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Getaway Guide: Family Road Trip Becomes A History Lesson In Monterey

(credit Liz Laing)

It's time for a road trip and a history lesson. Did you know that Monterey is the most historic city in California and was once the state capital? It later became a turn-of-the-century fishing village and attracted many famous authors and artists, such as John Steinbeck. Although the canning days are over, visitors can explore the shops and attractions of the iconic Cannery Row, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Plenty of adventures are waiting on land and sea, from movie tours to whale watching and kayaking, to keep you and your family active and entertained.

Getting There

Travelers coming from Southern California can reach Monterey by driving north on either Highway 1 (also known as the scenic route) along the coast, or Highway 101, through the Salinas Valley. Monterey is also accessible via Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.

Where To Stay

(credit: Portola Hotel)

Portola Hotel & Spa

2 Portola Plaza
Monterey, CA 93940
(800) 342-4295

Begin your adventure by checking-in to the Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey Bay where you'll be greeted with warm, homemade chocolate chip oatmeal cookies upon arrival. Families will enjoy this relaxing, waterfront retreat nestled in the historical setting of Old Monterey with plenty to do within walking distance. From here, you can bike along Monterey's scenic bike path to famous attractions, such as Del Monte Beach, Fisherman's Wharf, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. Rentals for land and sea activities can be found next door at Adventures by the Sea, where you can rent bicycles, 4-passenger surreys, paddleboards and kayaks.

Grab some delicious crepes for breakfast (or anytime) at the Monterey Crepe Company, across the street from the hotel on Alvarado Street, the main street of downtown Monterey. Alvarado Street is filled with shops, restaurants, coffee shops and pubs to explore. History buffs can walk the Path of History, a two-mile, self-guided tour of Old Monterey, and see the remaining buildings from that time period. (Click here for a free walking map.)

Where To Eat

(credit: Hula's)

Hula's Island Grill and Tiki Room

622 Lighthouse Avenue
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 655-4852

A great place for lunch and some island fun is Hula's Island Grill, a local favorite, known for their burgers, sandwiches, tacos and fresh seafood. This place has character – the island vibe comes through loud and clear and is incorporated into the menu, with hints of Asian, Latin and the Caribbean. Begin your meal with some pupus, like Crispy Coconut Shrimp Rolls or Island-Style Poke. Then try some favorite dishes like Jawaiian Jerk Pork (with fried plantains, mango salsa, rice and Johnny cakes), Blackened Ahi Caesar Salad or Jalapeno Bacon Mac and Cheese.

Vegetarians will like the spicy, pan-seared tofu tacos with taco slaw and sun-dried tomato pesto aioli. For dessert, order a Pot Brownie (no, not that kind!), which resembles a brownie in a flowerpot.

What To Do

(credit: Monterey Movie Tours)

Monterey Movie Tours

1 Portola Plaza
Monterey, CA 93940
(800) 343-6437

A great way to get introduced to the beauty and history of the Monterey Peninsula is to take a scenic bus tour with Monterey Movie Tours, where you'll be educated and entertained while watching iconic scenes from some of the 200 movies filmed across the Monterey Peninsula.

The three-hour tour leaves daily at 1 p.m. and takes you through breathtaking landscape along the famed 17-mile drive, and includes stops at Bird Rock, the Lone Cypress Tree and the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Get comfortable on the customized luxury motor coach with high-back seats, overhead video screens and personal headsets. As you glide past sites made famous on the big screen, you'll get to experience the movie clips at the same time and hear behind-the-scenes stories of Hollywood glamour.

AquariumKelpForest_Randy Wilder
(credit: Randy Wilder)

Monterey Bay Aquarium

886 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 648-4800

Located on the site of a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is Monterey's premiere attraction, with more than 1.8 million visitors each year. It is consistently ranked #1 in the United States for its innovative exhibits depicting the habitats and sea life of one of the world's richest marine regions. You'll be amazed at the more than 35,000 sea creatures that you'll be privileged to get a glimpse of, including octopus, seahorses and jellyfish, just to name a few.

The three-story Kelp Forest is the centerpiece of the Ocean's Edge galleries and is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world. You'll get an up-close view of California coastal marine life as you watch sardines and leopard sharks swim their way through swaying fronds of kelp, just like they do in the open ocean. Don't miss the newly opened, "The Jellies Experience," a special $3.5-million exhibit that offers a fascinating look into the world of jellies, combining live exhibits with interactive experiences.

(credit: Liz Laing)

Cannery Row

555 Abrego St
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 649-6690

This historic waterfront district on Monterey Bay was made famous in John Steinbeck's fictional book, Cannery Row in 1945, although the area has a history that goes back even further to 1851, when Chinese fishing families crossed the Pacific and established Monterey's fishing industry.

Today, in place of old canneries and sardines, Cannery Row is filled with dozens of shops, restaurants, galleries and tourist attractions. Kid heaven is found in barrels upon barrels of candy at The Candy Factory (685 Cannery Row), including salt-water taffy, gummy candy, sour candies and nostalgic pieces from Mom and Dad's childhood. Believe it or not, my kids declined The Candy Factory opted for Dippin' Dots (711 Cannery Row) instead.

(credit: Liz Laing)

Monterey Mirror Maze

751 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940
831-649-MAZE (6293)

Kids are sure to love the challenge of the Monterey Mirror Maze, where families work as a team to find their way from the beginning to the end of the maze. Put on a pair of psychedelic glasses for a groovy experience and extra difficulty. Note: you may have to take them off to find your way out!

Afterwards, try out your speed and agility skills at The Vault: Laser Maze Challenge (my kids' favorite), as you step over and crawl under dozens of sensitive, bright green lasers projected from the walls of the bank vault. The object is to navigate the laser maze as quickly as possible to reach the end of the Bank Vault without breaking a beam (ha!). Every time you break a laser, an alarm sounds and you're penalized by the addition of 10 seconds to your time score. Only one or two people go through the maze at a time and outsiders can watch their attempt on the video screen above the door. Apparently, we "adults" got many laughs when we attempted this challenge and received the highest "slow" score (high five!). My kids placed on the high score board after a few attempts, so I guess it evens out.

Harbor House Cove 1
(credit: Ashley Tedesco)

Fisherman's Wharf

#1 Old Fisherman's Wharf
Monterey, CA 93940

The Old Fisherman's Wharf in downtown Monterey has been a popular tourist attraction for years and is a great place to stroll and take-in the sights and sounds of the bay. Warm up with a cup of hot clam chowder at one of several seafood restaurants. Watch the sea lions frolicking in the water and sunning themselves on the rocks. If you want some water action for yourself, take a glass-bottom boat tour, go whale watching or go sailing around the Monterey Bay. Kids can get their faces painted at Smiley Orca Face Painting or get a caricature drawn by an artist on the wharf. Take home some fresh salt-water taffy, made on site at Carousel Candies, and every time you bite into one of these sweet, chewy candies, you'll be reminded of the sweet memories you made with your family in Monterey.

Liz Laing is a writer, web designer and photographer who lives in Los Angeles. Her latest projects may be followed on Liz Laing.

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