Sunset Over Monterey Bay
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The Monterey Peninsula, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, is arguably one of the most naturally beautiful areas on earth, its rocky coast fringed by cypress forests and abundant marine sanctuaries. It also boasts rich literary roots in the writings of John Steinbeck and Robert Louis Stevenson. A day in the city and its surrounding communities provides many opportunities to explore this hilly, sea-kissed area in depth. And, for the more adventurous, it offers the chance to explore the beautiful and historic peninsula as a whole.
Monterey is a prime tourist destination, and by mid-morning on any given day, cruise ship passengers will be joined by hordes of tourists arriving by bus and car. However, cruise ship passengers are a distinct minority in Monterey -- the town has strict environmental safeguards, has a limited anchorage and small tendering pier, and is relatively passive in pursuing the industry. There is much local opposition to cruise ships calling in the harbor, and visiting ships must observe strict "no discharge" rules when in port. The size of the marine sanctuaries also limits the location and number of places ships may anchor. Currently, only Celebrity and NCL stop in Monterey. Crystal used to visit, but is waiting out a 15-year ban because of failure to report an accidental discharge in Monterey Bay.
Still, visitors will find a charming community, filled with history from the city's past as a whaling center and, later, as the sardine capital of the Western Hemisphere. Now, of course, that industry is gone, replaced by museums, seafarers, artists and writers. The area is perfect for walkers, and offers a wide range of art galleries and shops, and natural attractions as well as some special man-made ones, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Good restaurants offering freshly caught seafood welcome the diner who is willing to wander off the beaten track. The area boasts numerous up-and-coming wineries.
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island • Ensenada • Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Monterey • Puerto Vallarta
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar; ATMs are plentiful.
Monterey is located near the important and expanding Monterey Wine Country (Note: There are no wineries or vineyards in the town; the term Monterey wine country refers to the peninsula). While several wineries have their own wine-tasting shops, A Taste of Monterey (700 Cannery Row, 831-646-5446, www.tasteofmonterey.com, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.) sells wines from the entire region. Besides tasting (the staff is friendly and well-informed), visitors can purchase wines from over 40 featured area wineries and have them shipped (the Supreme Court recently declared illegal all rules preventing interstate shipping).
Local artists display and sell their works at Monterey Peninsula Art Foundation (425 Cannery Row, 831-655-1267, www.mpaf.org, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily).
Where You're Docked
Cruise ship passengers are tendered ashore at the Coast Guard Pier, from which all of Monterey is an easy walk. Tendering begins before many of the shops and attractions have opened; this is a great opportunity to explore prime tourist destinations such as Cannery Row at a relaxed pace.
There is very little to do on the pier itself, but in the immediate area are Fisherman's Wharf, Cannery Row, Presidio Park and downtown. If fishing is your thing, Fisherman's Wharf has all the sights and smells associated with the Monterey fishing industry.
Watch Out For
Crowds. Monterey is very popular with tourists, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the epicenter. Either visit the Aquarium on your own as soon as it opens or avoid it entirely. Cannery Row can also be dense with foot traffic, although the crowds thin the further one moves from the Aquarium.
Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, 831-648-4888, www.mbayaq.org, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. except in summer, when opening is at 9:30 a.m.) is one of the outstanding aquariums in the country. It features a wide array of sea life, much of which is native to the surrounding waters. There are sea otters, penguins, a white shark, special exhibits -- something for everybody. Be warned though: This is the prime destination in town. Cruisers on shore excursions will arrive at the busiest times. Independent travelers should order tickets in advance from the Web site (no need to stand in the ticket line too) and plan on arriving at the entrance shortly before opening to avoid the worst of the congestion. Cruisers who take a shore excursion to the Aquarium will be right in the middle of the crowds.
Cannery Row (www.canneryrow.com) gets its name from the sardine-packing industry that once thrived here. Now, the preserved warehouses and factories house shops, galleries, wine-tasting establishments, restaurants and the prerequisite souvenir stores. For something unique to the area, try one of the wine-tasting shops that feature wines from nearby wineries, or explore the smaller galleries and shops on the side streets. It's a great walking area, particularly the seaside hotel parks and beaches.
The Maritime Museum of Monterey (5 Custom House Plaza, 831-372-2608, www.montereyhistory.org, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily except Wednesdays) showcases ship models, photographs and other collections that highlight the area's seafaring past. A special attraction is the 500-glass prism of the historic Fresnel lens from the Point Sur Lightstation that illuminates the Maritime Museum and its seven exhibit areas. Displays range from the Rumsien/Ohlone Indians and Spanish explorers to the USS Macon and war in the Pacific to Monterey's era as the sardine capital of the world. One benefit: This museum is located in the main part of the town, away from well-worn tourist paths.
Near the Maritime Museum are many of the stops on the Path of History (start at the State Park History Theater in Stanton Center for a short film, 831-655-8070, www.oldmonterey.org), a section of downtown Monterey that preserves and highlights the architecture and lifestyle of the 1800's. This self-guided tour is free, and a tour booklet is available at various locations around the town.
Been There, Done That
Rent a bicycle at Bay Bikes (585 Cannery Row, 831-655-2453, www.baybikes.com, 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.) and explore the entire area. There is a well-marked and easily navigated bike path that runs through town, connecting with bike-safe roads to more distant points. A great ride is northwest, out of town, to the world famous 17-Mile Drive (free to cyclists). On the way, cyclists pass Lovers Point and the Point Pinos Lighthouse, ride through the astounding shoreside Asilomar State Beach (part of the Pacific Grove Fish Garden Refuge and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary), and pass by Bird Rock and Seal Rock. And a nice thing about the ride is seeing all the sights again on the way back. Bikes in all sizes and shapes are available for about $7 an hour, and the shop provides an excellent biking map; the shop will also put together a custom bike tour for groups (reservations required in advance for tours).
John Steinbeck fans can explore the numerous local real and literary haunts of the famous author by car. Monterey Rent-a-Roadster (229 Cannery Row, 831-647-1929, www.rent-a-roadster.com, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily) rents authentic reproductions of classic cars by the hour to make the drive memorable (reserve in advance). A CD entitled "Footsteps of Steinbeck" is a self-guided driving tour that fills a morning or afternoon and is available in numerous shops in town. Steinbeck fans will also want to include the town of Salinas on their itineraries.
Monterey Whale Watching (96 Fisherman's Wharf #1, 800-200-2203, www.montereywhalewatching.com) offers three-hour whale-watching tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily (see the Web site for a coupon for discounted tickets). For much of the year, Monterey Bay itself is a feeding ground for many varieties of migrating whales. This is a great outing for the entire family. Advance reservations are required; group rates and special tours can be arranged.
The Cannery Row area offers a wide range of restaurants. For something authentic (real fresh seafood) and close, try Sea Harvest (598 Foam Street, 831-646-0547). The day's catch is iced and displayed for sale, and the menu is what's available. Seafood is simply prepared, and sides are uniformly excellent. Dine with locals on fish caught by their neighbors.
For something more elegant and away from the crowds, stroll downtown to Stokes Restaurant and Bar (500 Hartnell Street, 831-373-1110), which features upscale interpretations of California cuisine in an old house that successfully replicates a rustic Southwestern style. At lunch, fresh seafood is incorporated into sandwiches and salads, and the daily specials always include something from the wood-burning oven.
Staying in Touch
Bay Books and Coffee House (316 Alvarado, 831-375-1855) offers Internet access for $10 an hour or $4 for 15 minutes. They also serve a wide range of tasty coffee drinks. Another option is the Starbucks at 711 Cannery Road, which offers with wireless access.
For More Information
On the Web: www.montereyinfo.org
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--By Maria Smith, a longtime travel writer whose work has appeared in newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Nashville Tennessean and the San Jose Mercury News.
All images except John Steinbeck Plaza appear courtesy of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Image of John Steinbeck Plaza appears courtesy of Monterey.org.