My mum isn’t a traveller. She lives in Cornwall and she likes it. Going to the county town is a big trip for her, and anything over the Devon border requires extensive planning and cajoling. My dad and I knew that getting her on a train, a plane and across the Atlantic would require considerable ingenuity, temptation, and potentially bribery. Fortunately, we had an ace in our pack : Monterey.
Location of my birthday spa, I had already seen that Monterey has a lot of similarities with Ma’s home town in Cornwall. It’s coastal; it’s a fishing port; it has generally mild weather, is rainy and foggy frequently, and in sunshine looks stunning. She was duly lured, on the understanding that we blew the budget on a high-end beach house, complete with roof terrace, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and cinema-style flat-screen TV. Anything for an easy life, we said.
Having spent a rainy birthday there, I wasn’t expecting great things from the weather, but on the day we drove down from San Francisco, the sun was blazing. Mum, of course, expected nothing less. We picked up fresh strawberries from a farm en route, as well as some olallieberry jam, as it’s California strawberry season, stopped for a coffee in Santa Cruz, and reached the millionaire’s mansion early evening. True to the Air B & B description, the place was palatial, and John and I were once again lured from our previous trailer comfort zone by a bedroom bigger than our whole rig and our own bathroom with so many drawers I had one just for my skincare products (significantly boosted following my birthday and a week spent with Carly and Erin!). Mum, on checking out their master suite, with patio doors to the sand dunes, an enormous rain shower and even a fireplace, declared herself ‘overwhelmed’ and advised us that she thought it might be ‘a bit too nice’ for her. You win some…..
Somehow, we managed to enjoy the house. We made pancakes for breakfast in the vast kitchen, drank cocktails and played cards on the roof terrace, watched movies and photo shows on the big screen, and generally spread out in style. It was really lovely to have some relaxed family time and to have everyone in the kitchen chatting and helping prepare meals, rather than elbowing each other out of the way for the last bit of counter space. Our trailer kitchen does the job but the surface area and huge American fridge were luxury for us after 7 months in our little galley.
Monterey itself was a joy. The beach was steps from our front door and a brisk walk along the shore brought us to the town and harbour, with its excellent bars, cafes and restaurants. It’s fair to say we ate like kings, buying beautiful fruit and veg from the Tuesday market on Alvarado, cooking up some local fish, brought for a steal from the Monterey Fish Company (we always buy local fish if we can as it’s always cheaper and has travelled less), and stocking up on groceries from Mama’s new favourite store – Trader Joe’s. Forget the millionaire beach house, Ma was happiest getting off the tram to hunt out bargains in this well-priced and seemingly ethical supermarket chain. It’s becoming a staple for us and we hope it might make it over the Atlantic some day.
Other days we treated ourselves to eating out, and enjoyed a number of great restaurants, including a tip from the man at the fish shop – the Monterey Fish House. We’d driven past on our way in the first night and seen a small, unassuming little building, with a queue out the door. We’ve learned by now that, in America, if a place looks a bit down at heel, is on a busy road or some other ugly setting, and there is a queue out of the door, that’s the place to eat. And this place was true to form, serving up oak smoked oysters that John rated the best he’d ever had, as well as local snapper, washed down with some well priced house white.
We got a great whole crab each at another unassuming place, this time in the much more touristy Fisherman’s Wharf. Normally we’d avoid these places, but the Liberty Fish Co. bucked that trend. Inside it’s very much like a fish and chip shop, with formica tables and plastic seats, but our plastic seats happened to look over a beautiful bay, where we could see seals basking in the sun. It’s a family run place, and the lady who served us and whose family had started the business, made us feel like regulars immediately. She served us whole Dungeness crab, butter for dipping, fresh sourdough bread, local beer, and a smile. And Mama was smiling. At her formica table.
Food aside, in Monterey our cup ran over with activities and sights. We couldn’t believe the range of things to see and do and took full advantage of the beautiful weather to get out and explore. We have debated a lot about our favourites and two days in particular stood out, both involving sea life.
Much is said about the ‘World Famous Monterey Aquarium‘ and, not ever having been to a good one, I wasn’t that fussed about spending the $40 entrance fee. Ma, however, had this at the top of her list, so while John went off to get the car fixed (again!), she, Pa and I paid up and entered just before 10 in the morning. I knew from John it was pretty cool, but I figured we’d be out in a couple of hours.
I was wrong – the place is incredible! There are jaw-droppingly huge ocean tanks, with hammer-head sharks, enormous tuna and turtles zooming about. There are rescued sea otters who demonstrate their trademark use of tools to crack seashells at feeding time. There are stingrays you can stroke, a home for rescued sea birds, tanks of brightly coloured tropical fish, and mysterious deep ocean creatures. But best of all, and to which Ma and I kept returning, are the jellyfish. A spectacular darkened room, lined with windows on to specially curved tanks, rounded at the edges to prevent the jellies launching themselves to the corners and killing themselves, as apparently is their want. These beautiful creatures are lit against the bright blue water and seem to move in slow motion, as if across a movie screen. They are simply mesmerizing.
Eventually, after more jellies, penguin feeding, and spotting distant sea otters out in the bay through the aquarium’s binoculars, we were booted out at 5, all agreeing that it had far exceeded our expectations and certainly deserves its fame. If you do one thing in Monterey, I would make it this, and I never thought I would say that about a glorified fish tank!
While seeing these amazing creatures was spectacular, and it’s certainly well done, we were hoping the next day to see some ocean life in the wild. Mama, John and I had signed up for a morning whale watching, which Dad sat out as he didn’t fancy it and instead relaxed with the big screen baseball back on Millionaire’s Row. We drove to nearby Moss Landing, from where we boarded a boat run by a small, eco-conscious company called Sanctuary Cruises, whom I’d come across through an Instagram clip of the guide being interviewed by the BBC.
About 30 of us were on board, with plenty of room to move around and for everyone to have a good view. Our guide and captain were both fantastic, taking time to point out any interesting sea life as we came across it, including some sea otters and seals on our way out to open water. Of course, we were all waiting for the main event, and after only about 20 minutes, we were treated to the site of a grey whale, barnacled and huge, emerging from the water to the side of us. It was incredible and we were all so excited.
For a while we continued with no further sightings, but then we started to see the spouts that indicate a whale is there and possibly about to dive. When this happens, you often can see the whale’s back and fin and then if they dive, their tail or fluke flipping up and then disappearing down. It was amazing every time, but after we saw the backs and fins of humpback whales side by side, there were audible gasps from everyone as they executed a perfectly synchronized dive, flukes up and down together. To my own surprise, I happened to catch it on video, so we could share this with Dad when we got back.
We saw lots more whales, and an eagle eyed fellow passenger also spotted a blue shark, which we could see within feet of the boat, circling about under the water, his fins just breaking the surface. This apparently is quite rare and the captain was pretty excited. The tour lasted much longer than scheduled, as they would stop every time someone saw something, to wait for the whales while maintaing a respectful distance. At one stage on our way back, we were joined by a school of dolphins, which our guide estimated at between 150-200, all dancing and jumping alongside our boat. It was a stunning sight, and we could see them racing alongside us for ages.
It was an incredibly special day, and one that none of us will forget. As we stepped on to dry land, we felt so fortunate to have seen so much, have had such a great guide, and to have been with a friendly bunch of people. The icing on the cake was that as we drove over a bride to leave Moss Landing, John spotted something in the water just underneath a low bridge. We got out and could see, clear as day, only metres away, two sea otters, floating happily in the marina, paws out. They like to keep them out, apparently, to keep warm, and spend a lot of time grooming for the same reason. One was preening his head, and it’s possibly one of the cutest sights I’ve ever seen. A perfect end to a fantastic day.
Monterey gave us many other fantastic sights and experiences, some of which I will cover in other posts, and I’m so glad we decided to spend a week there. By the end of our stay, Ma had decided that she would in fact like to move in and had even discovered that the house next door had been repossessed and was up for sale. Who knows, a lucky Powerball win and perhaps we’ll find ourselves returning to this beautiful place for future family holidays! Sharing it with my folks was very special, and we still had more to come, with our third and final destination, up in wine country…