Part of my visiting northern California series.
I would recommend taking two days to explore the area around Monterey. If you had a lot of time you could make it a four day leg and continue down Route 1 to Hearst Castle / San Simeon, Morro Bay, San Louis Obispo, and then come back via Route 5 (and listen to the audio travelogue Invisible 5). For additional ideas I would recommend checking out Monterey Tourist Info and Big Sur. I understand that monarch butterflies are once again wintering in George Washington Park in Pacific Grove.
MONTEREY DAY ONE
Under normal conditions, it will take approximately 1.5 hours to reach Monterey from Mountain View. [85 South, to 101 South, to 154 West, to Highway 1 South. If you are going to the aquarium you can attempt to find free street parking, but it’s often easier to park in one of the city owned pay for use lots.
Aquarium: I would suggest starting the day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey has what might be the best aquarium in the world. I like it better than the aquariums in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore, and Maui. It is easy to spend an entire day at the aquarium. Unlike many museums, the cafeteria actually serves reasonably tasty food at reasonable prices. I would recommend eating in the aquarium to maximize time. If you want to eat outside the aquarium remember to get your hand stamps so you can you can return.
Lodging: Once you are done with the aquarium I would suggest getting into a hotel and clean up after your day. There are a wide variety of hotels in the area. The cheapest options in the area are some of the “budget” nation chains how have hotel or motels 10-20 minutes north of Monterey on Route 1 in towns like Seaside. It is also possible to find reasonably inexpensive room in some of the small mom & pop hotels in Pacific Grove. Finally, there is the minimalist but pretty Asilomar. The Four Sisters Inns, The Centrella (Pacific Grove), and Tickle Pink Inn (Carmel) are nice, reasonably priced (for the Monterey peninsula) B&Bs. I would recommend not staying in any of the national luxury hotel chains unless you have a major discount. If you going to spend that sort of money ($250-400/night) I would recommend staying in out of the specialty hotels or high end B&B. Hotel Pacific sometimes has packages which makes it reasonably priced. At the higher end is the Old Monterey Inn, one of the most romantic B&Bs, and the Spindrift Inn which is a small luxury hotel.
Dinner: Enjoy a nice meal in one of the fine restaurants on the area. I would recommend, passionfish (Pacific Grove, Sustainable sea food with a South American influence), Flying Fish Grill (Carmel, Mexico meets Japan), Fishwife (Pacific Grove, good prices for good fish), Pacific’s Edge (south of Carmel, Continental, great view at sunset, pricy), Anton and Michael (Carmel, French inspirited), and Tarpy’s Roadhouse (near the airport, American food). Many people like the cozy atmosphere at Fandango (in Pacific Grove) and the food at Fresh Cream. I would skip Roy’s at Pebble Beach because it is no where near as good as a Roy’s in Hawaii and can be quite noisy. I would also skip Montrio, which as a good reputation, but I found the food un-inspired. If you want something a bit lower key stop by one of the places on Fisherman’s Wharf like the Old Grotto which serves calm chowder in a bread bowl. Places I haven’t tried but would like to visit sometime include French Poodle (Carmel), and Cypress Grove (Monterey).
Evening Stroll: Enjoy the Monterey Coastal Trail which is a flat path which circles most of the peninsula.
MONTEREY DAY TWO
Point Lobos: A trip to the Monterey peninsula would not be complete without stopping at Point Lobos State Reserve, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The parking fills up as the day progresses. If there is a line to get in you can park by the beach just north of Point Lobos and walk in. The whalers cabin has a small display tracing the history and often overlooks sea otters playing and eating in the small bay. Cypress grove provides view views of the Monterey peninsula as you wander through a cypress grove. In the winter it’s possible to see whale migrating from the high points along the trail.
Lunch: There are several nice picnic spots in Point Lobos if you bring food with you. Otherwise you could backtrack ten minutes the the Crossroads shopping center which has Rio Grill which is a very tasty Californian bistro, get a burger at R G Burgers, or try one of the other restaurants in the shopping center. The other option is to continue down to Big Sur. In Big Sur I would recommend stopping at Nepenthe for pricy sandwiches with an wonderful view or the Big Sur Bakery which doesn’t have a view but does have extremely nice selection of sandwiches, pasta, and wood fired pizza (and wonderful chocolate pudding sometimes).
Big Sur: There are a number of nice day hikes in Big Sur State Park as well as access to cold water beaches. The drive south of Big Sur is quite scenic. Around twenty minutes south of Big Sur is Julie Phiffer State Park which is typically a bit less crowded than Big Sur. There is a nice hike which takes you through some redwoods, past a small waterfall, under Route 1 and eventually gives you a very nice view of the Pacific Ocean.
Carmel: Eventually it time to turn around and head back to the Mountain View. Between Point Lobos and Carmel is a functioning Carmelite monastery. The chapel has a simple beauty. The grounds have a stations of the cross scatter though a modest but well maintained garden. A bit closer to Carmel, around the corner from the Crossroads shopping center, is the Historical Monterey Mission. If you have seen missions before I would skip the Monterey Mission… it’s sort of depressing, but you could check it out if you want to see a bit of California history. I normally skip downtown Carmel unless I am stopping for food. but it can be a fun place to stroll around and watch people. Carmel started out as an art colony but has turned into a place filled with rich folk’s second (or third homes). You can still find plenty of art galleries, but only extremely successful artists can afford to live in Carmel. You will also find a number of high end stores, and restaurants.