The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
The historic capital of California under the Spanish and Mexican regimes, Monterey (pop. 27,810), along with its peninsular neighbors Carmel and Pacific Grove, is one of the most satisfying stops in California. Dozens of significant historical sites have been well preserved, most of them concentrated within a two-mile-long walk called the Path of History that loops through the compact downtown area. Park in the lots at the foot of Alvarado Street, Monterey’s main drag, and start your tour at Fisherman’s Wharf, where bellowing sea lions wallow in the water, begging for popcorn from tourists. Next stop should be the adjacent Custom House, the oldest governmental building in the state.
From the Custom House, which is now surrounded by the Portola Hotel & Spa, you can follow the old railroad right-of-way west along the water to Cannery Row, where abandoned fish canneries have been gussied up into upscale bars and restaurants—most of them capitalizing on ersatz Steinbeckian themes. The one real attraction here is the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, 831/648-4800, daily, $40 adults), housed in a spacious modern building and loaded with state-of-the-art tanks filled with over 500 species of local sealife. The aquarium is rated by many as the best in the world: Displays let visitors touch tide-pool denizens, watch playful sea otters, gaze into the gently swaying stalks of a three-story-tall kelp forest, be hypnotized by brilliantly colored jellyfish, or face truly weird creatures that usually live thousands of feet below the surface of the bay.
The internationally-famous Monterey Jazz Festival (831/373-3366) is held every September.
Because Monterey gets such a considerable tourist trade, there’s no shortage of restaurants, though good food at reasonable prices can be hard to find. In the historic center of town, one good bet is the Old Monterey Café (489 Alvarado St., 831/646-1021), serving large portions at breakfast and lunch. For breakfast near the aquarium, try First Awakenings (125 Oceanview Blvd., 831/372-1125). For seafood, catch an early-bird special (before 6pm) at one of the dozen restaurants on the wharf, or head a mile west along the frontage road to the very popular Monterey’s Fish House (2114 Del Monte Ave., 831/373-4647).
Places to stay vary widely, starting with the HI-Monterey Hostel (778 Hawthorne St., 831/649-0375, $30 and up per person), in historic Carpenters Union Hall off Cannery Row, five blocks from the aquarium. Moderate motels line Munras Street along the old US-101 highway frontage south toward Carmel, while prices in downtown Monterey hover in the $200 range. One exception to the generally high prices is the refurbished and centrally located Monterey Hotel (406 Alvarado St., 831/375-3184 or 800/966-6490, $159 and up).
Many other nice places to stay and eat can be found in neighboring Pacific Grove or Carmel. For additional information on destinations from Monterey south to Big Sur, contact the Monterey County visitors bureau (831/649-6400 or 1-877-MONTEREY).