Coast Life

Santa Cruz road trip: A day away in Monterey

Take in the tide pools right off the deck at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, often with a variety of sea life beyond.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Just 60 miles or less from just about anywhere in Santa Cruz County, Monterey makes a great destination for families and groups, couples or those flying solo. With the Monterey Bay Aquarium a must among the Central Coast’s crown jewels, Ashley Spencer plots out an itinerary for a quick day trip south.


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The Central Coast has a lot to offer, and being a tourist in your own backyard is a great way to spend a day if you can avoid the pitfalls of crowds, underwhelming food, and the decision fatigue of sorting through a myriad of online ratings. I aim for a game plan that reduces the stress of planning and logistics, with a decision tree of options based on weather, budget and our collective desire to exercise — or putter.

My husband is the sort who suddenly pulls off the highway for a Big Ball of String attraction, and the whole family has learned to dread a “scenic overlook” sign. Our marriage works because he’s always looking for adventure, and I enjoy the predictability of a reservation. Somewhere in the middle is a day with enough structure to reduce hassle and lots of room to go off script. We are both generally amused by the unexpected, forever in search of good food, and happily curious. Assuming that we all have a bit in common, here are my suggestions for a day in Monterey.

Days away are Up & Out operations in our household, and include a tote bag of extras: a warm layer, walking shoes (or nicer shoes if you’re wearing sneakers) — sometimes binoculars, a book — always a hat, sunscreen and a full water bottle.


8:30 a.m.: But first, coffee

The stacks of Power Plant Coffee's namesake loom behind the roadside spot along Highway 1 in Moss Landing.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

The drive south on Highway 1 is an easy one — a straight shot down through the fields of Watsonville 20 miles to The Power Plant Coffee, which sits, quite literally, in the shadow of the dual exhaust stacks of the Moss Landing Power Plant. Power Plant is a pun — for the sleek, sunny interior is jammed with greenery and offers a range of home decor and coffee table books with a laid-back, beachy vibe. Food options range among pastries from hyper-local bakeries Kelly’s, Ad Astra and Gizdich Ranch, to premade breakfast burritos and quiches, to made-on-the spot avocado toast, banana toast and a tasty BLAT with turkey bacon. Baristas use Acme beans to pump out the usual array of coffees, and there are both mundane and adventuresome canned beverages in the cool case. You’re half an hour away from parking near the aquarium, so if you plan to have breakfast, order ahead online or leave Santa Cruz a bit earlier …


9:30 a.m.: Navigating the aquarium

A diver during a feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
(Via Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Plan your trip to arrive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and be standing, poised at the door, by 9:50 a.m. Parking is tight on a weekend. Two options make sense: the city lot a block away (Cannery Row Parking Lot 7 at 160 Irving Ave.; fee is $20 per day, no hourly rate), or street parking, hourly with the ParkMobile app. This is critical timing to the rest of your day — the aquarium is jaw-dropping, but the pleasure of this visit requires a surgical strike on a busy Saturday.

Jellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Aquarium tickets must be purchased in advance, online, and they are not cheap ($60 for adults, $50 for youth 13 to 17, $45 for children 5 to 12 and free for 4 and younger). It takes only two visits to justify the cost of a membership, and benefits include skipping the line in addition to free visits for a year and supporting the health of Monterey Bay — it’s also fully tax-deductible). There’s no time limit on a daily visit, and you can get a reentry hand stamp at the door if you want to duck out and come back later in the day.

To best enjoy the aquarium, organize your morning around a feeding time and get in position about 10 minutes beforehand. There are quite a few feedings to pick among, but our favorites are: sea otters at 10:30 a.m. (adorable), at the Open Sea exhibit at 11 a.m. (huge, fast swimmers, green turtles and a school of sardines) and at the Kelp Forest at 11:30 a.m. (the naturalist in the tank hand-feeds all the fish — including the sharks!). Throughout the aquarium, marine biologists are available and interesting, happy to introduce you to creatures they study and want you to appreciate. Take advantage of them and ask questions, and touch things — it’s a rare opportunity.

There's no shortage of crustaceans in the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Our game plan is always to hit the busiest part of the Aquarium first — the loop behind the Kelp Forest exhibit. Start with the octopus and make your way around the Monterey Bay Habitat tanks. At the end, across from the bat ray touch pool, is a sunny, glassed-in hallway. Step in there as a wave of water cascades over the roof every 30 seconds — it sounds silly, but I’ve seen people of every age stand, looking up in wonder, and grinning at the surprise. Stop as you wish at the touch tanks, and exit out the door to stand on the balcony of the aquarium, overlooking the bay. Most of the time there are otters, sometimes dolphins, always kayakers and divers — that ecosystem you were just looking at in the tanks is right there, whirling away underneath the surface. The juxtaposition is remarkable.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has plenty of deck space to scope out the wildlife in the bay or just get a breath of fresh air.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Head back inside and across the aquarium, saying hi to the sea otters along the way, and go up to enjoy the Open Sea exhibit. If there are sardines swimming above your head in an endless, silvery circle, you’re on the right path. Then go downstairs and look at Into The Deep for a glimpse of the weird and wonderful creatures — some that light up on their own in a prehistoric version of neon — and the wild adaptations each have devised to live in the darkest, deepest parts of the ocean. It’s about time to move on, as the crowds begin to peak just around noon. If you wish, visit the penguins on the second floor (feeding time isn’t until 3 p.m.) before thinking about lunch.

The aquarium with kids

Depending on ages, swap out the Into the Deep exhibit for touch tanks, visiting the penguins and the Splash Zone. Choosing which feeding time depends on whether they’ll most enjoy huge, powerful fish racing one another to snap up food — kids can sit up front, near the glass, and it’s an incredible show. The Kelp Forest feeding is chattier — a diver gets in the tank and talks to the audience while hand-feeding all the fish. The sea otters are always a winner, but get there early as there are fewer places for a small person to get a good view. The aquarium website has videos of all the feedings if your kids are interested in helping to plan the visit.



Noon: Lunch, your way

With kids or those with mobility issues, staying in the Aquarium Cafe is a good option. The view of Monterey Bay and food are good (salads, poke bowls, fish tacos and burgers), and it is wildly convenient if anyone is cranky — but it’s cafeteria style and $16 for a burrito.

Vivolo's Chowder House in Pacific Grove.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Two and a half blocks away, Vivolo’s Chowder House also serves up fresh fish — we often opt for the specials — and is kid-friendly. It doesn’t have a view, but the art is interesting and it’s a short walk back to the parking lot. Or head to Andronico’s Market across the street and get sandwiches at the deli. This was our go-to option with kids before heading over to Dennis the Menace Playground, which has a huge pirate-themed play area, a hedge maze, terrific long slides and a real train engine that used to be open for climbing but has been off-limits since 2013. (Mom note: This very happy range of things to run around and discover is an ideal follow-on to the aquarium, and will tire everyone out for the ride home. Yes, there are bathrooms.)

The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey.
(Via City of Monterey)

For a nicer sit-down option with an interesting wine list and a Glad to Live in California view, grab the car and head over to the Monterey Plaza Hotel, use the valet (free with lunch validation) and ask for a table on the shaded patio at Schooners. Both the service and the food are great — the mixed seafood salad and fish and chips are favorites. Or, for a more budget-friendly option, park at the nearby garage, and grab a burrito at locals favorite Dos Victorias — and snag a table with a similar view on the other side of the Monterey Plaza Hotel.

Hard to beat the bay view from Schooners Monterey.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

You’ll see kayakers paddling around in the kelp, keeping a respectful distance from the otters, maybe even cruising along with an audience of seals and dolphins — and after lunch, you’re welcome to join them.


After lunch: The best hour, ever

Kayakers preparing to enter Monterey Bay off Cannery Row.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Now that you’re wholly familiar with the ecosystem and the view, it’s time to get on the water. Really. It’s the easiest and most pleasant paddle — and it comes with a side of sea otters. Adventures by the Sea rents kayaks including gear and instruction for $40 per hour. It’s $65 to go out in a guided group, and $85 for a private tour. Make a reservation (at the 685 Cannery Row location) and, after you put on waterproof gear in the changing room, they will do the rest — carry the kayak across the street and get you out on the water. This is an A-plus experience on a sunny day — you really can’t quite believe your luck out on the water, and it requires very little athletic effort.

Not a water person? Rent a bike and take the adjacent and well-maintained bike trail as far as you feel like pedaling. It’s a leisurely, flat mile around to Lovers Point in Pacific Grove. Or rent an e-bike to take a more ambitious ride down toward 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach. If you’re on a family outing, they also rent surreys for the adults to pedal.


Just viewing, please

The Monterey Museum of Art is a good indoor option if the weather isn't conducive to too much outdoor time.
(Via Ashley Spencer)

Fair enough, the weather can shut down an outdoor activity — as can a lack of interest in paddling and pedaling. You have a very happy option at the Monterey Museum of Art. The museum offers a charming and eclectic variety of California artists, as well as a permanent collection of paintings that depict Monterey’s landscape and waterfronts across time. Buy tickets (museum is open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $15 general admission) in advance on a busy weekend and use available street parking.


3:30 p.m.: On the way home

We usually head home late afternoon, but always grab a treat for the road. The last stop in downtown Monterey should be the Alta Bakery (open every day, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.), in the historic Cooper-Molera Adobe, for eye-popping dessert specials to enjoy in its lovely gardens, or Tidal Coffee in the Monterey Plaza Hotel complex (open Thursday through Monday, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 6 a.m. to noon Tuesday and Wednesday) if you’re just out of the water or off of a bike nearby at Adventures by the Sea.

Swing by Alta Bakery for a treat on the way home.

If you’re in the mood to stay for dinner, locals favorite Monterey’s Fish House was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” for its oak-grilled oysters and Sicilian holiday pasta. It doesn’t take reservations, but the line moves pretty quickly. If you’re feeling fancy, check OpenTable for a last-minute reservation at the newly refurbished, upscale Stokes Adobe downtown, or drop by its pretty outdoor patio and bar to enjoy the evening with a craft cocktail and deviled eggs with crab and trout caviar, or seared scallops with pork belly. The full dinner menu is available in the bar if you ask nicely.