Monday, September 29, 2014

Hidden Monterey ~ Moss Landing Beach

Of all of the hidden places I have found in the Monterey Bay area, Moss Landing Beach is the one I treasure the most. So I'm reluctant to share it with all of you because I do treasure these uncluttered, easy to access beaches. But they are too wonderful to keep to myself! (Don't forget to click on the small photos to see their larger versions!)

To get there you need to take Hwy 1 North towards Santa Cruz. You will pass the more crowded beaches while leaving Monterey like Marina or Seaside. Keep going. 
 You will start to see the Artichoke fields of Castroville. Take note! If you love artichokes this is the place to get them at the little fruit and vegetable stands leading into Moss Landing. 
You can get deep fried artichokes at many of the little stands along the way as well or pick up some fresh ones to take home with you.
When you get to the Marina you will see this very picturesque scene on your right. Even on a cloudy day this is gorgeous but on a sunny day with blue skies it is magical! Now look to your left and you'll find a wonderful hidden treasure:
The Whole Enchilada! Everyone will tell you go to Phil's. And yes, Phil's has some good seafood but The Whole Enchilada is the place to eat in Moss Landing. 

 Not only is it picturesque but the staff is amazing. We have met the owner and he's wonderful too! On one of our visits he was actually handing out "quick pick" lotto tickets as Thank You's to his clients! 
 There is seating inside and outside and, due to the fluctuating weather patterns, they do have propane heaters all over the patio so you can still enjoy dining outside. The inside is colorful, spacious and wonderful as well.
The kids were tickled when the drinks arrived and little mermaids were hanging off the edges! These became keepsakes that they still play with at home.
But the food is the crowning reason to go. I'm a Native Californian who grew up in SoCal so I know Californian Mexican food really well and this is some of the best we've ever had! 
You can see the menu HERE but I've fallen in love with the seafood flautas. I get them with the lobster sauce on the side. I could, seriously, drink the lobster sauce.  There are desserts but, to be honest, we've never had room for more food after we've finished our plates! 
Now pull back out onto Hwy 1 and head over the bridge to Jetty Road. Make a left onto Jetty Rd and go ALL the way to the end. There is a little parking lot there. Park in the lot and then walk past the iron gate car barrier. This will lead you to the jetty and to the beach. There are LOTS of access points along Jetty Rd but all of them require you to hike a dune. Don't fall for it unless you want a work out. If you go to the end you get an easy access....which is greatly appreciated if you are dragging kids and beach items to.
Your first glimpse of this beautiful beach will make you an instant fan. One of the things that makes this beach wonderful for families is that it's been formed with different "zones". For those kids who want nothing to do with the water but do want to play in the soft sand then you can stick near the dunes for them. For those who want the choice but still not too close to the water there is a wide strip of that too. And for those who love to play in the wet sand, make sand castles and dash in the edges of the surf without the danger of the swells then this is perfect for them too! It's about 60 feet from dune to foam with these wonderful choices for your family.
The other thing that is wonderful about this beach is that it never gets truly crowded. We were there on a holiday Sunday and it still wasn't crowded. The tourists stick to the Monterey, Marina and Seaside beaches or stop at one of the first Moss Landing beaches (which all have high dunes to climb over) instead of making their way down to Jetty Rd. 

 The wildlife is on of the main reasons I love this beach. Flocks of Brown Pelicans fly over head at regular intervals allowing you to get a good look at these huge birds.
 Jetty Rd is the entryway into the Sea Otter Estuary as well. So it's common for you to see these adorable looking animals playing or floating in the water here.
 We even got to see whales breaching from the shore the last time we were there! There are many types that visit the Monterey Bay so your chances of seeing them are good! 
 But the most fun was watching a small pod of dolphins play in the surf right off shore. Four of them swam along the coast for the entire time we were at the beach so even the kids got to enjoy the antics.
The most common animal to see there is one of the dozens of sea lions that live inside this little jetty area. They play in the surf, swim and play in the water between the two jetties and lounge on the dock by the Sea Harvest Fish Market restaurant. More on that later...for now...the beach!
Sea birds regularly play on these beaches. You will see everything from gulls, sandpipers, avocets, godwits (like these who were hunting for crabs in the sand) and more each time you visit. Since it's less crowded than other beaches the birds will brave the shoreline more frequently.
Central California waves are much smaller than those in some other places. During a storm they can get a bit bigger but they are usually only about 3-6 feet tall. Nothing close to the 20-30 ft monsters they get at Maverick's further up the coastline. 
When the surf is up there will be surfers! This is tons of fun to watch (tons of fun to do too and you CAN get lessons in the area so you can learn to surf too!) and the kids will love watching these guys catch the waves over and over again.
 Of course, if your kids are like mine, the real focus here is the sand and the shells. There are plenty to find on these beaches and lots of wet sand and fluffy dry sand to play in for the whole family.
When you head back to your car take a moment to look back over the marina to the green restaurant and check out the "rafts" of otters gathered here or there in the water. We have seen over 50 otters in the water here and I've been told that summer isn't even the best time of year to see them!
  Drive around to that green restaurant and park in the parking lot. The Sea Harvest is a wonderful place to grab a snack and enjoy the view from their back patio. 
 This is a great place to hop into a kayak as well. This is an affordable way to get more up close to the animals and enjoy the Elkhorn Slough.
The Sea Harvest Restaurant is also one of the places that does up an artichoke really well! I'm more of a "deep fried artichoke heart" kind of person but those who love the outside leaves of a roasted artichoke swear that this is the place to go to get one! I have to say they do look pretty yummy! If artichokes are not your thing we can testify that the garlic bread and garlic fries make a VERY yummy snack!

You can't possibly miss the sea lion dock when you are at the restaurant. One of our favorite places to stop off at, these funny animals never cease to entertain us all. 
And the babies will just steal your heart! Lounging, playing or just romping on Mom and Dad, they are just SO cute! 

 If you still haven't had enough beach, or you were wondering about the other beach on the other side of the jetty, you can go back to The Whole Enchilada, take a right and then another right at the bridge (this is Moss Landing Road to Sandholdt Rd) and drive to the end of the street. There is no formal parking there. Street parking only and very little of that. But the beach is easy to access and it's beautiful.
If the beach on the other side is not crowded then this one is nearly deserted because of the limited parking. This is the same beach that you can access behind Phil's Seafood Market so if you find parking more up that direction then you can still enjoy this beach. Pull up a chair and hang out for awhile, especially if you can see a sunset beginning to develop. 
 Particularly in Summer, a sunset isn't guaranteed. The marine layer comes in to the bay and the setting sun is usually smothered in all of that fog. But when you get a sunset it really is gorgeous! And here's a tip...take a flashlight. There are no lights out there, which helps you to enjoy the sunset but makes it really dark out on the sand after the last rays of light are gone.  As to the mysterious "Green Flash"? Yes, I've seen it. Once. All the more reason to be there before the sun sets and watch it all the way till after it disappears!

Next week we'll head out to San Juan Bautista to visit one of the many California Missions that dot the famous El Camino Real.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Hidden Monterey ~ The Monterey Bay Aquarium

Ok, so I know what you are probably thinking...the Aquarium? Hidden? Yeah...I don't think so. And to a large extent you are exactly right. I mean this is one of the most famous aquariums in the whole world right? The crown jewel of Monterey? THE attraction when you think of Monterey, right? But not many people are aware that the aquarium changes all of the time! (ps. don't forget to click on the little photos to see the full size version of them!)

Like an art gallery, the Monterey Bay Aquarium changes their exhibits in order to share new species from the ocean world. This means that each time you make your way to Monterey the chances will be good that the Aquarium has changed in some way and you will get to see something new!

Warning: The MBA is definitely a splurge. Adult tickets are $39.95, children 3-18 are $24.95 with kids under 3 free. The good news is that this aquarium is large enough that you will spend a good part of a day exploring and enjoying it so that makes it more worth the expense. There are some coupons out there but it's rare. A better way to save money on the aquarium is to book at a hotel that offers an "Aquarium Package". 

 Start out your day early so you can beat the crowds at the aquarium and for parking. So why not start with breakfast at a great hidden treasure? First Awakenings is, literally, one block from the Aquarium. There is street parking but you will want to bring your roll of quarters with you! We were lucky and found easy parking and happened to have some quarters on us. The cashier will sell you more but there's a limit so come prepared. 
 This is one of those places that if you didn't know it was there you would drive right on by it without even seeing it. From the street you can sort of see a sunken patio with some umbrellas but you may well miss the signs. So here's your tip...GO. It's a cute little diner with indoor and outdoor seating and amazing food!
 Seriously AH-mazing food! This Sonoran Frittata cost around $10 and included all of this food! (ps...I'm a coffee nut and the coffee is really good!)
 If pancakes or french toast are more your speed in the morning they have you covered! Their raisin bread french toast is incredible! And if you are looking for some healthier choices you will be able to find something there too. Just check out their menu HERE!

 After breakfast take the short, pretty, one block walk up to the Aquarium. 
 Right now the exhibit is "Tentacles" as well as the new "Jellies Experience". Huge blow up octopus legs wiggle in the wind over the top of the buildings. The kids loved it!
When we first started going to this aquarium 25 years ago there use to be a turnstyle and cashiers booth. Now there is a whole room with a queue because of how many visitors the MBA gets each year. We were there on a Thursday morning so there were no lines and it was quick and easy to enter this front door to the main lobby of the aquarium.
 Normally we head straight to the Jellyfish exhibit and the "blue room" but with this new exhibit we couldn't wait to see it!
 Obviously when you hear the word "tentacles" you think of an octopus. This little guy was in a circular tank and he took a liking to me. Every where I would walk he would follow. I kept trying to get a shot of the little shrimp guy but Mr. Octopus decided that this was HIS closeup instead!
 We had never seen a pink octopus before and this one seemed very content to ignore us and take a nap instead.
 But the cuttlefish stole our hearts! I don't know if they are cute or so ugly they are cute but either way we were totally charmed. I loved the zebra print design on their backs too.
We had never seen an Nautilus before and they were equally cool and creepy to us. Obviously they live in the darker parts of the ocean since the exhibit was lighted in a dark purple. Take the time to read some of the plaques around each exhibit, you can learn a lot!

 But, for us, the "Blue Room" has always been a place where we spend the most of our time at the aquarium. Every baby has simply adored it because it just glows!  And the jellyfish are just a magical.
The large tank is always crowded but, if you wait patiently, you can get up to the tank and get a great photo of these wonderful animals. My wish is that, someday, they will place benches in this part of the aquarium so I can just sit down and hang out here and watch the jellies float.
If you stand there long enough and really look at these natural marvels they will astound you. From the transparent domes to the curly tentacles they are truly something wonderful to watch.
 There are so many different types of Jellyfish in that area. They range from pinpoints to the large orange Pacific Jellies. The moon jellies are some of my very favorite. They look so delicate and their luminescence is amazing!
So, I imagine you can guess how much we love jellyfish so I'm pretty sure you can appreciate how happy we were to see the new exhibit: The Jellies Experience!
Even the lights in this exhibit are Jellyfish themed! There were a few pieces of "Jellyfish Art" in the rooms that we thought were very cool.

But the new jellyfish were the ones we were amazed with the most. We saw jellyfish from all over the world that we had never even heard of before! The white spotted jellies are about the size of you palm. They remind me of incredible alien spaceships floating in the water.
The blue spotted jellies were my biggest thrill. I didn't even know blue jellyfish existed! I must have taken 2 dozen frames just to make sure I got one of these gorgeous animals. Blue. BLUE!
 But that tank wasn't where the blue love affair ended. I stepped into the next room and found light blue jellies and dark blue jellies and BROWN jellies! Seriously! Just too cool.
 Have you ever seen so many different colors of jellyfish? Did you even KNOW there were these colors of jellyfish? Nope, me neither. 
And just when you are muttering to yourself or to each other "just too cool" you step into what we called the "Groovy" room! These cylinders look like huge Lava Lamps with their moon jellies floating from top to bottom and from bottom to top! So much fun!
 I've spent a good deal of time talking about the new exhibits because these are the ones that will change quickly. If you miss them at least you got to get a glimpse of them. However there are plenty of regular exhibits at the aquarium to enjoy like the Puffins! 
 In fact there is a whole section of the aquarium just for seabirds. You will see all types including sand pipers, avocets, curlews and Phalarope. This is one of our favorite parts of the aquarium. 
 There are a few very dark areas of the aquarium I wasn't able to capture for you this trip. I really don't like using flash and you can't use tripods in the aquarium so long exposures are not possible. But there are plenty of exhibits there to go see and benches to rest upon so you can soak it all up.
Being child-free this trip I didn't head up into Splash-Zone (people really don't like you photographing their kids anyway) but it's a great place where there are toys and water and even penguins for your kids to enjoy. Then head back downstairs and enjoy the anemones!
 The inside isn't the only attraction here. There are all sorts of sights to see outside on the decks as well. This gravity defying seal was all too happy to soak up the sun and our adoring attention!
The main deck has bench seating and they have scheduled shows that will teach you about the otters and the ocean environment. Even when a demonstration isn't going on this makes for a great place to soak up the wonderful Monterey weather and views.
Back inside you will find the huge whale sculptures on the ceiling and the sea otter tanks. This isn't the best place in Monterey to see the otters but it is probably the closest you will get to them. Unfortunately the tanks are pretty well water splashed so you may not get as clear of a look as you had hoped. Stick with this series and next week I'll take you someplace where you can see the otters up close in the wild.

When you are all done at the Aquarium head on up the street toward Hwy 1 and stop in at Layers for a snack. This is the best bakery we have found in the area. Let me put it this way...I'm a professional custom cake designer and this is where I went to get our wedding cake.  Yes, it's that good.
If you are very lucky they will have one of their "Princess Cakes" as their "cutting cake" of the day. If they do, grab a slice! It's amazing. No, seriously, AHHH-mazing. Not that we've ever had anything bad here but, well, Princess Cake is THE cake. If you can't get a piece of Princess Cake there will plenty of this "Baby Cake". Lemony goodness that just melts in the mouth. Oh, and the coffee is great here too!

Next week we are heading outdoors to see the wildlife of Moss Landing. We'll have a great bite to eat too but it's all about the Sea Otter Estuary there!