With abundant wildlife, spectacular scenery, and plenty of stuff to do, a trip to the Monterey Peninsula is perfect for a weekend getaway with the kids. Start off by booking at a family-friendly resort with tons of activities on-site, then make plans to visit everything from a butterfly conservatory to and aquarium to a working farm on the outskirts of town. Your biggest challenge just might be squeezing it all into three days.
Where to Stay
Completely renovated in April 2011, Carmel Valley Ranch, a former golf and tennis resort, is now all about families. Condo-style accommodations (from $250) are at least two-room suites; a perfect set-up for sequestering slumbering tykes. What's more, CVR includes a host of family-friendly activities along with its $25 daily resort fee; an interactive visit to the on-site bee colony is one of the best. (Also, look out for the property's resident population of wild turkeys.)
For a more urban experience, try the Mariposa Inn & Suites near downtown Monterey (rates from $159), located within walking distance of all of the main attractions in town.
What to Do
Spend the first day in Monterey, an old fishing community made famous by local author John Steinbeck. At the Monterey County Youth Museum, parents revel in separate exhibits designed specifically for children of certain ages; the interactive hospital exhibit, where "doctors" range in age from 3-9, seems like a perennial favorite. Later, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium along Cannery Row, kids can watch sea otters being fed, or get up-close-and-personal with tidal critters such as sea stars, hermit crabs and squishy sea cucumbers (yuck!).
Start your second day with some wildlife-watching at the free Pacific Grove Monarch Conservancy. Every year, more than 25,000 orange-and-yellow Monarch butterflies winter in this part of the world, and the pines and eucalyptus in this particular preserve are a great place to see them up close. Later, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, be sure to hit Thinker Toys, a toy store with a panoply of Mr. Potato Heads, as well as an entire shelf of bubble-blowing tools.
On the final day of the weekend, drive out to some of the surrounding farm communities. The signature crop in Castroville is artichokes, and Pezzini Farms is a great place to sample these fist-sized veggies (order them fried!), then buy some for the road. In Salinas, known as the "Salad Bowl of the World," The Farm bills itself as an agricultural education center, and the 45-minute guided tour is a great way to teach little ones about cultivation, water conservation and more.
Where to Eat
Restaurants that are truly kid-friendly can be hard to find, but the Monterey Bay area certainly has its fair share. Rosine's, a greasy spoon diner in downtown Monterey, is reliable thanks to its huge portions and patient servers. Breakfast omelets here are gargantuan; few, if any, ever have left hungry.
In Carmel, especially on a nice day, try lunch at Village Corner, a Mediterranean bistro. The open-air patio is a great spot for people- (and bird-) watching. After lunch, grab a housemade Italian pastry at Carmel Bakery on Ocean Avenue, the town's main drag.
And while in Carmel Valley, try the River Ranch Café, a restaurant in a renovated132-year-old building. Lunches are particularly tasty here (we recommend the turkey burger). Unless it's raining, grab a seat around the outdoor fire pits that line the patio.
How to Get There
By Car: The Monterey Bay area is about 120 miles and two hours south of San Francisco, or about 350 miles (6 hours) from Los Angeles. There are two basic routes in and out of the area; Highway One traces the shoreline, while U.S. 101 heads north-south on the eastern side of the Coast Mountains.
By Train: Amtrak's Coast Starlight stops in Salinas every day on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle. Free bus service is provided from Salinas to downtown Monterey, a 30-minute ride.
By Plane: The Monterey Peninsula Airport (MRY) is located 10 minutes from downtown Monterey, and is serviced by airlines including Allegiant Air, American Eagle, United Express, and U.S. Airways.
Thinking about a trip to Monterey, California?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus the best planning advice, check out our online travel guide to Monterey.
Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium courtesy Corvair Owner / flickr