Monterey makes for a weekend getaway filled with gorgeous scenery and animal sightings – just two hours south of San Francisco. Once the center of the sardine packing industry, today the small city on California’s central coast is famous for its proximity to large populations of whales, seals, sea lions and sea otters as well as scenic drives like Highway 1 and the 17-Mile Drive.
When Nick and I hit the road for a four-day weekend getaway in Monterey, we’d been in California for more than six months without a proper “break.” We’d both been crazy busy at work, and I’d also been buried in Excel spreadsheets and case studies on nights and weekends thanks to my MBA program. The few days I had taken off had been spent on short day trips from San Francisco, or traveling to family/social obligations across the country. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t consider spending the entire day on a plane a real vacation!
With my last final of the year coming up mid-December, I knew it was time to schedule a computer-free extended weekend adventure. And Monterey seemed like the perfect stress-free destination. It was driving distance from San Francisco, it was technically in the “off” season so crowds were unlikely, and I found a cozy but spacious room at Hotel Pacific complete with a fireplace.
When I was a kid, my dream had been to become a marine biologist and move to Florida to study manatees. I even got my first job at the New England Aquarium, giving tours and working in the gift shop. While my career path took quite a sharp turn, I’ve always maintained my interest in the amazing creatures living in our ocean and was excited to have the chance to see so many in one place.
Monterey Weekend Getaway Guide: Where to Stay
Situated in downtown Monterey, the Hotel Pacific is conveniently located within walking distance of bars, restaurants, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But the real reason I picked Hotel Pacific as our home base for a weekend in Monterey was that it had a fireplace in the room.
I know I live in California where it doesn’t really get cold, but I still love the idea of cozying up next to a fireplace with a glass of wine on a chilly (Ok, 45-degree) winter night.
Monterey Weekend Getaway Guide: Where to See Whales, Seals, Sea Otters & More!
While you can certainly spot plenty of wildlife from shore, the best way to get acquainted with them is via boat. So, on the first full day we spent during our weekend in Monterey, we drove about 15 minutes north of the city to Moss Landing, a fishing village off Highway 1 and home to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Here, we rented kayaks from Monterey Bay Kayaks and set out to befriend some sea otters and seals.
It was a chilly morning, but the team at Monterey Bay Kayaks hooked us up with waterproof pants and windbreakers (they also offer wetsuits, but I was already wearing warm quick-dry pants and top) before we hit the water. They gave us the 411 on safety while kayaking so close to animals, too – stay five boat lengths away, and don’t touch or “harass” them. Easy enough, or so we thought!
Throughout our trip, seals and sea otters kept unexpectedly popping up right in front of our boat, leaving us frantically paddling away to avoid violating the law. Apparently, the otters weren’t aware that it was illegal for us to get so close. Either way, it was a pretty cool experience getting to see these creatures from a kayak — and we got some exercise to boot. The waters of the slough were a little calmer than those of the open ocean, but we still got quite the arm workout when the wind wasn’t in our favor.
Later in the trip, we traded our kayaks for a larger vessel and whale watch. Whale watching is usually considered to be “green” tourism since you’re merely observing animals in the wild. But as with any animal encounter, tourists should be careful. Studies have shown that whale watching boats can stress out dolphins and whales, and we haven’t done enough research to know what the long-term effects could be on the animals’ health. And it’s not just the whales we have to worry about – people can be hurt if they get too close to these giant mammals, too!
Luckily for us, Discovery Whale Watch checked all the boxes of a responsible whale watch. Departing from Fisherman’s Wharf, the tours are educational, led by a marine biologist, and conduct research while on board. I also loved that they offered small group tours – there’s something a little less magical about observing whales from a boat of 100+ tourists. And by taking the tour on a Tuesday, we could get 50% off their ticket price and take a whale watch for only $22 each!
While aboard, we had the chance to observe a pod of killer whales (I shared a video of a killer whale breaching on my Instagram), and we spotted a humpback whale and pod of Risso’s dolphins. Having been on a whale watch a few times without any luck, I was super excited to have seen such a variety of animals in one outing.
As thrilling as observing whales, sea otters and more in their natural habitat is, I still wouldn’t recommend skipping the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium has some really eye popping exhibits – one about jellyfish was particularly amazing.
But it’s also educational, sharing information about programs from current research they’re conducting on great white sharks to efforts educating the public about which fish are most sustainable to eat. And you may recognize the aquarium if you’ve seen the Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory: Pixar used it as inspiration for the film and its fish hospital.
Monterey Weekend Getaway Guide: Where to Drive & Hike for the Best Views
I’ve written 1,000 words already and only talked about marine life – but I swear, a weekend getaway to Monterey has a ton more to offer! My second favorite part of the trip was simply driving around and taking in the insane scenery.
Monterey is located right off Highway 1, so a road trip down the famous route to Big Sur is a must while you’re in town. Wear walking shoes and comfy clothes so you can pull off and hike your way to beautiful, empty beaches.
No itinerary is necessary – part of the fun is being spontaneous about where you stop! But if you’re looking for a decent place to hike, Andrew Molera State Park ($10 to park) offers well-maintained trails that lead either directly to the beach (short hike) or to a lookout over the beach (longer, 8-mile loop).
Pro tip: in the off season, you’ll need to cross a freezing, shallow river at the beginning of the hike so bring water shoes and wear quick-dry pants!
The road is currently shut down after Gorda due to a landslide, but you can drive all the way there and turn around. Bring binoculars and a zoom camera, because you can spot whales, seals and sea lions in many places along the way. And make sure you fill up on gas – it was running $6.50/gallon at the store in Gorda!
Another scenic loop that’s closer to Monterey is the 17-Mile Drive, famous not only for its coastal views but also for being home to the famous Pebble Beach public golf course (and the homes of quite a few multimillionaires).
If you’re not willing to throw down $500 for a round of golf at one of the several courses located on the 17-Mile Drive, the next best thing you can do is grab a drink at one of them. At Pebble Beach, there’s a balcony off the Lodge’s lobby where you can sip $15 cocktails overlooking the 18th hole. Since it was a little chilly, I opted for the spiked hot chai tea. Not a bad spot for cocktail hour!
Monterey Weekend Getaway Guide: Where to Eat & Drink
Speaking of cocktail hour…. While the scenery makes Monterey Bay a great weekend getaway, I also loved how easy it was to find fun eating and drinking spots in the small city. We hit up four local spots within a short walk of Hotel Pacific:
- Sovino Wine Bar & Merchant: We wound up here because it was the only place within walking distance of our hotel to buy a bottle of wine after 9:00 p.m., but this was the coolest little wine shop and bar I’ve ever been to. They carry a ton of California wines for purchase, and if you’re unsure, you can do a tasting or buy a glass at the bar before making your decision. They also have a bunch of games and even host a trivia night – overall a cozy and friendly spot!
- Peter B’s Brewpub: Located almost right across the street from Sovino in the Portola Hotel, Peter B’s was another welcoming bar, this time serving local beers and a menu of comfort food. We watched a football game here on Saturday at the bar, but I loved that they also had fireplaces out on their patio overlooking the Bay. The food was really yummy as well – living in Berkeley, we can easily find things like Himalayan food and gyros, but sometimes I crave some delicious classic bar food, like wings and cheese curds. Peter B’s scratched that itch!
- Alvarado Street Brewery: This was another fun local brewery we visited for drinks and dinner one night. It’s split into a beer garden with fire pits outside (I’m pretty sure it’s a legal requirement for every establishment in Monterey to have fireplaces – and I don’t hate it) and a restaurant inside.
- The Crown & Anchor: If you’re looking for a lively pub scene, look no further than this British pub in downtown Monterey. The bar was kitschy and crowded, but overall had a really fun atmosphere.
Monterey is truly a gem on California’s central coast, and a weekend isn’t nearly enough time to completely explore the surrounding area. We already want to come back to check out sights like the Pinnacles National Park, and do another whale watch in the summer in hopes of spotting the elusive, giant blue whale. Turns out being within driving distance of so many amazing weekend getaway options is pretttttty great!