Much of the economy in Monterey, California, is driven by, of all things, sea otters—those adorable, hand-holding, tool-using marine mammals that use their bellies as a picnic table on which to crack open clams, crabs and sea urchins. The otters lured me to the coastal city a two-hour drive south of San Francisco three times in the last five years as I conducted research for a forthcoming book about what some call the cutest animal on earth.
It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment of the animals, but Monterey offers so much more than otters.
Renowned for its jazz and pop music festivals, its year-round whale watching cruises, and a history made famous by novelist John Steinbeck, Monterey is a surprisingly quaint community providing visitors with an eclectic mix of nature and culture. Its abundant activities are mostly contained on the famous Cannery Row and the city’s public wharfs, where street performers, fishermen and tourists mingle amid a diverse array of dining options, souvenir shops and high-end retail establishments.
But it wasn’t always this way. The city’s history of welcoming hard-working immigrants from Europe and the Far East, coupled with the booming fishing industry in the bay, turned Monterey into the sardine canning capital of the world in the early 1900s. When the sardines disappeared by mid-century, the canning industry collapsed and the city fell into ruin. Steinbeck’s colorful Nobel Prize-winning novel, Cannery Row, about the waning days of the industry, described the infamous street as “the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”
Steinbeck wouldn’t recognize the place today. While the architecture of some of the old cannery buildings remains, they are now home to fancy hotels, ice cream shops, wine bars, and other features of popular vacation destinations. The centerpiece of Cannery Row is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose exhibits feature seals and sea lions, octopuses and jellyfish, and numerous other creatures that inhabit the Pacific Ocean just out the facility’s back door. Including, of course, sea otters.
But you don’t have to pay admission to the aquarium to see them. Sea otters are easily visible in the wild from just about every ocean-facing vantage point. One otter even made the national news last year when it gave birth as dozens of visitors watched from Cannery Row. The best places to get close-up looks at them are from Coast Guard pier – where you’ll also see dozens of California sea lions and harbor seals lounging on the jetty – from Fisherman’s Wharf or from various locations along Cannery Row.
If the otters have you craving more wildlife sightings, board one of the many whale watching boats to observe the world’s largest animals cavorting in Monterey Bay. Chances are you’ll see humpback and gray whales, with the possibility of blue, fin and killer whales as well, depending on the season. A half dozen kinds of dolphins are also possible, along with albatrosses, sharks and giant ocean sunfish.
If you’re more interested in food than wildlife, your options are equally appealing. Besides the diverse array of restaurants in the city, drive a few miles north to the Salinas Valley, called “The Salad Bowl of the World,” where you can eat lunch at Steinbeck’s boyhood home, tour the lettuce fields and visit innumerable farmer’s markets. On my last visit, avocados and artichokes were advertised at 10 for $1. If beer is more your thing, then return to Monterey and cool off at Alvarado Street Brewery, Peter B’s Brewpub or Cannery Row Brewing Company.
If you time your visit right, you can take advantage of numerous music festivals in the area, including the Jazz Bash by the Bay in March, the California Roots Music Festival in July, the Bach festival in nearby Carmel in July, and the most famous of them all, the Monterey International Jazz Festival in September, the longest continuously-running annual jazz festival in the world, featuring 500 artists performing on eight stages over three days. The Monterey International Pop Festival, which ushered in the Summer of Love in 1967, celebrated its 50th anniversary in June with a three-day concert, which organizers say may become an annual event.
And while you’re in the neighborhood, just south of Monterey is Carmel-by-the-Sea, where 15 intimate art galleries are nestled among Burn’s Cowboy Shop, Robertson’s Antiques, the Bohemian Boutique and The Soiled Doves Bath House, among other eccentric shops.
Further south still is Big Sur, a rugged stretch of sparsely populated coastline bordered by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Coast. It’s well worth spending a few hours driving the narrow, winding road that provides gorgeous views of seaside cliffs, occasional funky restaurants, and plenty of opportunities for beachcombing and hiking.
Whatever you have in mind, Monterey can accommodate.
For more information, visit: