Vacation in Carmel: Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing, and Pacific Grove

Seagull on Monterey BayWhile hiking in Point Lobos, we asked one of the docents where we might be able to get good views of sea otters. She recommended a place called Elkhorn Slough, which she likened to an otter retirement community.

We drove around to the southern side of Monterey Bay to Moss Landing, and managed to find Elkhorn Slough with only a few misadventures.

I was absolutely delighted by the variety of marine wildlife here. There were at least a dozen sea otters, just paddling around in the water. It was particularly fun to watch a couple of them paddle (backward) approximately the length of a football field. The sea otters in Monterey Bay Aquarium don’t have that kind of space!

Just a few hundred yards away was a little beach that was being entirely monopolized by a colony of seals. There must have been several dozen hanging out on the beach, and a few of them playing and swimming in the water. They were almost as much fun to watch, though a little harder to see.

We walked around on the beach and enjoyed watching the numerous species of sea birds, as well as the waves crashing on the beach. It wasn’t particularly sunny, though, and it was a bit windy and chilly, so we didn’t want to bask on the sand.

Before we left, we drove to the other side of the inlet and watched the sea lions that had taken over a dock. There must have been about a hundred of them. They’re always so entertaining on a dock – they’re rolling over each other, grunting, etc. But it was really gratifying to watch them in the water – while clumsy out of the water, they’re really quite graceful when they’re swimming and playing in the water.

I really wanted to go kayaking today, and we really should have gone kayaking here. We would have been able to get an even more eye-level experience with the marine wildlife. We ended up not going kayaking at all, because the weather was so uninviting.

For lunch, we found a mom-and-pop diner called Moss Landing Cafe. It was very chill, pretty cheap, and the food was good (and filling!).

After that, we somehow ended up driving around the Monterey peninsula, and stopped at a few points in Pacific Grove. We saw cormorants, a couple of lone seals, and numerous Marine biologists. A pair of them were tracking a sea otter; another was a guy sitting with his dog in his pickup/office.

Then – the best part! – we saw dolphins out in the water! Maybe they were porpoises – we’re not experts. But it was still pretty cool to watch the pod make its way around the point of the peninsula, then disappear.

Vacation in Carmel: Big Sur

Today our aim was to spend some time down the coast in Big Sur.

Bixby Creek BridgeWe got in the car and drove down Route 1. It was so typical – sometimes completely foggy (10-20 feet visibility), sometimes bright and sunny, and everything in between.

We got to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to find it warm and sunny. We had a picnic by the Big Sur River, which would have been really peaceful if there weren’t construction workers building a bridge as a park improvement, mere feet from where we were sitting.

The hike I really wanted to do was partially closed, so instead we did the Buzzard’s Roost hike. It started out along the Big Sur River, lush with redwoods, and climbed for a couple of miles. Then, the flora changes very suddenly, and we were surrounded by manzanita (one of my favorites). Fortunately the day was sunny and clear (kinda hot, actually!), so we were able to see the ocean from the top of the trail. The peak wasn’t otherwise scenic, though – the apex featured a small building with a large antenna on top.

We headed back down, and I played in the river just a bit. I wished I had brought my Tevas – then I really would have spent some time in the water.

We drove over to the pat of the park that featured the biggest redwood tree in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the Colonial Tree. We found it to be somewhat underwhelming.

As we left the park, Dave suggested that we check out Pfeiffer Beach. It wasn’t until we got there that we realized that it wasn’t part of the State Park system, so we had to pay another fee (to the U.S. Forestry Service). We made our donation to the federal government, and thankfully were able to get a parking spot.

Whereas it had been very warm just a mile inland, it was chilly and VERY windy on the beach. I was shocked at the people who were sunbathing, and the children playing in the cold Pacific water. The sand was beautiful, but the winds were extreme. There was a cove with some really cool rocks, though, making really interesting breaking waves and tidepools.

As we headed back to Carmel, we took the advice of AAA magazine and checked out a couple of little spots in the Big Sur area. We stopped at a place called Nepenthe, intending to get coffee at Cafe Kevah. Unfortunately, it was closed, but the shop there was open, so we poked around just a bit.

Then we found the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, not quite hidden behind a (quaint but very expensive) Shell station. We got cafe mochas, sat on the patio, and watched the cars go by. Very relaxing way to wrap up our Big Sur experience!

Vacation in Carmel: Monterey

Today we planned to hang out in Monterey for the whole day and see the sights.

One of the perks of the Degenkolb cabin is two (free!) passes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Very exciting – saved us $70!

Monterey Bay AquariumThe trip to Monterey from the Carmel cabin is only about 20 minutes… and we liked it so much we did it twice. (Sarcasm.) We got into the parking garage, paid, and *then* realized that we had left the passes in the cabin. Fortunately the garage was slow, and the guy was nice to us – officially, there are no “in and out” privileges. But, he let us go back, pick up the passes, and come back into the garage without paying twice.

Once in, the Monterey Bay Aquarium was delightful. We gazed at the sea otters for a bit, then headed to the special exhibit called “Jellies!!” It was super – really well designed, fun, and had a lot of different, cool jellyfish. We also enjoyed the “Secret Lives of Seahorses” and then sat for a while staring at the “open sea” exhibit.

At this point it was getting to be lunchtime, so we left the Aquarium and tried out the Cannery Row Brewing Company. It was pretty much what we expected – no complaints.

We headed back to the Aquarium, and saw a few more exhibits. It’s really an awesome aquarium – even better than I remembered it being, the last time I was there (which was third grade!).

By mid afternoon, though, we started to bonk. We left the aquarium and wandered up and down Cannery Row for a bit. We asked ourselves why we were there, when we could have pretty much the exact same experience by going to Pier 39 at home.

For a time out, we headed to the next town over for some Big Box shopping (Target, Kohl’s, etc) – always a treat for us city folk.

We drove back to Cannery Row and found a really great parking spot. We realized just then that it was sunset… so we really should have driven to the west side of the peninsula to see it, before parking and going to dinner. The timing didn’t work out well, though, so instead we tried power-walking in the direction of the sun, to try to catch a good sunset photo. I’m not sure how successful we were, but it was an adventure.

While at the aquarium, we learned a lot about sustainable fishing, which nudged me to ask at the Info Desk where we might find a restaurant that serves sustainably sourced fish. We were pointed toward a place called Fish Hopper, just a couple of blocks away on Cannery Row. It was pretty touristy, and a little overpriced for the quality, but we had a good time anyway.

Vacation in Carmel: Point Lobos

Point LobosWe were told by numerous friends that no trip to Carmel is complete without spending time at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. We were happy to include it in our itinerary. It is a mere 3-4 miles from where we are staying, so it was easy.

Upon entering the park, we drove to the closest picnic spot, at Cannery Point. Pulling up to the parking lot, I looked into the cove and noticed people in the water! I wasn’t prepared for the idea that this would be a scuba diving spot – yet, apparently, it is.

We pulled out our picnic lunch and sat at a table facing the cove. The day had been unexpectedly sunny and clear so far. However, as we ate, we watched a light mist form over the cove, which became more and more solid over the course of twenty minutes.

By the time we were ready to hit the trail, the entire park was encased in fog. I was a little worried at first, because we hadn’t brought jackets or sweatshirts (in fact, Dave was wearing shorts), but as long as we kept moving along during our hike, it wasn’t really cold.

A sign at the beginning of the trail alerted us to the abundant presence of my arch-nemesis: poison oak. I was careful not to touch ANYTHING while I was there. I wish I could have found a way not to breathe, so as not to inhale any of that evil urushiol.

Vacation in Carmel: San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission

Carmel Mission is about a mile from where we’re staying, so it was very easy to get there. We found it easily and parked in the lot in front. For a Monday, it was a little bit busy, but not too bad.

This was the second mission in Alta California, founded by Junipero Serra. It’s historically significant because it was basically Fr. Serra’s headquarters while he founded several other missions up and down the California Coast.

Upon paying the the entrance fee, we were given a handout with a map and told to follow the dotted lines on the map. Visitors are first directed into a small, slightly overgrown but lovely garden. Dave and I sat and read the two-page history as explained in the handout before we proceeded.

That’s where I found this gem of a sentence: “The Indian’s [sic] lack of natural immunity to European diseases caused many illnesses and deaths.” Isn’t colonialism fun?

We entered the basilica and the small rooms found just off the main sanctuary. The mission is a restoration (i.e., not original), but the interior is in good condition and period-appropriate.

It was upon leaving the sanctuary that we discovered that the woman selling admission really should have given more direction. The dotted line on the map directs visitors through the cemetery to the side of the building. However, construction on three sides of the building prohibit entry to the cemetery. I’m glad to see they’re doing some structural restoration; however, it would be so easy to alert visitors to the changes before sending them on the self-guided tour.

Dave and I deviated from the dotted-line tour and found ourselves poking around the courtyard on the other side of the basilica, enclosed by the school buildings. It was a lovely courtyard, and would have been quite peaceful if not for the very loud noises produced by a chipper machine being run behind the building.

It turns out that 12 noon is a nice time to be at a mission. We got a chance to hear the bells strike the midday hour. It was loud but it was fun to hear and watch.

There are a few rooms of museum on the way out which are set up to show what life was like at the mission when it was in its heyday. It includes “California’s first library“.

The tour ends, as all good tours do, in the gift shop. Mission gift shops are a uniquely distasteful combination of commercialism and religious fervor. We poked around for a few minutes just to be polite, then headed out.

Vacation in Carmel: Dinner at Andre’s Bouchée

We decided that Monday evening would be our romantic dinner out. At a friend’s recommendation, we made a reservation at Andre’s Bouchée Bistro and Wine Bar.

The dinner was quite delicious, and the service was excellent. I certainly recommend it.

Our main entertainment came from the couple next to us, who were obviously from the NY/NJ area. The woman was a little too friendly, and spent most of the time chatting with the folks at the table on the other side of us. (I think she tried to engage us once or twice, but since we didn’t really reciprocate, I think she probably thought we were a lost cause.) She sounded just like Fran Drescher from “The Nanny”. Also, it was a French restaurant, and she kept saying, “Gracias.”

Toward the end of the meal, I accidentally knocked an empty wine glass to the floor. It made a rather musical sound, but of course shattered all over the ground. The staff were really nice about it.

The couple on the other side of us were much quieter, but I overheard them telling the server that they were from Texas. The couple from the East Coast had already left when the Texan couple got up to leave. The woman made some not unkind comment about my wine glass, and I said, “Well, at least it was a lovely sound.” And she said, “It wasn’t as loud as some people,” gesturing with her eyeballs to the table on the other side of us. How I love catty Texan women!