Visit Monterey with Kids
When I told people I took my husband and 4-year-old daughter whale watching during a winter road trip to Monterey, I got some sympathetic looks and the question: “Did you guys even see anything?” The answer was a cold, exhausted but so-totally-worth-it “yes!”
The idea of whale watching, especially with kids, conjures up visions of staring off the side of a boat at the ocean and maybe the occasional bird while someone whines to go home in the background. And I’m not saying there wasn’t a bit of whining during our chilly three-hour sea voyage through the submarine canyon of Monterey Bay. But there was no missing the procession of gray whales migrating to their winter breeding grounds in Baja. All whining ceased at the appearance of these mammals, along with bonus sightings of orcas, dolphins, sea lions and other creatures.
Winter is the best time to spot the gray whale, but humpback and blue whales can be seen during summer and fall excursions. Bundle everyone up in multiple layers no matter what the season for the most comfortable journey.
Ocean exploration is only part of a visit to Monterey, where there is plenty to entertain young and old. We started our three-day trip with a roughly two-hour drive from Oakland, stopping for a lunch of fish and chips at the local favorite Sea Harvest Fish Market and Restaurant (598 Foam St.) before boarding the boat.
After whale watching, we checked in at InterContinental The Clement Monterey (750 Cannery Road) for a good night’s sleep. Another posh choice down the road is the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa (400 Cannery Road), but there’s no beating the location of The Clement. When morning came, we took a few steps outside of our hotel to arrive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a former cannery turned epic seaside museum hosting almost 200 marine exhibits.
For those craving a special lunch beyond the crowded cafeteria, the aquarium recently opened the restaurant Cindy’s Waterfront, featuring cuisine by Napa chef Cindy Pawlcyn. Each table comes with its own set of binoculars so diners can enjoy close-up views of the bay. Save yourself an hour wait by making a reservation through OpenTable.com.
If you are looking to get off of Cannery Row for dinner, take a short walk over to Hula’s Island Grill (622 Lighthouse Ave.) for Polynesian-style food, drinks and tiki décor reminiscent of the 1950s and ’60s. This is a popular spot, so arrive early or expect a wait on weekends.
We checked out of our hotel the following morning but couldn’t leave the Monterey area without a brief stop at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. This calming bit of nature in Pacific Grove made for a great, no-cost end to our trip, allowing us to observe clusters of wintering Monarch butterflies hanging from the trees. Borrow a set of binoculars and take a short walk down the path or cozy up to the volunteer docents for a chat and a look through their viewing scopes.
While these butterflies are best viewed during winter months, there’s plenty else to do in Monterey all year round – on and off shore, indoors and outside.
Winter/Spring – Chilly months between December and March are the best times to catch gray whales migrating through the submarine canyon off the coast of Monterey. Take a three-hour boat trip in the morning or afternoon led by professional marine biologists poised to point out gray whales, killer whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea otters and other wildlife. 7a.m., 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily. $40 adults, $27 ages 4-12, $15 ages 3 and under.
Summer/Fall – Spend some time navigating the ocean April through mid-December to spot humpback whales and blue whales, which feed in the waters surrounding the Monterey Bay during late spring, summer and fall. Settle in for a longer expedition than winter whale watching; biologists have determined that a four- to five-hour trip is best for finding and observing the animals during this season. 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. $41-49 adults, $29-39 ages 4-12, $15 ages 3 and under.84 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey. 831-375-4658.
Remain on land while immersing the whole family in a seemingly endless collection of marine wildlife any time of year. Marvel at graceful jellyfish of all sizes and colors, and check out a special exhibit featuring the clever octopus. Otters, penguins and puffins abound along with so much else to see here, one day might not be enough. Admission isn’t cheap, but deals can be found through hotel packages or by using the San Francisco CityPASS 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $39.95 adults, $34.95 students and ages 13-17, $24.95 ages 3-12, under 3 FREE. 886 Cannery Row, Monterey. 831-648-4800.
Fall/Winter – Just outside the hustle and bustle of Monterey’s touristy Cannery Row sits Pacific Grove, aka “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.” This is a can’t-miss spot for any nature enthusiast to view the thousands of Monarch Butterflies that arrive here in October. See these delicate creatures clustered together on pines and eucalyptus trees through February. Friendly volunteer docents provide interpretation and viewing scopes from 12-3 p.m. Open daily, dawn to dusk. FREE. 250 Ridge Road, Pacific Grove. 831-648-5716.
Monterey County Youth Museum (MY Museum)
If the kids have had their fill of nature and sightseeing, bring them inside for a play break at the MY Museum. There are a range of interactive exhibits for toddlers through grade-schoolers, including a beach setting for the little ones, farm fun, a hospital, theater, town hall and much more. All ages will enjoy the Creation Station, where inspiring artists can design with recycled materials. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 12-5 p.m. Sun. $8 per person, under 2 FREE. 425 Washington St., Monterey. 831-649-6444.
A nice day in Monterey begs for outdoor time, and what better way to let the youngsters blow off some steam than at this park loved by tourists and locals alike? All ages will delight in the variety of slides twisting and shooting off of multiple play structures into sand. Visit the train, scramble over bridges and go paddle-boating at the nearby lake as Dennis the Menace and his friends watch the fun. 10 a.m. to dusk, daily. FREE. El Estero Park Complex, 777 Pearl St., Monterey. 831-646-3866.
Dhyana Levey is a Bay Area Parent calendar editor and freelance environmental reporter.