Kayaking with sea otters, check. Waves crashing along a rocky coastline, check. Really good wine, check.
Throw in a minor, damage-free earthquake –– a 5.1 magnitude trembler that I somehow didn’t even notice –– and I racked up the perfect California experience during a trip to Monterey in October.
My main takeaway? If you’re into outdoor adventure, you can find plenty of it along the central coast of California.
Below are a few of the highlights from the three and a half days I recently spent there.
Kayaking in Monterey Bay
I’ve watched my share of cute animal videos. I rank otters –– floating side by side, cracking into shellfish or just plain frolicking –– as most likely to make me swoon. (If you don’t know what I mean, check out the live otter cam at Monterey Bay Aquarium.)
I’ve always wanted to see one swimming in the wild, and I got to see dozens, along with a few chubby harbor seals and more than 100 noisy, basking sea lions, during a two-hour paddle excursion led by Ann Jones with Adventures By the Sea.
Wisps of fog swept in and out as we floated over the kelp forest just behind historic Cannery Row in downtown Monterey. Curious otters popped their heads up and seemed just as interested in us as we were in them. Paddlers are asked to stay at least 60 feet away from marine life, but that proved difficult at times. Just stay quiet and back away slowly if they approach.
At one point, I heard what sounded like clapping. Turns out it was an otter, floating on its back, using a rock to break open a clam. Later, I spotted what appeared to be a mother otter and her pup frolicking just off the jetty.
Keep an eye open for moon jellies, too. The clear, volleyball-sized creatures have short tentacles and are common in the bay.
Hiking Big Sur near Monterey
Can’t decide if you’d rather hike up a canyon shaded by towering redwoods or scramble down to the ocean to watch waves smashing into the rocky coastline?
You can do both by booking the Robinson Jeffers Hiking Excursion offered by Big Sur Guides and Hiking. It’s like experiencing two different ecosystems divided by a two-lane highway.
Our hike began on the Tan Bark Trail along Partington Creek. Guide Everett Keneipp pointed out clusters of migrating ladybugs that had gathered on rotting logs and in the leaf litter as we walked up the trail, which cuts through a forest of coastal redwoods in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
We admired 200-foot redwoods, taste-tested redwood sorrel (tastes like green apples, but eat it only in small quantities), and listened to the creek babbling its way downhill in the cool, moist environment.
After an hour in the shady recesses of the canyon, we retraced our steps and caught the trail on the other side of the highway. That wide gravel path goes through a tunnel and all the way down to the rocky shoreline, where we picnicked on sunlit boulders.
Keep an eye on the skies. Eighty-eight species of birds live along California’s central coast, from the noisy blue Steller’s jay to acorn woodpeckers and the critically endangered California condor, which has a wingspan of 9.5 feet. In the ocean, look for harbor seals and passing whales, and if the tide is down, check the small pools in the rocks for crabs, urchins and other marine life.
Explore a winery by electric bike
You can’t go to California without visiting a vineyard, can you?
Mad Dogs & Englishmen bike shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea offers rentals and guided bike tours along Big Sur’s Old Coast Road, the 17-Mile Drive, or around Carmel-by-the-Sea.
They’re also developing a tour in conjunction with a local winery called Albatross Ridge, which grows grapes in the hills of Carmel Valley.
We joined them for a test run. We rambled up and down hills, oohing and aahing at acre after acre of grapevines, then zipped briefly down a freshly tilled row. Afterward, we settled in at a picnic table for a tasting with winery owner Brad Bowlus.
“The soils here are amazing,” says Bowlus, who spent three years finding just the right spot to plant his vines.
The cool, hilltop microclimate allows him to make earthy-tasting pinot noir and rich chardonnay. “If I moved (the vineyard) three miles either way, I couldn’t do this,” he says.
The chardonnay is good, the petillant naturel rose is better (if you like a smoky hint), but the pinot noir goes down as among the best I’ve ever tasted.
The story behind the wine is good, too. Bowlus’ grandfather, aviator Hawley Bowlus, helped construct Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and once flew gliders in these very hills.
Albatross Ridge operates a tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea and just opened a second location in Monterey.
Ride a horse in Pebble Beach
Get a different perspective of the Monterey Peninsula from atop a horse.
The Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, which opened in 1924 and hosted the Olympic team trials in 1960, offers guided trail rides on 27 miles of marked equestrian trails in Del Monte Forest.
I teamed up with a big chestnut horse for the mellow, 75-minute ride up sandy trails.
We got glimpses of the famous Cypress Point Club, where the initiation fee reportedly tops $250,000, and rode along the coastal dunes above the shoreline. But it was the quiet of the forest that I liked best.
If You Go
From Austin, book a flight on American or United Airlines to Monterey Regional Airport. You’ll have to connect through Dallas or Phoenix.
I based myself at the centrally located Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa, but options abound. For a romantic stay, consider Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley, where the chef will give you a tour of the expansive gardens and Julia Child signed the wall next to the chef’s dining table in the kitchen.
A two-hour group kayaking session at Adventures by the Sea costs $65.
Pebble Beach Equestrian Center offers group trail rides starting at $120 per person. The Coastal Trail Ride is $145 per person.
Mad Dogs & Englishmen bike shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea offers rentals and guided bike tours.
Big Sur Guides and Hiking offers an array of hikes in the Big Sur area. The two-and-a-half-hour Robinson Jeffers hike costs $125. For $20 extra, you’ll get a sandwich, pasta salad and cookie from Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant.
A 75-minute guided ride at Pebble Beach Equestrian Center costs $145.
Eat & Drink
Stop by Coast Big Sur, 49901 Highway 1, for salads, homemade pizza, and vanilla bay laurel-flavored ice cream, but also to peruse art displayed in galleries built of reclaimed redwood. Woody’s at the Airport is unlike any other airport dining experience you’ve ever had – fine dining, all with the view of planes landing and taking off. It’s on the outside of security, so locals frequent it, too.
Bring layers. Weather varies a lot in the Central Coast of California. It could be foggy and 55 degrees in Monterey Bay, but 70 degrees and sunny in Big Sur. Pack a thin base layer, plus pullovers and a puffy jacket. And for more information go to SeeMonterey.com.