Head south for the winter! Just over an hour’s drive from San Jose are the ocean-side towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Perfect for a day trip or—better yet—a long weekend, these quaint towns offer tons for families to explore. Read on for our tips of where to eat, what to do and where to stay.
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photo: © Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium
If your kids want an up-close-and-personal look at tons of sea creatures, then the Monterey Bay Aquarium should be on your must-do list. Watch a diver hand-feed the sharks, fishes and other animals in the Kelp Forest exhibit. Then head over to the Tentacles exhibit to see if you can spot a Flamboyant Cuttlefish. The sea otters and penguins can keep the little ones entertained for hours. The aquarium is located on Cannery Row, a great spot to search for souvenirs or grab a snack.
Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
866 Cannery Row
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
This gorgeous area just south of downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea on Highway 1 is a great destination if you are looking to go hiking and exploring with the kids. It is $10 to park in one of their lots or you can park on Highway 1 and walk in. The hiking trails meaner over rocky cliffs and give scenic views of the California coastline. If you are lucky, you may spot a sea lion or otter in the water. Make sure you make a stop at the Whaler’s Cabin where you can learn about the area’s turn-of-the-century whaling and abalone industry. Don’t forget to dress in layers as it can get chilly on the coast.
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
62 California Highway 1
photo: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS via Flickr
The Monarch Grove Sanctuary
Every year thousands of monarch butterflies overwinter in Pacific Grove, which is why the town is referred to as “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.” Head to the sanctuary for a chance to glimpse these beautiful creature in the branches of the eucalyptus trees. There is no admission fee at the sanctuary. After your visit, swing by the Butterfly House at 309 9th Street. This private home was decorated in bright colors with a butterfly motif by its owner for his wife who could only see bright colors due to a degenerative eye condition.
250 Ridge Road
Pacific Grove, CA
Spend an afternoon walking the streets of downtown Carmel that is full of quirky shops and art around every corner. A perfect spot to picnic is Devendorf Park where the kids can run on the grass and check out the koi pond. See if you can spot the Hansel and Gretel houses and then make a stop at the Cottage of Sweets for a piece of fudge. The ground floor of the Carmel Plaza shopping area is a great spot to sit by the outdoor fires and enjoy a cup of cocoa.
Dennis the Menace Park
If you ever came to Monterey as a child, you likely played at the massive Dennis the Menace Park that has been open since 1956. While the iconic lion drinking fountain still stands, the park has undergone many different renovations over the years. Kids can run across the suspension bridge or climb one of the many playground structures. The steam engine is currently fenced off until the city can find a way to bring it up to current safety standards.
Hours: 10 a.m. to dusk
777 Pearl Street
One of the major draws of this area is the miles and miles of sandy beaches. At the end of Ocean Avenue in Carmel you can find Carmel Beach where both families and their furry friends are welcome. The quarter-mile boardwalk trail near Asilomar State Beach is perfect for strollers and walkers alike. This beach is also a tide pooler’s paradise when the tide is low. If your little one loves bird watching, bring them to Carmel River State Beach. Here they have the chance to spot the Great Blue Heron, the Virginia Rail, the Brown Pelican, the Greater Yellowlegs and many types of gulls, egrets and terns.
The wharf in Monterey offers lots of options for dining out. Walk along the pier and sample all of the clam chowder that’s available as you decide where to go. The Sandbar and Grill offers views of the boats docked in the wharf with a menu consisting mostly of seafood (ribs and burgers are some non-seafood options). Cannery Row also offers many different dining options like Bubba Gump’s. Just off the main drag is Cannery Row Brewing Company that has a kid’s menu with all the typical fare as well as a giant pretzel that’s perfect for sharing.
If your visit includes breakfast, head to Katy’s Place where the menu is loaded with kid faves like banana pancakes, Belgian waffles and French toast. Don’t let the white tablecloths of Il Fornaio turn you away. This restaurant is perfectly kid-friendly with options like pizza and pasta. They will even bring some pizza dough for the kids to play with while you are waiting!
The Monterey Tides is perfect for families as it is literally right on the beach. Not only can you choose an oceanfront room and hear the crashing waves all night, but the kids can run down the steps in front of the hotel to the sand below. Located just three miles north of the wharf in Monterey, the hotel’s beach draws surfers and sea birds alike. The hotel has a hot tub and pool and also welcomes your family dog.
Make sure you take advantage of the hotel’s s’mores on the beach option where $30 will get you firewood to start your own bonfire on the sand and enough s’mores fixin’s for your crew. The Monterey Tides also offers a 2-for-1 deal with the Monterey Bay Aquarium where you pay for one day and get a second day free. Many of their packages include dining credits to use at Vizcaino Waterfront Food + Drink, located on the hotel’s fourth floor. Breakfast there should definitely include Mickey Mouse pancakes and a whipped cream-topped hot chocolate.
2600 Sand Dunes Drive
A special thanks to the Monterey Tides, a Joie de Vivre hotel, for hosting this stay.
Have you road tripped to this area before? Let us know your must-do activities!
All photos by the author except where noted.