Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by Jaymie who is an expert on beautiful Monterey. She is a friend of Heather’s from their overseas adventure and is sharing her talent and passion for exploring where she lives with the MilMomAdventures crew – and now with all of you!
The gorgeous Central California Coastline known as the Monterey Peninsula is one of California’s best places to visit. Not quite Nor Cal, but certainly no longer So Cal. It is a mixture of surreal scenic coastline, forest and redwoods, vineyards and farmland. While living in California, it is one place that you must absolutely visit! What you may not know about Monterey, is that it is home to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS)and Defense Language Institute (DLI). Both schools are full of service members from around the world who call Monterey and the surrounding area home. For those of us that get the honor of calling Monterey home for the short window of time, one of the best features of the area is the Aquarium- and most of us have Annual Memberships because it’s just that good!
Perched over Cannery Row, overlooking the Monterey Bay sits the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This world famous aquarium draws in 2 million visitors annually with its coastal creatures, impressive architecture and conservation efforts. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation was founded in 1978 by the Packard Family, and since they have been at the forefront of ocean research and education, aquatic wildlife conservation and pollution prevention. They are famous for their Seafood Watch App which is the best sustainable seafood guide. When you support the Aquarium with your visit, you’re not only having a spectacular day, but you are also contributing to science and protecting our ocean for future generations! The unique part about that Aquarium is that it is staffed by over 1,200 volunteers (with jobs ranging from cleaning the fish tanks in full scuba gear, or teaching the toddlers how to safely handle a hermit crab) in addition to the paid employees. The volunteers and staff are wonderful, and we appreciate their friendly faces!
Planning your Visit
The Aquarium experiences busy summer months, so the best time of year to visit is during the Fall or Winter seasons (with the exception of the Holidays). Monterey stays about 57 degrees year round, so layers are important when you visit! Picture SoCal June gloom that lasts most of the year, but thankfully the sun shines in the afternoon. During the busy months, the best time to go is midweek, and the last few hours of the day because the school field trips and most tourists have called it quits. Our family loves to go around 3pm- closing, the hours change daily (which reminds me, make sure you download their App so you can keep an eye on the hours and any special events they may be hosting). During the summer time they have extended hours staying open later which is even better! They also have a lot of Member Only events monthly and weekly during the summer which are a lot of fun- complete with live music and gourmet food and wine for their summer series! We really try to avoid going the first half of the day, ESPECIALLY on weekends, as we made that rookie mistake the first time we took the kids in the summer. There is nothing fun about pushing around 3 kids when you’re nose to nose with strangers!
Once you figure out the time of year you would like to visit, reach out to any of your friends or past coworkers that might be stationed in Monterey! Like I said, most of us have the Ocean Advocate Family Passes that come with 2 Guest Passes- meaning you can borrow those the for the day to get in free! We are always happy to share them with visiting friends.
Fun for the kid in all of us
Aside from seeing all the amazing sea life and animals, the best part of being at the Aquarium is that it is truly an engaging and interactive, hands on experience! Our kids have gone at least a dozen times over the past year and they love it more with each visit. Every exhibit is kid-friendly and the interactive stations are everywhere, but there are huge sections entirely tailored to the little ones. There is even a designated play area upstairs for babies, one for toddlers, and little kids, with touch pools both upstairs and down. If you like the more structured day, use the App to plan your day around the official schedule for feedings and education here.
They are incorporating more touch-screen activities for the kids, so if you see a screen, let your kid touch and explore, because there are often games associated with it like the one pictured. The kids can color their fish and then watch it come to life and swim on the big screen! The website even has activities for the entire family that can be downloaded here.
If you are feeling REALLY adventurous, you can see the list of Tours offered, as well as sign up for a Sleepover at the Aquarium! This is not a drill- you and your 5 year old can actually SLEEPOVER at the Aquarium for real! Who doesn’t want to stay up all night watching the fish swim, and then wake up and have breakfast and a full day at the Aquarium? Any little Marine Biologist in the making would flip over the chance to do that!
Located in the historic Cannery Row (old canning district) of Monterey, it is heavily populated with tourists and tourist type of shops and places to eat. There are a handful of ways to get to the aquarium, you can even take the Trolley! I have got to be honest here, though it seems like a Daniel Tiger Trolley would be loads of fun with the kids, if you are using a stroller, I do NOT recommend this! We did it once and it took us about an hour to get there with all the stops and loading and unloading.
Parking is $15 to park in the big structure closest to the Aquarium, or you can take a gamble finding metered street parking. Lastly, you can park along the water heading towards Pacific Grove where there are some spaces that are free but few and far between and will require a good bit of walking. This is where being a ‘local tourist’ comes in handy- we have a parking pass that we pay $10 for annually that gives us a few hours free in the parking structure, and if you have a local ID you can park in the structure totally free after 4pm.
My vote is to factor that $15 into your vacation and save yourself the headache of finding a parking space elsewhere!
Where to stay
This great part about there being military facilities in Monterey is that it means there is a TLF for you to stay at here! We actually have 3 TLF’s you can stay at:
- Army lodging on Presidio of Monterey(POM), which is located closer to Old Town Monterey and Cannery Row. This is the closest to DLI. It is older than the other 2 Navy TLF’s.
- The Navy Lodge located about a mile away from NPS. The lodge is awesome! We lived there for 2+ weeks when we moved here. They’re all mini suites and suites which means there is a fridge, range, microwave, kitchen utensils and cookware. There is also a little playground just outside the first floor and laundry facilities. They even have a free little breakfast in the morning that you can get cereal, snack bars, bagels or hard boiled eggs. Overall, it’s a great value and the rooms are clean and spacious. This is the most family friendly of all the TLF in Monterey. (Also Pet friendly rooms here, too)!
- The Historic Del Monte (Navy Gateway Inns & Suites) Hotel on NPS. This hotel is beautiful and rich in history. We had the pleasure of staying here overnight in the one of the brand new rooms which were renovated last October. It is a little more fancy and a little more strict (think of it as a real hotel and not just a stop on the PCS chain gang) than the Lodge. I think if we were visiting for fun, I would opt to stay here, though they don’t have as many kid amenities as the Lodge. If you do decide to book the Del Monte, make sure you request a new room! Pets also welcome here, but do ask when you make your reservation!
While you can use a military discount at the door for the Active Duty member, it’s best to buy them ahead of time if you can!
Kids under 3 are free!
And remember when I said about asking your friends who are stationed here if they are members, there is a high likelihood someone would gladly loan out their guest passes for you to use to save you a few bucks!
What to Eat
There are 2 restaurants and a coffee shop (yay, tired parents rejoice!) inside the actual Aquarium. One is a self-serve cafe with quick bites, while the other is seated dining with more upscale choices. Both are kid friendly and have kid menus. All the food I’ve ever had at the Aquarium was really good (not like the cardboard pizzas at most theme parks!). Though, I will say it is more typical zoo prices on the food and drinks. They offer a lot of organic food and drink, and of course, sustainable seafood! Did I mention the sit-down restaurant has local beer and wine?
Typically, we bring in our own snacks and lunch, drinks and water into the aquarium to save on time and money. No one has ever asked to check any of our bags, either.
There are a ton of places to eat after the Aquarium throughout Cannery Row. If we are feeling brave, we will hit up the El Torito for a quick Happy Hour in the bar (kids welcome). Usually, our kids are starving, tired and ready for bed when we get done since it’s dinnertime, so we head about 15 minutes to In-N-Out for a quick drive-thru dinner! Did I mention there aren’t a ton of drive thru’s or fast food in Monterey? We have a few scattered throughout- but the best (and least expensive) is always In-n-Out!
Hidden favorites for the littles
There is so much to do and see at every corner, exhibit and attraction- so make sure you let your kids stop and explore the areas that are the most intriguing to them. My kids absolutely love Viva Baja right now! Of course the world famous Sea Otters are always a must see, too. We spend at least 20 minutes in each touch pool looking for anything that might be hiding under the seaweed!