Weekend Escape: Family Fun in Monterey

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Wild beaches, rich aquatic life, spectacular coastal trails, and lots of tourist attractions make Monterey a perfect location for a family getaway.

Book a family friendly hotel. We love Portola Hotel & Spa and we spent there a few vacations in the last 3 years. The hotel is being renovated and should be done by the beginning of 2017, but it will not effect your stay. 

We usually take the option that include breakfast and tickets to the aquarium. The buffet style breakfast is very good and includes pastries, omelet bar, pancakes and french toast to order, good coffee, and a lot more, but most impotently - bottomless Mimosas! Now that's the way to start off your day. 
The tickets for the aquarium are good for two days, which makes it a great option with kids who still naps. We visited the aquarium in the morning and afternoon, and the afternoon of the following day. This is a great arrangement if you don't have a membership.

The best part about the hotel is the Portola Pirate Kids Program for kids between the ages of 3-12. Upon arrival, Daniel received a hot cookie, a bag and a treasure hunt map with crayons. It was fun (mostly because they gave us a cheat sheet) and we ended up going back to the lobby and finding the buried treasure box, from which Daniel picked a yo-yo. Yes, it's small, but really fun. In the next visits there will be other fun things and the fifth visit includes a pirate party with friends, and I'm going to try and book it for Daniel's birthday :)

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is usually our first stop - breathtaking beauty and fascinating wildlife is always a good choice. There are lots of trails that are good for kids, and lots of pebble beaches and tide pools to explore. 
Here are our favorite trails:
Bird Island Trail is a short hike (0.8 mile) to a huge rock where you can spot many birds and seals.
Cypress Grove Trail - 0.8 mile walk through coastal scrub, cypress forest, and cliffs with dramatic and spectacular ocean views. 
Sea Lion Point Trail - 0.6 mile trail takes you to the cove overlook and offers best view of sea lion rocks offshore. 
We also liked Moss Cove and Granite Point Trail.
We spent a lot of time just playing in the water, looking for interesting tide pools and spotting sea lions.    
Always look for volunteers with Binoculars and scopes, as they usually spot whales and otter romps.  
There are many picnic tables, so pack your breakfast and bring it with you. Every table is a table with a view.
Parking is not easy to find in this reserve, which create traffic at the entrance, so try getting there early in the morning.

Monterey Bay Aquarium is also a favorite, and probably our top reason to visit. We like visiting in the afternoon, after nap, because it's very quiet, so we usually plan to be there for two afternoons, and we stay until closing time. Try planning your visit after checking the daily schedule. We like to avoid the feedings of the otters and penguins for example, since there is less space, but like watching the feeding in the Kelp Forest, where you can interact with the divers, and it's big enough for everyone to see everything.
Don't miss the giant octopus, and the flashy fishes (we had a great time watching them play)! 
Of course, what Daniel likes most are the interactive exhibits, like the Rocky Shore touch pools where you can get up-close-and-personal with a bat ray, starfish, abalones, sea urchins, kelp crabs and more.  
The Coral Reef Kingdom offers a playplace for infants and toddlers, and a fun mini aquarium with lots of clown fishes you kids can crawl into.
If you visit often, and want to try something new, take one of the behind-the-scene tours! We plan to do it in one of our next visits. 

We only visited Dennis the Menace Playground because of recommendations from friends. It is a nice park, but not something amazing that we included in our next visits. If you're looking for a fun park to spend an hour - go for it, otherwise there are better things to do. 
Every Year Thousands of Monarchs Overwinter in Pacific Grove. If you're visiting Monterey between October and February - plan a short visit to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Just look up and look for the Monarch Butterflies cluster together on the pines and eucalyptus trees of the Sanctuary. Entrance is free, and the trail is very short. 

The 17 Mile Drive is widely recognized as one of the most scenic drives in the world. At the entrance, pick up a map, and drive between the stops. You can see some of the famous coastal landmark like the lonely cypress, play with playful squirrels, see the sea lions, spot deer, and enjoy the views.
The inspiring vistas and sites can easily fill your morning, but you can do it in a shorter time if you want to. 
This picture is from a visit almost two years ago, and still my favorite!

Monterey Zoo in Salinas Valley offers a daily tour (every day except Christmas and thanksgiving, 7 days a week, at 1pm) where you can see lions, tigers, elephants and bears. After the tour, guests are invited to return to the elephant playpen and feed one of the elephants housed in the African elephant sanctuary. I don't really like seeing large animals in zoos, but here they save retired animals from the show biz, and it looks like they really care for them. 

The Monterey County Youth Museum gives children the chance to discover the thrill of learning through unstructured play at its 80 exhibits. Exhibit areas include the Creation Station; the toddler-centric MY Day at the Beach, with a sandbox, a slide, a boat and a walk-through lighthouse; MY Hospital, with a life-size version of the game Operation; MY Theater, where children can perform on stage and even use a TV camera, and more.

If you want to see more seals and otters, stop at the Coast Guard Pier where dozens of full grown sea lions, baby sea lions, and hundreds of pelicans will be hanging out on the rocks. There's a nice trail along the sea you could walk and enjoy (San Carlos Beach Park).

As in all our trips, I always bring some crafts with me, so we can have some quiet time that doesn't involve TV. This time I brought sea life stickers, stamp and crayons from the Dollar Store. It was so much fun and gave us an opportunity to talk about the sea animals we saw at the aquarium.

We usually take the breakfast package at the hotel, but at least once stop at the Crepes of Brittany. This is a great location for sweet and savory crepes. For years they were located in a tiny place on the Fisherman's wharf, but now they are right across from the Portola Hotel. My favorite is the brie and caramelized onions crepe, but really, everything we tried was delicious. You can defiantly make it a dessert stop and take one of the sweet crepes, if you don't want to make a meal out of it.

As for dinner - most restaurants on the Cannery Row offers kids meals, coloring pages and crayons. We enjoyed the food and view at Louie's Linguini, and the hot chocolate and ice cream, at Ghiradelli are not to be missed. I wish I remembered the names of the restaurants from our previous visits, but I will sure be back to update after trying new places!