Long before I began filling my passport with legitimate stamps, my mind’s eye and my soul’s feet were qualified travelers through the words that I devoured in novels, including some of my favorites from John Steinbeck. So many times I had taken a literary journey through Monterey County that I felt I knew the rolling valleys and salty characters. The first few chapters of Cannery Row painted such a vivid picture of the world beside the wharf that felt that it could be a real place. And, of course it is. Steinbeck walked the very streets of Ocean View Avenue (later changed to Cannery Row in his honor) and brought a moving picture quality to the setting through his words.
The literary geek in me gushed at the idea of jumping into the settings of the novels that I knew and loved, but my kids had less than zero interest in John Steinbeck or his famous novels. They were looking for some kid-approved entertainment, and we happy to do it by the sea, as long as I didn’t force them to read any passages from any boring books. Fortunately, Monterey seemed to have plenty to offer the younger set while still offering me the chance to check off a very important city on my “places I’ve read and loved” bucket list. A weekend in Monterey would also serve as a much needed stop and respite along the busy road trip between the metropolitan bustle of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Day One: Exploring on Foot and Bicycle
Arriving at Cannery Row first thing in the morning reveals a historic wharf that is every bit the colorful setting described in Steinbeck’s books, but there is also so much more than I expected. With the morning sea air still crisp enough to make us pull our jackets a little closer, the shops along the main thoroughfare are rolling out the welcome mats for the day. Gazing from one end of the street to the other, I can see quaint examples of every kind of eatery, shopping option, and entertainment choices all within a short stroll. It is a perfect excuse to leave the car behind and spend the day walking by the sea. Pedestrian friendly cities have a sense of freedom that is as welcome as the warmth that fills the streets as the sun comes up.
A Bicycle Built for Four (of More)
Getting a lay of the land is the first order of business, and while it would be easy to do so on foot, we opt to grab a wheeled form of transportation and head off down the coastline. Adventures by the Sea offers family friendly surreys- or bicycles built for four- that are a perfect way for families to get a little exercise and do a little bonding. The Cannery Row location sits adjacent to a recreational trail, so families can tour the area without worrying about oncoming traffic.
Along the way we wear ourselves out pointing at the harbor seals basking on the rocks near the shore as if they are paid by the city to make a good impression for tourists. Our destination is the famed Lovers Point Park and Beach, a pastoral stretch of green grass and massive trees that overlooks a placid beach. Locals and tourists alike come here for many reasons, be it the reliable waves or to watch the sunrise over the water. My boys have come for the rocks. A healthy outcropping of giant-sized boulders is the perfect playground for active bodies, and as it is still early, it is a quiet place tucked away from the main attractions.
The day (and our bodies) have warmed sufficiently from the exertion and the sun, so we strip off our jackets to peddle back towards the promise of lunch.
Life is Like a Box of Chocolates
Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company sits conveniently in the center of Cannery Row and is a welcome sight for lunch. Forrest Gump has always been one of my favorite movies, so the theming of the restaurant is fun for me. The kids have no reference for the Forrest Gump theme, but they love shrimp and there is plenty of that here. The restaurant sits adjacent to Monterey Bay, so we can still keep our eye on the ocean while enjoying lunch.
Kid-Approved Fun on the Boardwalk
With full bellies, it’s time to make good on my promise to have a little silly fun on Cannery Row. A pair of kid-magnets in the form of Glow Golf and a Mirror Maze sit side by side, offering a boardwalk atmosphere that my kids can’t resist. Hwy One Golf Games and Grub takes everything that is great about indoor mini-golf and adds blacklights and 3-D glasses to make it even more fun. Themed murals at each hole take a virtual tour down famed Highway One, starting with a passage through a giant redwood and continuing with stops in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica. Each hole is a reminder of places we have visited along our tour of the California coast. The kids find the novel concept of golfing with 3-D glasses to be a hilarious addition.
Under normal circumstances, the funnel cakes and other carnival treats would be tempting, but still full from lunch, we head next door to the Mirror Maze and Lazer Challenge. A creative collection of mirrors constructed to provide infinite reflections makes the maze much more complicated than first expected. Fortunately, our wristband ticket allows entrance to the maze all day, so there is plenty of time to wind around and learn the secrets. Flashing lights and pumping music invite the kids inside where they are, at first, baffled to the point of hilarity at finding the end of the maze. Once they get their bearings, it’s a continuous sweaty race to the finish line with made up games and team challenges to add to the fun.
Search and Find History
With a promise that we will return to conquer the maze again, we clamber back out onto the sunny streets to explore Cannery Row a little more closely. Although I had promised that there would be no stuffy history tour, a scavenger hunt for old canning labels hidden along the sidewalk is a great way to get everyone engaged while I soak in the history. The brochure, available from inside the Mirror Maze and many other locations along Cannery Row, presented a picture based search and find, so even my pre-readers could get in on the fun of matching the pictures. Along the way, I am able to sneak in a bit of the sardine canning history, as well as point out some of the John Steinbeck features. And yes, we did take a break to duck into the Mirror Maze as we passed by on more than one occasion.
The Lure of the Treat
After a sufficient survey of the Cannery Row thanks to our scavenger hunt, I have one more treat planned to round out the day. To be honest, though, this is I just as much a treat for a chocolate loving mom as it is for the kids.
The smell of chocolate is intoxicating as soon as you open the door to Ghiradelli, and just in case you aren’t already sold, there are free samples waiting to seal the deal. We opt for ice cream sundaes of various decadent flavors, and although there is a gorgeous view overlooking the bay, we choose to sit at the old fashioned soda bar. A plaque on the wall prompts me to share a bit of the history of the second oldest chocolate shop in the country, starting from the humble beginnings as a vendor to miners during the gold rush. The kids are so busy covering their faces with chocolate that they cannot complain about the sneaky history.
With the sun beginning to flirt with the horizon on this early fall day, it was time to wipe off our mouths and call it a day. Just one more sweaty run through the Mirror Maze and I am able to coerce the kids back to the car with a promise to return for more on Cannery Row the next day.
Day Two: A Day on and Under the Sea
We started the day with the hopes of returning to Lovers Point for a rare chance to watch the sun come up over the water. At least, that was my plan. The kids had other thoughts, mainly of sleeping late. After missing the sunrise, we headed down towards Fisherman’s Pier where we planned to do some whale watching mid-morning. Before that, hungry bellies demanded to be filled.
Pancakes by the Sea
Even this early in the morning, a line was forming outside Lou Lou’s Griddle in the Middle, but we were assured it was worth the wait. As a big plus for families, the hostess took our cellphone number to give us the option of wandering along the pier while we waited for our table. Once our table was ready, we ordered two enormous pancakes-one chocolate chip and one banana- to share around the table. Although we opted to eat inside and avoid the early chill, we could hear the harbor seals calling to us to finish our breakfast quickly and get out onto the ocean.
The Princess of the Sea
Princess Monterey Whale Watching Tours have been operating out of Monterey for over thirty years, and the expertise certainly shows. Tours narrated by marine biologists are conducted year round with the opportunity to see the diversity of marine life in Monterey Bay. With an early fall trip, we expected to see at least a few humpback whales. Good sailing and good fortune led us into a delightful feeding ball of approximately 50 sea lions and 6 to 8 humpback whales.
As if building suspense for a movie, the sea lions would be the first to create a flurry of activity at on the surface of the water, signaling the imminent arrival of the main attraction. A few moments later, the tell-tale blowhole puffs would break the surface and a collective breath holding onboard the boat ensued as we waited for the signs of whales. In a feeding loop, we were able to see the majestic backs of the gigantic creatures break the surface several times before they would wave goodbye with a flick of their tales. Audible gasps and sighs always accompanied the uprising tails. The drama was recreated over and over for us in the same sequence until our time aboard our cruise came to an end.
Closing Down the Town
At the suggestion of the crew, we headed towards Austino’s Patisserie for lunch before heading to the Aquarium for the afternoon. Conveniently located just steps from the front door of the Monterey Baby Aquarium, this is a perfect place to grab a quick bite before or after visiting the aquarium. The menu included pizza for the kids and quiche and salads for more adult tastes. I promised pastries on the way home after a visit with our favorite sea friends.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, perched on the edge of the ocean, offers a literal window to the sea. In addition to its changing special exhibitions, the aquarium’s permanent exhibits include a towering three-story kelp forest, touch pools and a million-gallon Open Sea exhibit, home to sandbar and hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, and more. Hands-on exhibits and family galleries offer opportunities to explore sea creatures in a way that is meaningful for kids and just plain fun.
We lose ourselves- and several hours-wandering from one absorbing tank to the next. The massive size and collection within the museum means a new experience and sea creature at every turn. Before we know it, it is closing time. We start the stroll back down Cannery Row-with pastries in hand, of course-just as the sun starts to sink again. Along the way, we pass the sites and attractions that have filled the weekend. We reach Steinbeck Plaza, and I pause to take one more picture of the statues of characters, both real and imagined, that brought this place to life in story. I walk away feeling as though I have glimpsed a bit of the real world penned from the imagination of Steinbeck, all while giving my kids an entertaining weekend.
~Cannery Row hosted our activites during our visit. They did not require that I express a particular viewpoint, and all opinions are my own.~