Bypass the tourist traps in Monterey, CA

Monterey California Cannery Row
Cannery Row, the quaint but touristy heart of Monterey.

This past week I traveled to Monterey, California to shoot a short film for Cupcake Vineyards, who source their Chardonnay grapes from this beautiful area of California’s Central Coast.

Monterey County is about two hours south of San Francisco, hugging the Pacific coastline and including stunners like Big Sur and Carmel By The Sea. But north of those is the town of Monterey itself, known for John Steinbeck and some little-known-local standouts that are far better than the T-shirt and shit shops on Cannery Row.

Where to Nosh (low to high end):

Taqueria del Mar: Just a couple blocks east of Cannery Row is this unassuming local taqueria that will blow you away with their squid tacos. Cheap, simple, and perfectly prepared with your choice of flour or corn tortillas. The other tacos were just Ok, so stick with the squid. Their guacamole was worth the try—creamy and went nicely with the house red salsa and salty chips.

Cannery Row Brewing Company: The proximity of this place to our hotel was hard to pass up with its expansive craft beer list and better-than-average pub food. The tuna poke appetizer was very fresh and a far better option than the other places with names like Louie Linguini schilling chowder samples on Cannery Row.

Enormo oysters at Fish House.

Monterey Fish House: By far the standout feast we enjoyed was at the Fish House. Brimming with locals was a slightly downscale restaurant with upscale seafood caught that day. The oysters were enormous (I’d guess 4 oz. of meat each), served on the half shell or grilled. I opted for the scallop and crab cake combo entre that came with pasta and veggies as well. Nothing fancy with the sides, but the seafood was definitely deserving of praise from even the snootiest of seafoodies. They also had a great selection of local wine and my glass of Carmel Road Chardonnay was served to the tippy top, if that helps you get a sense of the vibe.

A look in to the bar of 1833.

1833: We were recommended to this high-end farm-to-table venue from a foodie friend and it didn’t disappoint, but mostly for the mystique. Named after the year the building was originally constructed and allegedly haunted by ghosts, this beautiful multi-room house was decorated with a mix of original artifacts and executed with a modern eye. The wine list was staggering and the cocktails were interesting. We also ordered appetizers with standouts being the sunchokes and the Hawaiian bread. After showing interest in its origin, our server gave us a tour complete with tales from the original proprietor and his fabricated life as a doctor who killed nearly everyone in his care. Definitely stop by this establishment, the libations might be slightly overpriced, but the stories were worth every penny.

What to do:

Asimolar Beach Monterey California
Asimolar Beach, where the surfing is as good as the views.

Asilomar Beach: Head just south of the town of Monterey on Sunset Boulevard and you’ll find the crazy coastline of Asilomar Beach. To its far south end is where the surfers catch waves and fend off anyone trying to spread the word about this undiscovered paradise. To the north is a rocky coastline rimmed by white sandy beach perfect for picnics and photo opps.

Monterey Aquarium: Even without entering this esteemed aquarium, Monterey’s sea life is hard to miss. Otters and seals surround the coastline and have no qualms sunning themselves just a few feet from nosy onlookers like me. The aquarium itself is one of the best in the world and shouldn’t be missed if you have just a few hours in Monterey.

Wharf Market: Just where you turn into the Fisherman’s Wharf sits a beautiful market and grocery store selling gourmet salads, sandwiches and wine. As a foodie, part of what I love is finding a grocery store like this and chatting up the locals to get a feel for the culture and vibe of the area.

This is the gritty goodness I love.
Monterey Fish Company Monterey California
Under the dark pier where the abalones are harvested.

Fisherman’s Wharf 2: Forget the touristy stuff on Wharf 1, head to where the locals fish (and buy fish) instead. At the end of the pier sits Monterey Fish Company where you can get the freshest of the fresh today’s catch and the Abalone Company which raises and farms the hard-to-come-by delicacy. Make sure to take time to talk Trevor in the Abalone shop and if you ask really nice, he may even let you go under the pier to see the hidden world of interconnected docks just above sea level where the abalone are raised and harvested. It’s a fascinating and rarely seen glimpse into a world like nothing I’d ever seen.

Pinnacles National Park
My quick look at Pinnacles.

Pinnacles National Park: About an hour and a half from Monterey near the town of Soledad is National Park known mostly to locals. Although the park was completely empty in November and had absolutely no cell service of any kind, its hiking trails explore an intricate cave system and I’ll definitely return when I have proper shoes and maybe an emergency flare.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Intercontinental: Located in the heart of Cannery Row with great views of the Pacific and walking distance to the aquarium is the Hotel Intercontinental. Our stay was what you’d expect—large, well-appointed rooms with nice extras like two free bottles of water in the room each night. Plus if you sign up for their loyalty program, they waive the $9.95 a day Internet charge. I do wish it had more character, but it doesn’t sound like there’s demand  in Monterey for the next trendy boutique hotel yet. But maybe that’s a good thing.

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