3 Days and 2 Nights, in Monterey
Mini vacation time. It’s been too long, and we both need some time away from it all. Not TOO far away, from it all, though, so we head down to Monterey for a few days… we had originally planned to head there directly from my birthday BBQ, but had to push the trip out a week because Lucie had to work on my birthday proper, but that’s just fine with me. A trip out of town is still a trip out of town even a week later than anticipated.
The drive down to Monterey is quite a bit longer than usual… we take our preferred route down Highway 101 to Salinas, then over to Highway 1 from there, but traffic is very heavy and slower than you’d expect for a Sunday afternoon. I was expecting all of the traffic to be going North, but apparently I forgot that this is spring break for a lot of places, so other families had the same idea that we did; and it’s a fairly slow slog that takes about an hour longer than normal. We’re not in a rush, though, so we deal with it and eventually make it to our hotel in Marina.
The Best Western in Marina is an older hotel just off the freeway, with nearby access to Marina State Beach and supposedly right near the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, a bike and pedestrian path that pretty much follows the Pacific Coast Highway and/or Del Monte Avenue from Monterey all the way up into Santa Cruz. Part of our plan for this trip is to run/walk/ride a bunch of the trail and see what it’s like; online comments say it can be pretty hilly in some areas as the trail pretty much follows the coastline and all its topographical variety.
Once we check into the hotel – small and somewhat run-down room on the first floor, with thin walls and unfortunately located adjacent to the stairway so we can hear everyone tromping up and down the stairs dragging their luggage with them since there’s no elevator – we get dressed for some exercise and head back onto the freeway for a few exits until we get into Seaside.
We find a parking spot next to a small beach, and head onto the trail from there. Lucie wogs, and I ride Crusher… we head south on the trail at first, and it’s pretty much exactly what we’d hoped for at first – the path runs past a beachfront hotel, then right along the sand as it fronts State Beach – but then we run into a Hill. Capital “H” Hill. I struggle on my bike, but thankfully manage to keep pedaling as I make my way up through the clouds and past a couple of satellites before finally reaching the top of the hill… and see that the backside of the hill actually manages to be even longer than the path I took climbing. This is actually not even a joke – the path coming up is a little curvy, but the far side actually has a hairpin turn halfway down so the actual distance is about half again as long, and all incline (or decline, depending I suppose on which way you’re heading.) I coast – braking liberally so as not to break the sound barrier – to the bottom of the Hill, and find that the trail at this point follows Del Monte Avenue, which is flat and not as prone to snowcapped peaks as the beachfront path. Lucie also manages to climb the hill (I believe she had to break out the hammer and pitons, though she maintains she didn’t) and continues to follow the path for a bit before doubling back and hitting the Hill again. I also struggle up this long path, and once again manage to keep pedaling all the way to the top; I encounter two couples coming the other direction, who look to be younger and in better shape than I am, and they’re all pushing their bikes, which does make me feel a little better about myself.
From there, we head north on the trail for a bit, into Sand City (where we encounter another long hill) before we run out of trail. There’s a sign that indicates you can cross over the freeway and link back up to the Del Monte path, but we decide to call it good enough for the day. In total, Lucie runs about 4 miles and my cyclemeter says I did 7.8 miles, which sounds about right. It also says that I only did 115 feet ascent, which I can only assume is a floating point error and actually means 115 meters, or yards, or possibly football fields.
We head back to the hotel briefly to lock Crusher in the room, then head to Monterey for dinner. We find a surprisingly good parking spot near Fisherman’s Wharf and take a stroll down the wharf like we do every time we come here. It’s a little bit crowded, which is not entirely unusual for Fisherman's Wharf, but it's also getting toward evening so the crowd isn't as bad as it could be. We wander all the way to the jewelry store, where a tungsten ring jumps onto my finger and refuses to leave so we have to buy it; then head back along the wharf looking for a place to have dinner. We eventually decide on Domenico's, based on the 20-minute wait they have at Old Fisherman's Grotto, our usual choice, versus the immediate seating they offer at Domenico's; and on the fact that we haven't tried them yet and we're feeling a bit adventurous, just having survived jogging/riding over what we have named Morituri Dune just an hour or so earlier.
The food is pretty good -- Lucie goes for the almond-crusted halibut and I choose the cedar plank salmon piccata, with calamari and crab cakes as appetizers and a mocha espresso cheesecake for dessert -- but it's a bit pricey even for Fisherman's Wharf. The calamari is good, but our favorite calamari is Old Fisherman's Grotto, so we make a plan to stop by there tomorrow if possible. The almond crusted halibut is tasty, but the beurre blanc sauce combined with the extremely buttery mashed potatoes is a bit heavy on the dairy for Lucie's taste; I normally don't really do capers but the lemon piccata sauce on my salmon really does hit the spot. The crab cakes taste good, but we both admit we prefer having discernible pieces of crab instead of the homogenous pinkish texture-free interior they offer. The mocha espresso cheesecake is heavier on the mocha than it is the espresso -- but to be fair, even espresso isn't as strongly flavored like coffee as we'd like -- but its a good way to end the meal.
From there, we wander back to to Meg, stopping along the way in a candy store to buy salt water taffy for my coworkers and caramel apples for us (peanut for Lucie, English toffee for me), then we head back up to the hotel for the night.
We sleep in the next day a bit, not feeling the need to hit the highway too early on our vacation, but eventually get dressed and head to Cannery Row in Monterey. Again, however, I have forgotten to think about it being spring break when we planned the day, so Monterey isn’t nearly as deserted as we’d hoped, and we struggle to find decent parking before finally settling on a spot on the far end of Cannery Row that I believe is as far away as possible from Monterey Bay Aquarium without being in Oregon. We walk along the storefronts of Ocean Street, trying to find a spot to have breakfast that isn’t too ridiculously crowded. We had originally thought about trying LouLou’s Café at the industrial pier next to Fisherman’s Wharf, but they’d already stopped serving breakfast by the time we left the hotel, so we keep our options open as we walk. Before we know it, however, we’re already at the entrance to Monterey Bay Aquarium on the far end of Cannery Row. We briefly think about just doing the aquarium, but the line is just crazy long (remember, spring break? We didn’t!) so we head a bit further along the road and try out First Awakenings at the American Tin Cannery mall.
First Awakenings is located on the side of the mall closest to the aquarium, and has indoor as well as outdoor seating, is dog-friendly, and – in a bold health-conscious (or possibly granola-sucking tree-hugging flower-powery kind of) choice for a diner, they don’t have a deep fryer. Lucie decides on a stack of 2 “Monkey Wrench” pancakes, which are chock full of banana, chocolate chips, and walnut pieces (some of which are <I>surprisingly</I> large, as Lucie finds a complete walnut half at one point), and I have the “Acapulco Express” omelet with chorizo, onions, avocado, and green chiles with the optional jalapeños added in; country potatoes cooked well done, and an English muffin. We also – because have for some reason decided to try out calamari at every place we visit this trip – try out the calamari steak. Squid for breakfast is a thing.
The pancakes are HUGE. Very tasty, but massive -- Lucie ends up not finishing them (not because of the actual size -- she maintains that she could have powered through, and I believe her -- but because she's not certain how much buttermilk they have and doesn't want to take the risk.) The omelet is nicely spicy, savory, and bright, with a good creaminess from the avocado; the country potatoes -- cooked well done per my order -- give a good contrast in texture; and the english muffin tastes exactly like an English muffin -- I don't know how they managed that bit of gastronomic alchemy, but well played. The calamari steak is breaded and cooked on the flatiron grill -- it manages to be crunchy without being oily, and gives a good mouth feel that you don't get with deep fried rings and tentacles.
We digest for a bit, then walk through the mostly empty mall to work off some of the calories. We'd been here a year or so ago with my mom and sister, and I don't think there are any new stores that have moved in since then -- it's even more sparsely populated with stores than Vallco Fashion Mall was in the early 2000s, which has got to be tough on the stores that are toughing it out. The candy store is still there, though, so we stop by and I spend far too much money on more salt water taffy... it's a great thing to be able to pick and choose which flavors of taffy you want to buy, but it's kind of a shock at the register when you find out that your basket of pay-by-the-ounce dentist bait weighs three times what you think it does.
After the mall, we cross the street and walk along the Monterey Recreational Trail toward Lover's Point for about half a mile or so, enjoying the ocean view and stopping for a bit at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Research Station to watch the large group of harbor seals that are sunning themselves on the beach below us before heading back along the trail toward the aquarium. We had originally thought about riding our bikes along the trail through here, but Lucie's eye is giving her a little bit of trouble and it's pretty crowded to have a nice relaxing ride, so we compromise and instead stop at Bay Bikes and rent a surrey to get our pedaling exercise for the day.
And, not for the first time, we both find ourselves wondering: "when did we become those people, who exercise on vacation?! When did that actually become something we would do on purpose?"
We rent the smaller of the two surrey sizes available -- no need for a rear seat since we don't plan on starting up a quickie pedicab service -- and Lucie makes sure to specify that we would, in fact, very much like to rent that one specific surrey she sees with a fringes canopy so we can have the surrey with the fringe on the top just like in that <I>Oklahoma!</I> song she's never heard from that movie/musical that she's never seen. She has no real desire to see it either, even when informed that there's a stage production that aired on TV with Hugh Jackman playing Curley and one can't say one has really fully lived a fulfilled life until one sees Wolverine singing about his surrey with the fringe on top. But hey, to each ones own, I suppose.
We ride in the surrey back along the Recreational Trail down south all the way to Lover's Point, slowing down an LOT as we cross the various streets along Cannery Row (in no small part due to the fact that the surrey is 4 feet wide and the posts that they have at all street crossings are exactly 5 feet apart, and there's no foot protection if one were to slam into said posts) and slightly regretting that the surrey doesn't have gears as we climb the gentle inclines of the path and slightly less gentle access ramps at street intersections. At Lover's Point we rest for a bit -- it really is a good amount of cardio pedaling that much -- before turning around and riding the trail all the way to Fisherman's Wharf and back to the bike shop.
All in all, we travel about 4 miles or so in about an hour of pedaling. Not the fastest method of wheeled transportation, but I'll definitely say this: it was by far one of the most entertaining things we've done lately. There's absolutely no denying that we look pretty silly riding this thing, pedaling furiously like we're in a caffeinated spin class while moving only slightly faster than a slow jog; we get a LOT of folks giving us huge smiles and some laughter, but not as much laughter as we're doing while pedaling. As long as you embrace the silliness, there is an awful lot of fun to be had doing something ridiculous. I take a lot of pictures, try (and if I must admit, fail) to look like a badass thug wearing pink tie dye pedaling a surrey and moving my legs so fast hamsters in their little hamster wheels would get queasy, and we both have a total blast.
We return the surrey, I pick up a Bay Bikes shirt to help support the business that gave us such a great experience, and we head back to the hotel to recuperate for a bit before heading out to dinner. We use our good friend Yelp to find a place that has high reviews on fish & chips, and settle on a place called Googie Grill in Seaside. It's named after the architectural style of the 50s and 60s that is so recognizable in places like Disney's Tomorrowland and the Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast From the Past, and the food is amazing.
We start with (what else?) the calamari appetizer, and discover a fried calamari in the Monterey area that is better than Old Fisherma's Grotto, our heretofore standard in crispy squid bits. It's got a very light, almost tempura-like batter but crispier, and comes with homemade cocktail and tartar sauces; there's a good hint of horseradish in the cocktail sauce that is just outstanding, and the tartar sauce is creamy and briny without being too sweet or acidic, a very difficult target to hit but they do it well. I order the sand dabs -- this is my first time trying this type of fish so I don't have any previous sand dab meals to which I can compare them, but they're very light and not fishy at all, almost letting the mild lemon caper sauce dictate the overall flavor (like Domenico's the previous day, I'm for some reason in a caper mood.) It comes with lightly steamed veggies and a Spanish rice that has a deep, smoky flavor. Lucie has the fish & chips, and these are also well above what one would expect from a tiny diner: fresh, flaky halibut cooked to perfection with a beer batter coating, and "sidewinder fries", thick spiral cuts of potato with a seasoned coating, crisp and tasty on the outside and perfectly creamy consistency in the center like a good steak fry; and combined with their house made tartar sauce it's a match made in fatty heaven. Dessert is a slight letdown, with their (approximately) eight-pound slice of carrot cake having some outer edges that are overcooked to the point of being unpleasantly tough and bitter; but the interior of the cake is moist and densely sweet like any good carrot cake should be, heavy on the cinnamon and raisins. Lucie's slice of apple pie -- no, beignets -- no, apple pie -- is thick and sweet and also delicious, thought maybe not worth the price tag (but this is Monterey-adjacent, however, so it's not entirely unexpected.)
After dinner, and our mutual agreement that we'll definitely have to come back here on our next trip to Monterey for more calamari and fish & chips, we head back to our hotel room for the night. A quick stop on the way there to pick up some epsom salts, though, because we both think a soak in the bathtub with epsom salts would be a good thing for our muscles after the last two days of leg exercise.
We wake up on our third day on the coast, and check out of our hotel. Best Western in Marina is not the most comfortable hotel, doesn't have very many amenities (we paid extra to have a room with a mini fridge and there's no microwave, for example), the shower ceiling leaks water from the shower upstairs (at least, we really <I>really</I> hope it's just from the shower), the walls are thin and not at all soundproof, and while it's fairly close to the beach there's no view to speak of; but it has served us well enough this trip.
We drive down the Pacific Coast Highway a few miles and exit at Sand City, take a few turns on city streets and drive through the closed Fort Ord military base grounds, past an awful lot of abandoned and now-dilapidated military barracks and other buildings that look for all the world like a huge set for <I>The Walking Dead</I> just waiting to happen. I'm actually happy that it's late morning, since I'd be incredibly freaked out if we were to be driving through here anywhere near nighttime. After a few minutes of driving through Fort Zombieton, however, we arrive at a small, mostly deserted, parking lot at Fort Ord Dunes State Park, part of Fort Ord National Monument. After Fort Ord closed down in 1994, the land went mostly unused until a large coastal section was changed into Fort Ord Dunes State Park (after extensive cleanup efforts, which included a LOT of munitions clearing out 15 firing ranges and 12 ammunition bunkers) and later became part of the Fort Ord National Monument by President Obama in 2012.
Fort Ord Dunes State Park (which is a rather long and cumbersome name to repeat as often as I am; ditto with Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail) has 83 miles of recreational trails, which includes bicycle, hiking, and equestrian trails winding throughout the parcel of land, which also contains over a hundred abandoned buildings and a closed sewage plant in addition to the aforementioned bunkers and firing ranges (all closed, cleaned, walled off, and safe except for the zombies lurking inside.) The bicycle trails are very wide and enjoyable -- I believe they just converted the two-lane roads into three-lane paths, with two directional bike lanes and a pedestrian lane. This makes for a great cycling experience with nice views and no vehicular traffic and the occasional oceanic view (rare in our case, though we only rode part of the paths there -- I don't doubt that there are amazing views of the Pacific Ocean in other areas of the park), and there are Hills. Capital "H" Hills, though not necessarily Morituri Dune level Hills, there are a lot of long inclines that make for some impressive quad muscle workouts.
After a relatively short ride -- in part because my legs are already burning from the last couple of days and I want to have some energy remaining this evening because we're headed to the gym for our personal training sessions, partly because I remember how long it took to drive down to Monterey and I want to make sure we get home in time so I slightly overcompensate -- we load our bikes back onto Meg and head back into Monterey one more time for lunch. I'm a little leery of having the bikes out in the open on the bike rack, but they're locked down pretty securely (I really like our Thule bike rack, even if is <I>does</I> weigh a ton) so I toss the easily removed items like seat bags and headlights into the trunk and call it good enough once we find a very visible parking spot with a lot of foot traffic.
From there, we head to Old Fisherman's Grotto to give their calamari another taste test. We do the sampler appetizer platter -- two grilled shrimp, a crab cake, and calamari to start, Lucie goes for the full-on calamari lunch plate, and I choose the calamari eggplant parmesan, as well as a cup of clam chowder since both Lucie and I realize that this is our third day in Monterey and I have yet to have any clam chowder, which is just weird.
The grilled shrimp are possibly just slightly overcooked, but have a great smoky char from the wood fired grill regardless; the crab cake has a better consistency than Domenico's and a better crunch on the outside but is still somewhat more homogenous in texture than we'd prefer, but tastes just fine; and the calamari is just as good as we remember. This sadly means that it's just a tiny bit less impressive than Googie Grill's calamari, but it's still some seriously spiffy cephalopod. Lucie's calamari plate is more of the same -- she's <I>really</I> in the mood for calamari -- and she willingly shares the tentacle bits with me since they're a tad graphic for her tastes and I'm a sucker for them (you see what I did there? I know you do.) My calamari eggplant parm is breaded and fried eggplant on top of a calamari steak -- tartly acidic from the tomato sauce, molten and creamy from the melted cheese, and the accompanying pesto penne adds a nice dry herbal note. I sadly don't see the pesto parmesan salmon that I totally love, but maybe that's on the dinner menu and this is lunchtime (though a later online search informs me that sadly it's not on the dinner menu either -- it's no longer offered. That's really too bad, as that was my favorite fish dining experience in recent memory.)
Dessert is a large wedge of olallieberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and dollop of whipped cream, turned into a work of art with raspberry and apricot sauces on a ceramic canvas. The pie is tart and sweet, which is exactly what you want from any olallieberry dish, and it's a nice ending for a great lunch. We dwell for a few minutes at our booth overlooking the bay and watch pelicans and a couple of seals having their own seafood lunches below us, then pick up a few cans of their clam chowder for my mom and Lucie's dad as we head out of the restaurant and back to Meg. Our bikes are untouched and I was probably overcautious, but better paranoid than sorry.
The drive back to San Jose is uneventful and at or above the speed limit the entire way, so we get home with a couple of hours to unpack and relax before heading to the gym -- even on our mini vacation, we want to meet up with our personal trainers and get our exercise in.
Okay, when did we become <I>those</I> people, who exercise on vacation?! When did that actually become something we would do on purpose?