed and slyly peek out at visitors. Sea otters, on the other hand, may swim right toward your kayak or even swim under you. Of course you’ll want to take pictures: Adventures by the Sea supplies you with a “dry bag” to keep valuables like cameras and smartphones safe. You’ll also get a waterproof jacket and pants to wear over your clothes, but do consider kayaking barefoot or in water-safe shoes because your lower legs and feet will almost certainly get wet out there.
Our visit to Monterey was very much centered around Cannery Row and the outdoor activities nearby, but if you’re in town long enough, you ought to consider a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in a former cannery and hosting sea life from the bay plus a variety of changing exhibits, presentations, and events. Fisherman’s Wharf, a few blocks north of Cannery Row, boasts some fine restaurants and a fun party scene in the evenings. And the entire Monterey Peninsula, including the quiet Victorian beauty of Pacific Grove, the drop-dead-gorgeous Carmel Valley, the town of Carmel, and the Pacific coastline to the south of Lovers’ Point, is the kind of place you may never want to leave.
WHAT TO EAT
Sipping from a flight of local Pinot Noirs while looking out at the impossible turquoise of the Monterey Bay in the late afternoon is just one reason to stop by A Taste of Monterey Wine Market and Bistro, on Cannery Row. In addition to the awesome wine tasting for grownups, the whole family loved passing small plates like crab dip, local artichokes, and hummus, and entrees like flatbread pizzas, New England clam chowder, and panini.
Lunch at Lalla Oceanside Grill, including incredible calamari (“Wow! It’s bigger than back in New York!”) and fish tacos, was a pleasure not only for the food but also for the sleek mid-century modern decor inside and the bayside views out the window.
When visiting Monterey, resistance to Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is futile. By all means go, sit down, and indulge in one of the shop’s yes-it’s-too-big-and-yes-you’re-going-to-finish-it-anyway treats, towering ice cream concoctions named for Cali landmarks like the Golden Gate banana split and the Muir Woods black cherry vanilla sundae. (Experienced travelers, including yours truly, also note that the lines at the Monterey shop are much shorter than those at the Ghirardelli’s at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.)
We celebrated our final evening in Monterey at The Fish Hopper, also on Cannery Row. The appetizers are incredibly satisfying, offering a medley of prawns, calamari, and crab in a variety of imaginative relishes like mango and papaya, plus awesome (and massive) local artichokes. Entrees like a bread bowl New England clam chowder, steaks, and sustainably sourced fish make this a nice place to end your day. We loved watching sea otters eating their own dinner right outside the window - floating on their backs and cracking clam shells on rocks on their chests. It crossed our minds that, this evening before we had to pack up and leave Monterey, the sea otters might have been putting on a little show for us, perhaps their way of saying, “Goodbye.” We decided that it’s much more likely they were saying, “Until we meet again...”
Get to Know: Philipsburg, MT, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Philipsburg, MT, is no. 7 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Anyone traveling from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone, as I did with my wife and kids last summer, will be grateful for the town of Philipsburg, a little mining town in Granite County, a short drive south of Interstate 90. Especially if you’re driving with kids, Philipsburg may be the town of your dreams: Stop here to learn how to pan for gems and chow down at "The World’s Greatest Candy Store." Any questions? The Sapphire Gallery will teach you how to turn a pile of dirt and rubble into a much smaller pile of beautiful raw sapphires: You purchase a bag of gravel mined from the nearby mountains, then swirl it around in a pan to align the gravel so that the raw sapphires (much denser than the surrounding debris) sink to the bottom center. Then you turn your sieve upside down and pick out the raw sapphires. Staff is on hand to help, and you can then take your favorite sapphires to be analyzed to determine which ones are candidates for heat-treating, which gives sapphires their shine and their color. We ended up with three good candidates, paid to have them heat treated, and they arrived in the mail a few weeks later, even more beautiful than we’d hoped. Even if we weren’t a little peckish after our sapphire activity, it’d be difficult to say “no” to The Sweet Palace, billed as “The World’s Greatest Candy Store” and located right next door to the Sapphire Gallery. As you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the unmistakable aroma of taffy, fudge, and other other delights all blending together in way that takes you back to your childhood, or the childhood of your dreams. Rows and rows of candy jars, ranging from well-known favorites to unusual regional treats, invite you to overindulge. We did. I handed each of my daughters a candy bag and instructed them to pick out no more than one pound each. I thought I was being a bit strict. But it occurred to me only later, as they spread their bounty on their hotel beds, that one pound of candy is, well, a pound of candy; oh well, we were on vacation, right? For dinner, we enjoyed Tommyknockers, across the street from our hotel. The burgers and lemonade were just what we needed after a day on the road, and I especially enjoyed a refreshingly light craft beer, brewed just down the street at Philipsburg Brewing Company. We bedded down in style at The Broadway Hotel, where each room is decorated in the style of a particular travel destination. Appropriately enough for us, we got a U.K.-themed room, which suited my family's literary taste (Dickens, Austen, Rowling) perfectly. In the morning, we joined other hotel guests in a hearty breakfast of home-baked quiches, pastry, and more. Even though we weren't traveling with a dog, we appreciated the hotel's pet-friendly policies, and we loved chatting with the staff about Philipsburg's mining history and very cool comeback in recent years.
Get to Know: Cannon Beach, OR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Cannon Beach, Oregon is no. 6 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Here’s the magic number to remember when you think about this breathtaking oceanside town: 363. That’s how many miles of shoreline there are here, each mile as stunning as the last, especially the stretch where you can take in the views of the iconic Haystack Rock, a majestic millions-years-old boulder 235 feet from the shoreline. Colorful tidepools swirl around it and all sorts of birds as well as puffins gather there and you can walk right up to it in low tide. But any of the many places to stay along the water, from rustic B&Bs to more posh resorts, offer quite a vista to wake up to. Needless to say, Cannon Beach is a mecca for outdoor sports. There are plenty of spots for surfers to catch waves and calmer areas for kayakers. Hiking amid some of the world’s tallest trees in Ecola State Park or bike rides along the local expanse of the 382-mile Oregon Coast Trail are ways for landlubbers to spend the days. The Lost Art of Nursing Museum, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a treasure trove of maritime objects, are just a few of the institutions that give visitors a sense of the area’s rich and varied history. But to get back to the future, this being Oregon, there are vast dining and drinking options that far exceed what you’d expect for such a small town. Pig N Pancake and Crepe Neptune are among the tempting options for breakfast fare. Dinner is a thrilling array of everything from family-owned Ecola Seafood, which specializes in the local catch, to the elegant, chill Seasons Café, known for its elevated, creative twists salads and sandwiches along with local beer and wine, and the quirky Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House, where you can chow down on pub grub and shop for tools, camping gear, and paint supplies. The originality of that spot alone is enough to have us booking our ticket.
Get to Know: Mountain View, AR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Mountain View, AR, is no. 5 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Music is everywhere in Mountain View, with locals joining visiting musicians to play traditional mountain music in the town square. Founded in the 1870s, Mountain View has become a major center of traditional Ozark culture and music. The Ozark Folk Center is America’s finest place to experience traditional Ozark culture, music, and more. The Folk Center includes demonstrations of blacksmithing, pottery-making, and other pioneer skills as well as toe-tapping mountain music. You can even sign up to learn to play an instrument like the dulcimer or autoharp, or to dance one of the classic jigs you’ll see here. The Folk Center was founded in 1973, but its origins go back to the first Arkansas Folk Festival in the early 1960s, and of course the music traditions here are (almost) as old as the mountains. The tradition of “pickin’” folk instruments late into the night on porches and front yards around the town square continues to this day during northern Arkansas warm season, which happily stretches from mid-April through late November. Thanks to the local, Music Roots Program, skilled folk musicians visit area schools and teach children how to play traditional stringed instruments so that the vital musical legacy continues to be passed on. Mountain View is surrounded by natural beauty as well. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area offers the chance to see the amazing falls, hike on a comfy paved trail, cycle, or fish for rainbow trout. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is located in the beautiful Ozark-Saint Francis National Forest. A visit to the jaw-dropping caverns in Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is a must. The caverns offer tours, exhibits, and family activities along a hiking trail, and the area includes a popular mountain bike trail too. Mountain View's downtown area is also a bustling hub of music stores, antique shops, and the Arkansas Craft Guild. Popular outstanding local eateries include Tommy's Famous Pizza, Kin Folks Bar-B-Q, and JoJo's Catfish Wharf. Portico Pizza Kitchen also serves up tasty pies, sandwiches, and more and, true to Mountain View’s preservation of folkways, Portico is in the same building as a traditional ironworks.
24 Hours in: Morro Bay, CA
As you approach Morro Bay, California, from Highway 101 in summer, as my family and I did in July, the first thing you’ll notice is that the outdoor temperature drops a few degrees each mile as you head west, over some switchbacks in the coastal range, and down to the lovely little beach town dominated visually by the iconic Morro Rock, a holdover from the region’s volcanic origins. As the environment along the road quickly changed from inland farmland vistas and 97-degree heat to misty seaside hills with breezes bringing temps down into the 60s, we relished what central-coast Californians have known for years but other U.S. domestic travelers are just now getting to know: Morro Bay is a charming beach town that is a real bargain along this beautiful stretch of coast. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING Our lodging for the night, The Landing at Morro Bay, combines the best aspects of a design-forward seaside hotel (mid-century modern interior design and furniture, ample windows and glass doors facing the water) with the comfy convenience of a family-friendly motel (ample parking, friendly staff, excellent local coffee brewed all day at the front desk). We loved that The Landing is a super-short walk from Morro Bay’s scenic wharf and parkland, not to mention our view of the impressive Morro Rock from the second-story balcony. WHAT TO DO There’s enough to do in Morro Bay to keep you busy for days, but our first-ever visit was limited to 24 hours, giving us a chance to get to know the town and add some spots to our “next time to-do list.” Pacific beaches beckon for those who want to catch serious waves (visit AZ.HI.AZ.I.AM Surf Shop first) or just soak up some sun (with some help from Beach Butlerz if needed). The town of Morro Bay and its surrounding area is renowned for hiking in Morro Bay State Park and along the Cloisters Park Trail, kayaking in the bay (or explore via “bay cruisers” or electric boats to see sea otters and sea lions in their beautiful habitat), and golfing on a course affectionately dubbed “the poor man’s Pebble Beach” for its beauty and affordability. Drop by Kites & Surreys to purchase one of the many eye-popping beach-friendly kites on display or to rent a pedal surrey in which to explore Morro Bay’s park trails. And if you’re looking for a splash of urban sophistication amid the natural beauty, we loved Revolve Thrift for its impeccably curated retro-chic collection of vintage clothing, mid-century artifacts, and home decor. WHAT TO EAT The evening we arrived in Morro Bay, we enjoyed dinner at Bayside Cafe, in Morro Bay State Park, serving a nice array of seafood in a family-friendly atmosphere (indoor and patio seating) along the marina. I went with some of my personal “comfort foods,” crab cakes appetizer and fried clams dinner, and was happy that I did. The meal isn’t over until you share some desserts like the outstanding Boysenberry Crips, Key Lime Pie, and (the current frontrunner for my favorite dessert name of all time) Chocolate Oblivion. Breakfast at popular Frankie & Lola’s is everything you might hope for, with an array of omelet options that include fresh veggies, a reminder of Morro Bay's proximity to the central coast’s incredible farmland. I opted for a massive breakfast burrito, half of which completely satisfied my hunger and the other half of which I packed and happily consumed during our trip down the 101 toward Ventura. Right down the street from Frankie & Lola’s, stop into House of Jerky for artisanal meat snacks made with grass-fed, humanely harvested stock. Don’t leave town without grabbing a meal at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant on Embarcadero, where you’ll find not just a great bustling diner-style eatery specializing in fresh-caught Pacific seafood but also a mini-conglomerate of Tognazzini-branded enterprises that includes the Fish Market & Patio and the Smokehouse & Pub. We enjoyed Dockside’s great sandwiches and salads and savored a relaxing stroll along the wharf watching the fishing boats (you may even spot Captain Mark Tognazzini and Bonnie Tagnazzini’s boat, the Bonnie Marietta), and ogling the fresh-from-the-sea bounty at the fish market.