Traveler Postcard – Katie in Monterey, California

Wildlife and wine-tasting in Coastal California

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That’s why we’re launching a new series, Traveler Postcard, in which we profile a real trip - highlighting the best of a destination as seen by a particular person on a particular trip. They’ll share what they did, what they liked and disliked, and how much they spent, giving you a personal perspective and real tips to plan your trip. 

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Traveler Name: Katie Hammel, BootsnAll editor
Destination: Monterey, California
Dates: November 5 -8, 2011 (3 nights/4 days)

Monterey County is located about two hours south of San Francisco, and like much of coastal California, it offers beautiful beaches, cliff-hugging curves on Highway 1, and lots of wildlife just offshore. There’s a rugged beauty here and though the area is definitely popular with visitors, it doesn’t feel “touristy” (especially in off-season) or manufactured. There’s a growing wine scene, lots of outdoor adventures, and great family attractions, all tucked away in one of the most beautiful areas (that I’ve ever seen, anyways) in California.

Why did you choose this destination?

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco has always been a travel dream of mine, but I’d never taken the week that I would need to make the trip. When the Monterey County tourism board (MCCVB) invited me on a sponsored trip, I saw this as my opportunity to fulfill a small part of the dream. MCCVB covered my flight, three nights of hotel, two meals,  tickets to the Aquarium, some wine tasting, and bike rentals, but I had free rein to go where I wanted when I wanted and do what I wanted, just as I would if I were funding the trip on my own. I visited the cities of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea and made the drive down the PCH to Big Sur, ending with a night futher inland in Salinas.

What was the biggest surprise of the destination?

I knew the coast along the PCH was going to be beautiful. I’ve seen enough photos and videos to know that it was one of the most gorgeous drives in the country, but still I found myself blown away by the view when I first rounded a bend and saw the highway in front of me, darting in and out along the coast, with the big blue expanse of the ocean meeting the rocky shore below. The 26 mile drive from Carmel to Big Sur ended up taking me over an hour because I insisted on stopping every few miles for more photos. In even the most beautiful of settings it’s sometimes easy to start to become desensitized – oh, another stunning vista? moving on… –  but I still found myself….well, kind of freaking out over how darn pretty it all was, even after four days.

What was the best experience on your trip?

Feeding the elephants at Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas was one of the coolest experiences of the trip. I’ve been on a safari in South Africa, and honestly this can’t be compared to that (the animals at Vision Quest aren’t wild; most are rescues or are retired from the circus) but if a true safari isn’t an option for you, this is a pretty great alternative. You stay in safari tents built on stilts and spread around the grounds with the elephant play field as the focal point. If you can ignore the paved driveways and parked cars and just focus on the tall grass around the tents, and the elephants, ostriches and zebra roaming around,  it’s a pretty cool experience. Especially when the trainers come around each night and bring animals to meet the guests. They also deliver breakfast each morning, bringing bagels and pastry for the guests, and fruit that the guests get to hand feed to one of the elephants.

We were also able to “put the elephants to bed” the previous night. Three elephants were brought inside the barn where they sleep for the night. After they settled in and were fed their main meal, my husband and I were able to feed them several loaves of bread for snacks. Seeing an elephant in the wild was an unforgettable experience, but feeling the power of the elephant’s trunk, touching its wrinkly skin and feeling the wiry black hairs poking out of it, and watching this massive animal so gingerly and carefully take the food from my hand, was equally amazing.

Did anything about the trip disappoint you? Were there any “must do” activities or attractions that you found overrated?

I regret that I didn’t stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea, but instead spent my first night in Monterey.  I enjoyed Monterey, and it definitely offers more to do than Carmel- you can ride bikes along the coastal path, go kayaking and look for otters, visit the Aquarium, sample wine at several tasting rooms and shop the stores along Cannery Row. But I fell in love with Carmel the moment I saw it. The “downtown” is quite small, but there are plenty of great restaurants and shops, several adorable bed and breakfasts, and a dozen wine-tasting rooms. It looks like a typical “resort town” but at the same time feels very lived-in and welcoming. Carmel totally charmed me and I wish I’d had more time there.

What was your best meal of the trip?

The best meal I had was at Fandango, an Italian restaurant in Monterey. The dinner itself was comped by the MCCVB; because Fandango is one of the restaurants in Monterey that allows guests to bring their own wine (if it’s purchased from the Taste of Monterey shop in town) with no corkage fee, we brought a bottle of wine.  My husband decided he wanted to try the sanddabs, even though he had no idea what they were, so we ordered the appetizer portion. As it turns out, sanddabs are a type of fish found in the northern Pacific Ocean. This one was served lightly dusted in flour, fried in butter, and served with lemon, and it was delicious, light and fresh and moist. I opted for another fish for my entree – the sole – but wished I had just gone for another plate of the amazing sanddabs.

What is one experience you would tell other travelers not to miss in this destination?

Other than the drive along Highway 1, I think the activity not to miss in Monterey is viewing the area wildlife. Unless you’re from California, chances are that you don’t see many seals, sea lions, otters, whales and dolphins in your daily life. But you can find all these at various times of year in Monterey. I was able to see seals and sea otters from the shore, but a kayak rental would have allowed for viewing up close.

What item, hotel, or experience is worth a splurge?

Admission to the Monterey Aquarium isn’t cheap at nearly $30 for an adult, but it’s well worth the cost. Not only do you get to see marine life like sharks, otters, stingrays, jellyfish and hundreds of varieties of fish, you also have several opportunities to get hands-on or to learn about them more in-depth through several scheduled “shows.” The exhibits themselves are simply stunning – the neon jellyfish were beautiful and even the sardines looked cool swimming in unison around a backlit dome. Aquariums and zoos aren’t normally high on my must-see list, but this is one exception.

What was the weather like when you were there? Would you recommend visiting at a different time for optimal weather?

The weather on my first day in Monterey was a bit grey and chilly, with rain that evening, but for the rest of the trip it was brilliantly sunny and in the mid- to high-50′s/low 60′s, which I thought was perfect. December is the coldest month and September is the warmest, but the temperature is pretty mild all year round.  It’s always going to be colder by the coast and warmer inland, so no matter when you go, pack layers.

How easy or difficult was it to travel independently in the destination (in terms of getting around, cost, safety, language and culture shock)?

With a moderate budget and a rental car, it’s incredibly easy to travel in Monterey County, but going super low budget or getting around without your own car would be more difficult. 

Would you recommend this destination to other independent travelers? Why or why not?

Monterey is a great destination for independent travelers.  There’s a lot to see and do and the area is spectacularly beautiful. If you’ve done Napa and Sonoma and want to explore another wine region of California, or if you want to see a smaller town outside of San Francisco, it’s a great nearby option. You could make it its own trip (flying into San Jose), add it on to a weekend in San Francisco, or visit as part of the full drive from SF to LA on the Pacific Coast Highway.

How much did you spend?

Rooms at Lover’s Point Inn in Monterey range from $80-$120 (in off-season) and include mini-fridges, free wifi, continental breakfast and free parking. The cabins at Glen Oaks start at $200 per night, but include a small sitting room with fireplace, free wifi, mini-fridge, and patios with firepits. At Vision Quest Ranch, B&B rooms range from $145 to $265 per night and include breakfast – delivered by one of the ranch’s resident elephants. If you’re on a tighter budget, you can find nice accommodation for around $100 or less per night (there are several budget chains near Monterey and Carmel) or stay at the Hosteling International location in Monterey for $23 per night in a dorm.

Dining was a mix of high and low budget options. At two of the places I stayed, breakfast was included, and at all, there were mini-fridges so I could bring my own food for breakfast or lunch if I wanted. Both Monterey and Carmel had several reasonably priced options (one day I had a $4 taco for lunch; the other two days my husband and I shared sandwiches for under ten bucks).  The two dinners that were comped by the MCCVB added up to about $100-$120 for two people, not including wine. Luckily, the Taste of Monterey wine shop has partnered with several restaurants in Monterey County to allow diners to bring their own wine with no corkage fee, so long as it was purchased at Taste of Monterey. 

Most of the attractions I wanted to see were free or low cost, like 17 Mile Drive, and most of the wine tasting rooms offered the tastings for free with the purchase of wine.

Accommodation: $500 for 3 nights (estimate) for double rooms (shared for two people)
Food and drink: $150 for 4 days plus $40 in wine purchased
Tours I did during my trip:  3hr bike rental – $21, Aquarium – $30, (both comped by MCCVB), entrance to 17 Mile Drive – $10 = total – $61
Transport: $270 for 4 day car rental and gas (shared for two people)

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