Weekend Getaway: Monterey & Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

As a resident of California’s beautiful Central Coast… we often find ourselves in a bit of a situation. As much as we love where we call home, we also need to get away from time-to-time. When it comes to getting away for us, it’s important that our destination meets the same (or better) quality of life we’re accustomed to. logo_montereyClassy, but fun… Outdoorsy, but with great city shopping… Relaxing, but with plenty to do (oh, and amazing wine around every corner). We recently found ourselves in what may have been the absolutely PERFECT weekend getaway during an excursion to Monterey, CA! Here’s how we found vacation ecstasy a few hours up the coast.

Day One: The Hotel & Dinner

After a beautiful drive up Hwy 1, we settled into our room for the weekend. For this getaway, we chose the Portola Hotel & Spa (a very short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf). I think it’s important to note, the hotel had some pretty major construction happening on their Southside, connected to the Monterey Conference Center… but once we navigated the minor entrance detour, we didn’t see or hear one bit of the work going on.

As soon as we entered the lobby of the Portola we knew immediately that this was a good choice. It’s was that perfect mesh of classy and well-maintained, yet comfortable. The staff was very pleasant and didn’t even mind when I politely turned down their freshly baked welcome cookie (being GF sucks). The small line at check-in moved very quickly, and we were on our way.

The Short Version: the room was fantastic! All of the amenities you need to chill (coffee/tea maker, flat screen tv, fridge, microwave, etc.) along with enough space to not feel cramped. I had a desk with ethernet connection to knock out a few thoughts & check Facebook, and we had a couple of comfy lounging chairs to relax with a glass of wine. Considering this would be our basecamp for the next few days, it was perfect.
After a day of driving, for Dinner we opted to go somewhere close & easy… the Hotel’s very own Peter B’s Brewpub. Sorry to say, but in a word, “Meh”. To satisfy our mixed dietary needs (I’m Gluten-Free and she’s a Vegetarian) we ordered a variety of food options, a crafted brew and a hard cider. To be fair, it was all good “enough”. We hardly waited for a table, the service was friendly and fast, and the food was fine… but from the drinks to main course, it was all rather uninteresting. Generic bar food at best. On the Menu: Macho Nachos, carnitas on the side (Gluten Free); Buffalo Chili (Gluten Free); Heirloom Tomato Melt (Vegetarian); William Tell Mango Muscat Cider (Gluten Free); Inclusion Amber ale (Delicious).

Day Two: The Plaza & Fisherman’s Wharf

Day 2 kicked-off with a little noshing of fruit off the room service menu and better-than-average coffee from the room’s machine. Then out the door we went. We were pleasantly surprised by a fun little arts & craft fair happening in the open space right outside the hotel. Custom made jewelry, home-made knit caps, soaps and more adorned the brick-laid plaza. Tucked off in the corner was a small trio playing stripped down versions of classic tunes (listen in the video), and a series of bocce ball courts for public enjoyment. With a bottle of wine, and some great company, one could spend the entire day mere steps from our room! But… we had more exploring to do!

Next we strolled East to Municipal Beach where they were holding a series of local races & events (swimming, kayaking, volleyball, etc.). In bro-terms… lots of fit collegiats playing volleyball at the beach. #winning Peeking at the city’s calendar of events, it looks like this cozy little stretch of sand has a consistent stream of events & activities throughout the year. Once again… EASILY a spot we could have spent the day enjoying. After a leisurely stroll past the marina, we found a shady spot under a tree and ate an early lunch we packed before leaving the room (after-all, we are traveling on a budget). It was one of the most picturesque dining experience I think we’ve had together in a long time. Aside from the impressive yachts, sail-boats, and native sea-lions… the people-watching was top-notch!
San Salvador ReplicaIt simply wouldn’t be a trip to Monterey without a visit to the world-famous Fisherman’s Wharf! To our great surprise, we happened to be here the same weekend as the larger-than-life San Salvador replica ship. Walking further down the wharf it was part food network cook-off and part carnival side-show as salemen rattled off  their “award winning ” dishes you must have. Toss in the hand-full of kayak rental shops, whale-watching excursions, and coffemugapaloozas and you could practically spend an entire day on this small stretch of wood planks and be perfectly happy. However, we had our walking shoes on… and places to go.
Just off the Wharf, we discovered the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. After several attempts, explaining the incredible sense of serenity while walking this trail is pretty much impossible. I don’t know if it was the perfect ocean breeze, my beautiful companion, the brownie we split with lunch or the fact that this was our first trip without kids in nearly a decade… but I would equate the extreme zen feeling to something near nirvana. It felt as if the joggers, cyclists and people basking in the afternoon sun at the park were all so happy, we were somehow willing the universe around us to be perfect. There was nowhere else I wanted to be at that moment.
Next up… a trip to Cannery Row! Monterey TrolleyAs an added bonus to the already impressive plaza, fisherman’s wharf and more surrounding the Portola Hotel, the city of Monterey also has a free trolley! Of course we had to give it a try, and it did not disappoint. There was a brief moment of confusion as it finished it’s route and circled back to where we just got on (some serious “did we get on the right trolley” confusion), but then off we went to the land of tourists and Bubba Gump. Of course, no trip to the Row is complete without a stop into the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is the first time since our Honeymoon we’ve visited the aquarium without kids, and it was a truly enjoyable experience in a unique and special way. (Hahaha… we learned so much about the marine life around us without the constant “can we go yet” we usually hear.) We lazied around the exhibits and soaked in the perfect ambiance. If there are only a few things you get to do while visiting the area… the Monterey Bay Aquarium really should be at the top of your list!

inside Jacks Lounge Portola Hotel

inside Jacks Lounge Portola Hotel

We ended the day with a quick trolley ride back to the Portola… and a stop into Jack’s Lounge in the hotel lobby. We were looking for a quiet place to grab a couple of cocktails, a light snack and kick out feet up after a full day of walking… and this place was perfection. She had a glass of red wine, I ordered what turned out to be a very well crafted Old Fashion and we shared some hummus & veggies. I’m not sure if we sat there for 10 minutes or 1 hour… but it was perfect. After a few(ish) drinks we decided to head upstairs for the evening. We opened up the large sliding glass door and listened to a wedding DJ spin an interesting mix of tunes from a courtyard just out of site. The music, the cool ocean air and room service (okay, and some more wine) was everything we needed to finish the day.

Day Three: Carmel by the Sea

For our 3rd day we decided to break out of the Bay for an excursion across the peninsula to Carmel by the Sea. Of course, we couldn’t play tourist in Carmel without cruising the famous 17 Mile Drive. Lush green-scapes and Cypress trees that look more like works of art than natural growth, line nearly every stretch… except for those spots with stunning panoramic ocean views and world famous golf courses (it was all so horrible). It may just possibly be the most beautiful stretch of road, and incredibly expensive real estate, you’ll ever see across 17 miles. There is a small fee to enter ($10 per car) but SO worth it.

Next we found a parking spot just off of Ocean Ave. in Carmel and popped in-and-out of a swanky array of unique shops. Shopping in Carmel was an interesting assortment of restaurants, bakeries, art galleries, coffee houses, niche shops and more. A few of our favorites were

  • Kurtz Culinary boasting an impressive tapenade & mustard section, this was also a fun way to snack on tons of different flavors.
  • Carmel Belle for more light snacks and an Iced Tea (it was freakin hot today) we popped into this cafe style eatery to grab something icy.
  • Galerie Rue Toulouse (a.k.a. geek-a-palooza) they had a very cool comic book art exhibit on display (if only I had an extra $10k laying around).

We rounded off our afternoon of trekking a comfy little tasting room by local winery De Tierra Vineyards. We each got a flight served by family members of the winery. Had a fantastic conversation with them about their sustainability & where the grapes are grown. Super knowledgable and worth a stop. With good wine comes a killer appetite… so we took off in search of dinner!

For our final dinner destination this trip, we chose the simply named Mediterranean Restaurant (after some careful Yelp’ng). It had great reviews, and we were both craving something exotic to our typical fish & veggie fare we eat on the Central Coast. When we first walked through the door we were a little thrown (and a tad concerned) because every single table in the restaurant was empty (even after a line out the door earlier in the afternoon when we walked past). It turns out, we somehow stumbled into the magical hour between lunch and dinner where the world is yours for the taking. Want the best table… it’s yours. Want the fastest service imaginable… voila! FYI – in Carmel, it’s 4:25pm. We could not be happier with our choice! I already mentioned the fast service, but it was also friendly and spot-on. The restaurant itself was oozing with Mediterranean ambiance. From the hand-painted ceiling and perfectly tinted lighting to match the ambient glow to the instruments adorning the walls… this was the perfect end to our weekend. Then…. the food. It was fantastic!!! We started with the Mezze Combination Platter (Spanakopita, hummus, tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves, smoked eggplant dip, pita)… which we could have easily ordered 3 more of and had as our meals. Definitely the perfect starter. Next she (the vegetarian) ordered the Quattro Formaggio Ravioli (Parmesan, ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino, in a classic homemade tomato basil sauce) and I (Gluten Free) had the Braised Lamb Shank (Demi-glace, served with fresh vegetables, with your choice of rice pilaf or potatoes au gratin). At the risk of over-stating it… both were absolutely fabulous. My mouth is watering right now just remembering how good it was. We could not have planned a better ending to our relaxing weekend away if we tried. To top it all off, we couldn’t dine at a Mediterranean restaurant without a little Baklava… golden, flaky, delicious. They did not dissapoint!
To wrap Day 3, we drove back to the Portola… opened a bottle of wine (okay, truth be told we brought a case with us)… and sipped away the evening in perfect bliss and Willy Wonka on the tube.

Day 4: Heading Back Home

With a strange mix of complete relaxation and homesickness (darn those mini-me’s) we lazily packed up our bags and rolled to the lobby in search of breakfast. After a few failed attempts using Apple Maps to find a spot, we stumbled across Caffe Triesteand it was great. We ordered a couple of coffees to prep for the drive home and a light breakfast. She got a veggie sando (cream cheese, avocado & more with home fries) and I chowed down on a wonderful scramble. It was exactly what we needed to kick us in the pants… and get us moving down the road.

Our final drive of the weekend was peaceful. Back down Hwy 1, the pace was chill… we stopped when we wanted to, no rushing… and the scenery was surprisingly fresh considering we were their just 3 days ago. We did make a point of stopping at McWay Falls (which we had never stopped at before) and it was absolutely worth the trip. If we weren’t in desperate need of a little boys room, we may have stayed a lot longer.
Final Thoughts… If you’re looking for the perfect weekend getaway, make your way to Monterey California! It’s close enough to get their quickly and similar enough to home that you won’t be surprised by the climate. Beautiful, fun, plenty do to on a budget or not and close enough to get back in a hurry if you need. We strongly recommend Monterey!

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