My Favorite Places to Visit with Kids in Monterey Peninsula
Two hours south of San Francisco (~120 miles/200 km), Monterey Peninsula guards the southern end of Monterey Bay, an area known for its breathtaking coastline and the many marine reserves. Along with Santa Cruz to the north of Monterey Bay, Monterey Peninsula (composed mainly of Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel-by-the-Sea) is a favorite weekend destination for Bay Area residents, and there are some very good reasons for that.
The place sparkles with Northern Californian charm: alternating sandy and rocky beaches, handsome sea cliffs, abundant wild life... on top of that, add local wines, gourmet dining, charming villages, historical architecture, and world-class golf resorts. But what really makes this region special is that air of freedom, adventure, and open spirit... an eclectic mix of dharma bums, ex flower children, poodle-breeding artists, and golf-loving retirees.
Here are some of my favorite places to visit in Monterey Peninsula. Whether you're traveling with or without kids, these places are some of the highlights on the Californian coast.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the world's top 10 largest aquariums, but it's also an important research and rehabilitation center for marine animals. A visit to Monterey Peninsula is not complete without a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You'll be amazed by these giant tanks showcasing Californian coastal marine life, and you'll get to see sharks navigate through giant kelp forests right in front of your eyes.
For me, the most mesmerizing exhibit is Jellies, the jellyfish experience (take a look of the live web cam). It's practically hypnosis watching these translucent creatures pulsate through the deep blue waters with their fine, long tentacles. Look for the tanks of moon jellyfish, you'll have a most relaxing visual experience.
If you're looking for an even more immersive experience, there's a projection that will give you the illusion that you're swimming amidst giant jellyfish.
Still not getting your fix of tentacles? You will also see a fair share of octopuses, cuttlefishes, and squids at the aquarium, with the Contessa with Squid watching you mysteriously (you can buy prints of this painting from the artist's Etsy store.)
A highlight for the kids is the Rocky Shore exhibit, the hands-on experience where kids can touch and feel live mussels, anemones, barnacles, and even bat rays. And don't miss the sea otter feeding times in the outdoor terrace!
Cannery Row used to be a row of sardine-canning factories on Ocean View Avenue, the street was since renamed after John Steinbeck's novel, Cannery Row. Today, it's a street of touristic restaurants and gift shops, quite a different fate from the original stinky quarters with tin cans.
I'm sure there are many other fine restaurants in Monterey, but it's really fun to take kids and out-of-towners to Bubba Gump. This restaurant is part of an international chain, and has locations in Hong Kong's Peak or the Santa Monica Pier, and the food is honestly not impressive. But Forest Gump has entered our collective consciousness, and a trip to Bubba Gump makes you think about that unrelenting optimism that we can always use, especially on days when Monterey is covered by fog.
Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive
This is the quintessential thing to do in Monterey Peninsula. Imagine driving through neighborhoods with stately mansions, feeling the sea breeze on the coastal road, and spotting wild deer on the Pebble Beach golf courses... that's what the 17-Mile Drive is all about.
Here's an insider tip: normally, there is a fee per car for the 17-Mile Drive, however, if you make a reservation at any of the restaurants within the Pebble Beach Resort, that fee can be waived. One of the most casual restaurants is STICKS at the Inn at Spanish Bay, which sits right on Links at Spanish Bay golf course, with a patio overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The food is your average sports pub fare, but the kid's bento box is a nice and balanced offer.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
Monterey Bay's first European name was "Bahía de los Pinos" (Bay of the Pines), and that name has stayed with Point Pinos Lighthouse, " the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States."
The lighthouse is small. Without the light, it looks like a simple country house. But it's well-preserved and furnished with original 19th century furniture, and on a clear day you can have a lovely view of the ocean. I think it's worth a detour for the history, and perhaps with some luck, you can even spot some whales in the ocean from the lighthouse!
Lover's Point Park
This is one of the best beaches for kids. The beach is protected in an alcove, there is a snack stand (cash-only) and a restaurant (Beach House at Lover's Point) right next to it, and there are many parking spaces around. This is a nice spot for swimmers, and you can also rent a kayak to venture out into the waves.
A great way to get to Lover's Point is by renting a family-friendly surrey bike and bike from Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf along Ocean View Boulevard. Adventures by the Sea provides these surrey bikes at competitive prices.
On the southern side of Monterey Peninsula, there is Carmel-by-the-Sea, one of the most charming towns in California. I think it's great to spend an entire weekend in Carmel, but you can also squeeze in an evening at Carmel after a day in Monterey Bay Aquarium, as it's only a 20-minute drive from the Aquarium.
Ocean View Boulevard Scenic Trail
But perhaps one of the best activities in Monterey Peninsula is a simple stroll down Ocean View Boulevard scenic trail in Pacific Grove. It's free, doesn't require much effort, and you'll be able to take in the essence of Monterey Peninsula: the invigorating coastal view and the enchanting flora and fauna.
We went on a walk with our very own coastal garden gnome.
And guess what else we saw on the trail? More tentacles.
What are your favorite places to visit in Monterey Peninsula?
Here's my Monterey Peninsula map: