Head Concierge, Anne Roberts
8 Attractions Not to be Missed on the Monterey Peninsula
By Anne Roberts, Portola Hotel & Spa, Head Concierge & Member of Les Clefs d’Or USA
Nearly four million people visit the Monterey Peninsula every year and whether they are traveling for business or pleasure, visitors are all are faced with the same problem – how to fit everything into one trip.
As Head Concierge at the Portola Hotel & Spa, I have the pleasure of playing tourist, visiting all the amazing destinations throughout the local region. I love receiving recommendations and feedback from both locals and tourists alike, and along with my personal experiences, am excited to share my list of the top eight activities not to be missed when exploring the Monterey Peninsula.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium should be at the top of everyone’s “to do” list when visiting the Monterey Peninsula, it truly is the best aquarium in the world! Located on historical Cannery Row (right off the Coastal Recreation Trail) at the site of an actual former sardine cannery, the Aquarium is not only home to thousands of plants and animals (more than 600 species are on display), but it also serves as a non-profit to inspire conservation of the world’s oceans. Visitors to the aquarium will be wowed by its giant live kelp forest and the popular sea life found in its many exhibits including stingrays, jellyfish, sea otters, hammerhead sharks, penguins, seahorses, blue fin tuna, yellow fin tuna and, if you are lucky, great white sharks that are temporarily housed at the aquarium from time to time. There are interactive exhibits for children and the adults can take part in special evening events that include wine and live music during the summer.
If you go…there are less people there in the afternoon. Buy your tickets at our Front Desk and you won’t have to wait in line.
Attracting permanent marine residence and passerbies, the Monterey Bay is home to an underwater canyon that is actually much deeper than the Grand Canyon and creates a super highway for both creatures or the sea and sky. Some of the most famous visitors include a number of whale species that migrate through the area throughout the year including killer whales, humpbacks, blue whales and grey whales. There are many whale watching tours offered around the Monterey Bay, including one that is a five-minute walk from the Portola, located on Fisherman’s Wharf. Tourists and locals flock to these tours to see not only whales, but also catch a glimpse of dolphins, rare birds, seals, sea otters, pelicans, sharks and other creatures that are cruising through or have made their home in the Monterey Bay.
If you go… dress warmly with lots of layers including a waterproof option. Also, book a morning trip, as it is the best time to spot sea life.
Located about 10 minutes south of Portola is the beautiful town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This charming town provides visitors with shops, art galleries, restaurants and wine tasting all within one-square mile. Home to Clint Eastwood, who was once the Mayor, Carmel’s unique European-style village attracts fans from all over the world. The food choices range from superior French cuisine to American hamburgers and fries. Shopaholics will be welcomed by familiar brand names and one-of-a kind boutiques and art lovers can spend hours roaming the galleries that contain both modern and contemporary art along with everything in between. The Monterey Peninsula is lush with wineries and many of the most famous have tasting rooms located right in downtown Carmel. Wine fans should not miss the new Wine Walk By-the-Sea Passport, which guides visitors through seven Carmel tasting rooms.
If you go…don’t miss out on talking a stroll or packing a picnic to enjoy at the famous Carmel Beach, with its teal waters, white sand and views of the world famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, it is quintessential California!
The world famous beauty of Big Sur is located about 45 minutes from Portola and offers spectacular scenery that can be easily viewed through the car window. Highway 1 provides its visitors with views of jagged cliffs, lush green pastures, waterfalls and gorgeous redwoods. Take a drive down Highway 1 and fuel up at one of Big Sur’s five-star restaurants or local watering hole. Many of the restaurants themselves offer unique views, friendly staff and spectacular, farm to table offerings.
If you go… due to its rugged terrain, the weather in Big Sur can be unpredictable so be sure to dress in layers.
Known for its breathtaking views, easy to manage hiking trails and abundant sea life, Point Lobos is a great place to spend a few hours or an entire day. There are a number of hiking trails that start from the parking lot with the majority of them being perfect for beginners. The wildlife is spectacular – humpback whales migrate through the area from April until December and gray whales can be seen during their migration mid-December until mid-April. During low tide, explore the tide pools to view starfish and sand dollars and often times there is a sea otter to spot amongst seals and sea birds.
If you go… pick up a trail map at the entrance kiosk to navigate the park and beware of waves crashing on the rocks – if you get to close you will get wet!
Head down Highway 1 toward Carmel and go inland about 20 miles and you will be right in the middle of Carmel Valley, home to approximately 20 tasting rooms, restaurants, shops and galleries. Located far enough inland to avoid coastal fog and nestled next to the Santa Lucia Range, Carmel Valley provides a warm environment that is favorable to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other red varietals. The Valley is also known to produce exceptionally good Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandels. From elegant French-style tasting rooms at the Chateau Julien Winery to the laid-back walk-able environment of Carmel Valley Village, wine and food enthusiasts alike will delight in a day the taste buds are sure to enjoy.
If you go… be sure to bring clothes appropriate for warm weather especially during the summer and fall months, as it can be 20-30 degrees warmer than along the coast.
A great stop during a day visit to Carmel is the Carmel Mission, one of the most famous missions in California. Known formally as the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, this Roman Catholic mission church dates back to 1770 when Father Junipero Serra served until his death in 1784. Today, it is one of the most authentically restored mission churches in all of California and is still an active parish church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey. Visitors can tour the property and its museum’s that take visitors on a journey through the Mission’s history and restoration efforts. The grounds are completely breathtaking with ancient structures and sculptures, lush gardens and beautiful stained glass windows.
If you go… remember it is still an active parish so there may be weddings, funerals and other activities that prevent you from seeing everything on the grounds.
Did you know that Monterey was the first state Capital of California? The Monterey State Historical Park, located just outside the doors of Portola, is rich in history providing a collection of significant historical houses and buildings with colorful gardens and overall beautiful scenery. The historical park stands to preserve places and objects that are of historical significance including 12 buildings and several residences. Among the attractions stands the spot where the Spanish explorers first landed in Monterey in 1602, the oldest building in California known as the Custom House and one of the nation’s last remaining whalebone sidewalks.
If you go…be sure and stop by the Pacific House Museum for more information on the buildings and their viewing options, as many of the historic adobes can only be viewed with a State Park Guide. Stop by my desk for a self guided walking map.
Visit one or all on your next trip to Monterey and stop by my desk at the Portola to say “hi”! I look forward to your impressions and receiving YOUR insider tips and tricks for getting the most out of your Monterey Bay vacation. Every day I look forward to learning something new!