Monterey magic
The Monterey Peninsula offers up spectacular scenery and countless opportunities for a family-friendly vacation you won’t soon forget.
By Margot Black

Of the few must-do U.S. trips that everyone should aim for in their lifetime, driving the spectacular California coast to the Monterey Peninsula should top the list. Located a little over an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, or four to five hours driving north from L.A., Monterey Peninsula makes you proud to be an American as its rugged beauty rivals that of any other coastline anywhere else in the world.

Passengers will forget their Blackberries, backseat videos or iPods when you drive the world famous 17 Mile Drive. Here, you’ll experience unforgettable coastline views spanning this road that winds through exclusive estates and the 8,000-acre Del Monte Forest. Scenic turnouts reveal breathtaking panoramas with picnic spots (pack a lunch – you’ve just got to stop here!) as well as views of the renowned Pebble Beach golf course.

Family-friendly Monterey Bay is a popular tourist spot and for good reason: it’s colorful, scenic and there’s a lot to do. Seaside Cannery Row, the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are all located right next to each other and while you’re walking from one to the other, you’ll probably see sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters playing nearby in the sea. On-the-water activities abound, such as sea kayaking, whale watching (seasonally Dec-April) and sailing, to keep nature enthusiasts entertained and delighted.

Quail Lodge Resort and Golf Club was our home during our stay in Monterey. Nestled on 850 acres in the heart of sunny Carmel Valley, Quail Lodge was the perfect mix of pampering, relaxation and outdoor activity for this family adventure. The grounds are spectacular, filled with wildlife, fragrant gardens and abundant natural beauty. It’s also home to a stunning 18-hole golf course that wanders along the lush banks of the Carmel River. It’s an alluring golf setting with great valley vistas and hawks flying above. Even the miniature golf course was stunning.

Families will find themselves welcome diners at Edgar’s, the lodge’s more casual dining choice with its delicious and creative eclectic California cuisine (complete with quail on the menu). A wide range of culinary indulgences tempts the taste buds, ranging from comfort food to please the kids, to elegant and delicious plates that will thrill the adults. Sports fans will love the place — it’s filled with a dozen flat-screen TVs, all tuned to … what else? Sports, of course!

Quail Lodge Resort recently introduced a unique service to guests: The Lifestyle Academy. A sheer stroke of genius, The Lifestyle Academy is designed to help guests create the type of experiential activities some people only dream of. You can choose from a huge array of activities including high-speed driving lessons at the renowned Laguna Seca Raceway, yacht sailing excursions, hang-gliding lessons or bonfires on the beach. Since we had just purchased a Land Rover, we chose the Land Rover Experience Driving School. My family’s biggest challenge was deciding what we wanted to do and then trying to fit it all in. Quail Lodge Resort, 8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel CA 93923, Tel: 888-828-8787.

The Land Rover Experience Driving School offers participants off-road instruction and I did mine in their flagship Range Rover. The courses are designed to introduce the concept of off-road driving techniques to both seasoned adventurers and curious novices for a truly memorable outdoor experience. The course takes place in the woods of the Quail Lodge property, with lots of ascents, descents, rock crawling and ditches. There were technical obstacles and a heart-in-my-throat descent — during which I actually begged the instructor to take the wheel and let me out. He wouldn’t. The instructor was reassuring, patient and capable and I learned a lot. Now, at least I know what a quarter of the buttons on my car do. The experience is designed to thrill and educate. I just hope I never wind up in a circumstance where I need to drive my way out of a ditch. But if I do, I’m certainly better prepared now.

Monterey is home to arguably the greatest aquarium in the world — it has to impress even the most sophisticated traveler. The design, the exhibits, and of course, the fish, are exquisite at every turn. There are over 350,000 sea-creatures inside this former cannery. With numerous interactive exhibits — this aquarium both entertains and educates — it’s one of the premier family attractions in the United States. It’s a Monterey must-do.

Its million-gallon tank hosts a spectacular array of marine life. The petting areas were surrounded by jubilant kids and adults, while the interactive film about fish in our dietary selections was one of the most effective, engaging and memorable interactive displays I have seen anywhere, ever. This aquarium experience exceeds the bounds of the written word — awesome, astounding, breathtaking all fall short of capturing the majesty of this place. No family should miss it. In one word — GO!

When people say a place is “family-friendly” they often mean they have high chairs and diaper-changing stations and then the friendliness ends there. Not so in the case of Bubba Gump Shrimp. The restaurant, menu and staff set the standard for family-friendly, they do it so well. In front of the entrance is a child-sized playground, appropriate for small kids, built on sand. The menu is appealing for adults, teenagers and kids. My favorite were the fruit-flavored smoothies with fun names like “Run Forest Run” served in take home glasses with moving lights. A toast with these moving lights turns even the most ho-hum meal into a celebratory occasion. Waiters offer trivia quizzes as they take orders. Somewhere along the line, even the most jaded teenager is sure to warm up to the vibe. And for the parents, the food offered adult-sized satisfaction (I recommend the Margaritas). In Monterey, we visited the Bubba Gump on Cannery Row, which is just two blocks from the aquarium. You can hit the aquarium, explore Cannery Row and dine at Bubba Gump Shrimp all in one day for the perfect family outing. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., 209 Avenida Fabricante, Second Floor, San Clemente, CA 92672.

Carmel is one of the most picturesque and charming communities in America. The town has character — the swank shopping district has traffic free alleys and courtyards that provide a European ambience. Meander in and out of stores and stop for a coffee in any one of the adorable courtyards. It’s a short walk from the town’s center to the beach. Many homeowners named their homes and have plaques commemorating their names on the front. It’s a fun, short (though steep) walk from the beach into town and a great opportunity to peek into a few front yards. The beach is big, has plenty of public restrooms and is great a place to throw a Frisbee or catch a sunset.

The Monterey Peninsula is an exquisite meeting of land and sea. The peninsula and its neighboring communities are a great place to unwind, embrace one of nature’s most majestic landscapes and enjoy a vacation meandering through towns and beaches, that will forever hold a place in your heart.

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Note: This trip was sponsored by the Monterey CVB.