Seaside Escape to Monterey and Carmel

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California is such a beautiful state and out of the 12 years I’ve lived here, I don’t know why I haven’t visited more coastal cities outside of Los Angeles. Southern California’s famed Malibu, Newport Beach and Dana Point are some of the quaint coastal towns in the greater LA area that are a mere 40-60 minutes away. It’s a crime that I don’t visit more often. Infact, I find it a crying shame that I have not traveled to the coast more often being that lobster is my favorite food. I eat it only once a year! What a shame…

Armed with hopes and dreams of leaping into action, I planned a 3 night, 4 day California Coastal getaway with my long-time college friend, Vivien, visiting from Toronto, Canada. Viv and I went to university together where I majored in Arts & French Language. (Don’t bother testing me with French phrases; the best I can do is “Oui, je parle un petit peu” and “Un croissant s’il vous plait!”)

To give you an idea of our trip, the itinerary starts with us leaving Los Angeles to Monterey which is a 5-6 hour drive depending on how fast you drive, then leading down to Paso Robles a bit more inland where wine country lives and finally ends in Santa Barbara, the beach side city with the most beautiful downtown in America (as claimed on a website).

With a full tank of gas, Vivien & I woke up at an early 8am on a Sunday and loaded our belongings into the car. We picked up coffee, water, snacks (check, check and check!) and commenced our journey up the 5 freeway going north. Tomtom (the handy electronic GPS buddy) told us that the fastest route up to Monterey would be via the 5 freeway, but after 4.5 hours of driving I wasn’t sure he was completely right. He’d made an idiot of us two gals, telling us to merge, exit and cut through some pastoral fields along the 152 W, a drive that crosses the Santa Cruz Mountains with plush green rolling hills and trees that provide endless shades for cows who graze til… well til the cows come home.

About an hour later, we finally hit Pacific Coast Highway. “Wow, look at the water”, I said. Vivien nodded and agreed at the sheer beauty of the view. Another few miles down to Monterey Bay, we headed straight for lunch on Cannery Row. What I hadn’t realized is that Cannery Row is a pretty touristy area, despite its reference in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. I’m not sure what I imagined it to be, but it is now home to sea lions and many hotels and restaurants. There is also a small outdoor museum showcasing mock living quarters of people who worked at sardine canning factory, which is no longer in business today.

Just down the way near the water, we spotted a place giving away free clam chowder samples. I’m definitely a sucker for clam chowder, let alone free. Our stomachs were gurgling from hunger and we’d hit a point where we couldn’t decide where to eat. So clam chowder restaurant it was. “Maybe I can just load up on all the samples and call it a lunch? How about that?”, I joked. Viv laughed at me.

The food at the Fish Hopper was fresh and Emily, our waitress, answered all my questions about quality and freshness of the seafood. The food was average at best, but we scored big time with an ocean view table where an otter and her pup dug for shells just below the waves. By the way, the clam chowder was great.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Cardinal Shrimp (Caridina sp. "Cardinal")
Giant outer bay tank which holds 1,000,000 gallons of water is known for sharks & tuna

I have never been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in my 12 years in California. From flamingos to sharks, you can spend hours just gazing at the large amount of exotic fish, sea horses, jellyfish and sharks through a protective shield of glass. My camera had a hard time adjusting to the low indoor light, but if you visit you’ll find it’s quite breathtaking in person. Under water creatures fascinate me just as much as I am afraid of open water, but I had a particularly great time watching the new “Secret Lives of Seahorses” exhibit. It showcases 15 species of seahorses, sea dragons, pipehorses and pipefish that float around, clinging to seaweed and other underwater plants with names I can’t pronounce. If you plan on visiting, put on your walking shoes because you can easily walk a mile in the aquarium.

It was 5pm by the time we left and drove up the road to the Portola Hotel. Check-in was a snap and a breeze (Free cookies on check-in was a HUGE hit for us!). Our rooms had a nautical theme going on with seashell decorations, historical ship paintings and photographs that adorned the room. The over-sized wicker chair served as a great place for me to rest for a bit with my favorite book, while Viv took a quick nap on the down feather bed. The bed was ridiculously cozy. The bathroom is spacious and I loved the natural soap, hairdryer (a big plus!) and a perfectly placed writing desk facing the water.

7pm came so quickly that it barely felt like we had spent any time resting. I’m not sure how Viv could take a nap so close to the evening, because I surely would be out like a light. For dinner, we opted to go on a short drive to Carmel. The weather had been overcast and wet for the past few days, but the drizzle that night didn’t bother me because the California needs it badly.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small one square mile city just 4 miles from Monterey. It is home to artists, writers, poets and sun-loving intellectuals. As we drove into the downtown area, we noticed that several of the art galleries, retail stores and restaurants that looked like something out of an English country-side picture book. We vowed to come back the next morning for another stroll before our next stop.

Did I mention I nearly got run over by a car??? It was raining ever so lightly and the streets were dark. A car sped down the street whiling I was crossing the walkway and didn’t slow down as it approached me. For some reason I was determined to prove my super human skills (as if I could stop it with my hands) and stood there. Lucky for me, the car came to a stop and the guys gave me a strange look as if I was blocking their way. “HELLO!! STOP SIGN!!” I said while pointing to the stop sign. Damn drivers in the rain!

Most everything was closed that Sunday except for Dametra Café, which was filled to the brim with customers willing to wait a few extra minutes for a seat in the small restaurant. The way I gauge the quality of a restaurant is usually by packed it is and whether people are willing to wait. This one was packed. We hadn’t any reservations, but the owner & executive chef Faisal told us to wait a few minutes for the next table to open up.

We ordered the frutta de mar seafood pasta and a plate of the roasted garlic prawns to share. According to the waiter, everything on the menu is fresh since the storage room is super tiny. So to solve that problem they order all their produce just before closing and expect delivery the next morning. In a world that is fixated on processed, genetically modified foods, this revelation is a huge surprise and bonus.

The little 9 year old girl next to us kept oohing and aahing about how fresh her food was (think 25 year old stuck in a 9 year old body), so we couldn’t help but chime into a delightful conversation with them about their food. “Oh-my-gawd, this is the BEST lasagna I’ve had in my entire life!” she boasted. We all laughed and toasted to that. Seriously, she wasn’t joking about how great the food was. As the night followed, Faisal, the owner, introduced “Angelo” as they came out of the kitchen and sang a beautiful rendition of “Besame Mucho” to someone who was celebrating a birthday. He sang from the bottom of his heart strumming his oud (guitar looking instrument) while the entire room filled with song and energy. It felt like we had been transported to an Italian wedding where food, wine and friendship is cherished. The complimentary baklava thereafter was the icing on the cake.

We ended the evening at the hotel’s bar restaurant reminiscing about all that we had seen and all the food we’d eaten. From clam chowder to grilled garlic prawns, the day had definitely been a foodie day. Going on forward, my new mantra for food is FRESH, not frozen!

Stay tuned for the next article of our next day in Paso Robles…

Here are some links to some of the places we visited:

Monterey Tourism Board
http://www.seemonterey.com

Carmel-by-the-Sea Official Travel Site
http://www.carmelcalifornia.com

Fish Hopper Seafood & Steaks
700 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940-1036
fishhopper.com‎

Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940-1085
(831) 648-4888
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org‎

Portola Hotel & Spa
2 Portola Plaza
Monterey, CA 93940
http://www.portolaplazahotel.com

Dametra Cafe
Ocean Ave Between Dolores And Lincoln
Carmel, CA 93921 (831) 622-7766
http://www.dametracafe.com

A special thanks to Portola Hotel for letting us stay at your hotel. The beds are super comfortable!

Sonya Lee

Since a child, Sonya has been traveling from the corners of Canada to the far east Asia. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, she led a normal family life with her brother, mother and dad. A well received job opportunity in Hong Kong for her father put the compass in action from a young age. Sonya loves good food, and I mean GOOD simple food. She loves an occasional drink, be merry and enjoy the good times. Having recently healed herself from a large ruptured cyst, her favorite foods include fresh carrot juice, grilled vegetables, sauteed portabello mushrooms and truffle french fries. Her philosophy? Healthy food makes a healthy body. Read more on the Editor page. When she's not fretting over WAFT, she runs a small design agency called mowie media and shares the good times with her dog, Monster and 3 cats Sabi, Kaeli & Misty.

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