Sunday, November 30, 2008

Monterey Bay Inn Makes Good

While my recent stay at the Monterey Bay Inn was not completely terrible, it was also not completely wonderful. One thing that is nice about the hotel is that they send you a survey after your stay...and now I know that the ratings and comments are actually reviewed.

I received a letter the other day from the GM of the parent company of the Monterey Bay Inn, the Inns of Monterey. The letter expressed regret over not meeting my expectations nor in the hotel meeting the standards they are capable of meeting. The letter also offered me a credit of $150 for a future stay at one of the Inns of Monterey properties. I was impressed by this, as certainly did not expect this kind of response to my comments.

I've stayed at the Monterey Bay Inn at least three other times and this was the only stay I was not completely satisfied with. While I will probably stay at another hotel on my next visit to Monterey, it will still probably be one of the Inns of Monterey properties. So, next time you get a survey following up on a stay somewhere, fill it out...good or bad. The hotels do read them and respond when needed.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Golden Gate Park

Conservatory of the Flowers

Dutch Windmill

The end of Golden Gate the ocean. The Cliff House is in the distance.

Okay, so I've been to Golden Gate Park several times. However, this is the first time I really and truly realized just how big of a park it is and how many different things are encompassed in the park. First of all, I didn't actually realize that the edge of the park was the Great Highway, which is the road running along the ocean. Nor, did I realize that when I was looking at the map of Golden Gate Park trying to figure out how to get to the Dutch Windmill that I was looking at the map completely wrong. It took me a while to figure out that we went the wrong way, but ended up in the right place...even though I was looking at the wrong half of the map...we weren't there yet. If that sounds confusing, it is probably because it is...due to the size of Golden Gate Park.

I highly recommend visiting some of the many activities and sites encompassed within the park. Definitely get a map. A detailed map, if possible. I purchased a map at the Conservatory of the was helpful, but didn't include all of the many pathways in the park.

However, we (the boyfriend and I) were able to get from the Conservatory of the Flowers to the California Academy of Sciences and back using the map. The to and from were by different paths, but we managed not to get lost.

The Conservatory of the Flowers has a nice exhibit of plants in varying climates...most more tropical than it ever gets in San Francisco. I will say that the temperature of a couple rooms reminded me greatly of July or August in Cincinnati. There are also many flowers to look at outside the Conservatory. The cost to get in is $5.00 per adult, but is free to everyone on the first Tuesday of every month (the Conservatory is closed on Mondays). The flowers were beautiful...I will have another post with just flowers from the Conservatory.

Besides the Conservatory, Golden Gate Park is home to a beautiful botanical garden that is quite large and has a variety of plants for all seasons. The San Francisco Botanical Garden has an entrance across from the Japanese Tea Garden. There are daily, free, docent led tours. However, if you just want to wander amongst the various gardens, there is much to look at and many places to enjoy a break or to people watch.

This time I got to see the Buffalo Paddock, although it was too muddy to go around it too much. I also got to see the Dutch Windmill which had some flowers in the garden, although not in the tulip garden as it was October, not March. The Dutch Windmill is situated towards the edge of Golden Gate Park approaching the Great Highway. I also visited the California Academy of Sciences, which just re-opened after several years of being under renovation.

The California Academy of Sciences
houses both the Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium. It also is newly equipped with a spectacular living roof. The Planetarium requires timed tickets, but doesn't cost extra from your admission. A quick tip for getting tickets to the Academy, especially on the weekend...use the self serve ticket kiosks below the steps to the museum.

If you're hungry, the Academy has a great restaurant with a variety of food selections. Prices are typically high, as is the case with most food purchased at a museum; however, the food was fresh and very good. The day that we went to the Academy, the restaurant was crowded and there wasn't enough seating for everyone purchasing food. I found the food station set-up to be a little disorganized. It was hard to tell where you should go and if there was a line or what the lines were for, it made for quite a bit of chaos. The register lines were just as doesn't seem as if they made enough spaced for the register lines to not mix in with the food station lines. And, they definitely need to add more seating. We were there on a weekday...I can't even begin to imagine the chaos of a weekend.

Other activities in Golden Gate Park include the deYoung Museum (they currently have an Yves St. Laurent exhibit that I want to see), the Japanese Tea Garden, the various gardens and lakes, and the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet, a history center and restaurant off the Great Highway at the edge of the park. Besides these specific activities, there are many places for picnics, sports activities, gentle strolls, or leisurely people watching.

Definitely check out Golden Gate Park and its many activities.

Dining in Monterey

There are many great places to dine in Monterey, especially if you like seafood. However, there are all kinds of cuisines depending on your locale. Some of my favorite dining spots are:

Exterior of the Fish Hopper, located on Cannery Row in Monterey.

The fish and chips from the Fish Hopper.

Grilled salmon sandwich from the Fish Hopper.

The Fish Hopper on Cannery Row provides a great selection of seafood at reasonable prices. The service here is always excellent, as is the food. The view is also highly recommended as it is overlooking the water.

Schooners Bistro on the Bay at the Monterey Bay Plaza Hotel & Spa is more of a sports bar with great food, as it has the requisite TVs tuned to various sporting endeavors; as the name implies, however, there is a sailing theme to the decor. The food is quite good and the prices reasonable. There is also an outdoor heated terrace for those cool Monterey nights. They have excellent seafood selections and I really like the "Grilled Castroville Artichoke" appetizer.

Ambrosia India Bistro is located in the middle Old Monterey. It is an excellent choice if you are looking for something other than seafood. The food is excellent, as is the service. They have a festively decorated outdoor dining area, as well as a cozy dining room inside. The have a lunch buffet daily, including a champagne buffet on the weekend. I ate here for dinner and enjoyed every dish I ordered, especially the Vegetable Pakora vegetarian appetizer. Obviously, if you are looking for vegetarian fare, Indian food is always a safe bet.

These above are just some of my favorite places. There are also many other good dining options, such as the Chart House (high end steak and seafood chain), El Torito Mexican Restaurant & Cantina (good Mexican food, inexpensive prices), and a variety of other good places.

One not be lured into going to the "world famous" Sardine Factory. The food is bad and the service worse. My boyfriend and I spent almost $200 on what was supposed to be a nice, romantic dinner. The food was not good and way too expensive for the quality. My boyfriend ordered the filet and lobster. The lobster was rubbery and the filet, which he ordered medium rare, looked like a charcoal briquette. The waiter played least in sight and when he was around, wasn't to the level of service he should have been at this type of restaurant. So, while you may be tempted to try the Sardine Factory...don't.

In fact, our dining experience at the Sardine Factory was so bad I wrote a letter of complaint. The restaurant wrote a letter of apology and sent me a $50 gift card. However, this card will never be used, as our experience was that bad. Not even free money is worth a return visit.

(Post revised 1/12/09 with photos.)

Big Sur

Big Sur is on the Central Coast located south of the Monterey Peninsula on Highway 1. The first time I tried to go to Big Sur, the drive was completely enshrouded in fog and nothing could be seen on either side of the road. Since the fog didn't seem to be lifting at all, we turned around at the Bixby Bridge.

I'm glad that we made it back for a second attempt at Big Sur. There was some fog this time, but nothing like there was could see the beautiful scenery located on both sides of the highway. The fog was mostly located off the coast hiding most of the ocean from view and there was some in the hills, but what I could see was quite impressive! I had no idea that the mountains were so close to the ocean. The Santa Lucia Mountains rise high on the inland side of the road, while the ocean side of the road is nothing but steep cliffs in many places. This makes for a somewhat harrowing, yet magnificent drive.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Things to do in Monterey Redux

Besides the typical tourist things to do there are more outdoor related activities. This time we were able to drive down Highway 1 and actually see a little bit of scenery as the fog wasn't as heavy as the first time we made the attempt.

One of the great places we stumbled upon as we drove down Highway 1 was the Point Lobos State Reserve located south of Carmel. The cost to enter is $10.00 per car. The scenery was more than worth the price of admission. The reserve is a beautiful and interesting place. There are a number of hiking trails of varying lengths and activity level. My favorite places at Point Lobos were the ones bordering the ocean.

Besides hiking the trails, you can also enjoy water-based activities in designated areas. Much of the reserve is underwater, so if you are a diver, you will get to see more than the average tourist.

There are some great tidal pools to look at. When we were exploring the tidal pools we saw some spots were salt had accumulated from the sea water evaporating.
Besides exploring places like Point Lobos and other scenic spots. You can also enjoy outdoor pastimes, such as golfing, boating, kayaking, diving, horseback riding, and more at various venues throughout the area. I'm not really into too many outdoor activities, besides taking pictures and admiring the scenery. Walking is really the extent of what I like to do, although I wouldn't mind cycling, as long as I didn't have to pedal up a mountain. I am a big fan of the driving tour, getting out occassionally to explore...there are lots of places to go by car and beautiful scenery abounds. If you do get tired of the outdoors, you can go shopping or to see a movie.

In Monterey along Cannery Row, there is now an IMAX 3D theater. We didn't go, but this is a new attraction. There's a regular movie theater at the Del Monte Center, the shopping mall in Monterey.

If you get tired of the boutiques and tourist shops, you can get your fix of regular mall retail at the Del Monte Center, located off Munras Avenue (the main drag). If you do like going to small shops then you might want to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is full of high end boutiques or Pacific Grove, which has a main strip of small shops on Lighthouse Avenue. I like to visit A Nyche in Time, which is a shop in Pacific Grove that sells new and estate jewelry at bargain prices. Since I make jewelry, I like to look at the gemstone pieces the store offers; the last time I visited I saw that they now feature jewelry made by area artists. Monterey itself also offers a number of small shops outside of the tourist strip. More shopping, especially chain stores, can be found in the nearby communities of Seaside, Sand City, and Marina.

The area surrounding Monterey is also known for a number of wineries, many of which offer tours. Monterey even has a Wine Trolley, which takes you on a wine tasting tour of some area wineries. I'm not into wine myself, so probably wouldn't do this, but I do find wine making fascinating. If I can find a good tour of a winery that really educates you about the wine making process, I will probably do that one day...I'll be sure to report on it. Other area tours include various walking tours, including a ghost walk; a ghost trolley tour, and the Monterey Movie Tour, which takes you to various locations made famous by a number of films shot in the area.

And, after all of the shopping and activities, you'll need some relaxation time and pampering. The Monterey area offers plenty spa choices. If you are staying at the Monterey Bay Inn or one of their sister establishments, you can even get some in-room spa services. Also located on Cannery Row is the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa which is located on the top floor of the hotel and features and outdoor sun deck.

Believe me, there is plenty to do on the Monterey Peninsula, you'll have a great time and won't be go!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Back in Monterey - Monterey Bay Inn

My visit to Monterey this time was both good and bad. The Monterey Bay Inn room was still it's usual comfortable room with a view, but this time the balcony was a smaller...which I did not realize. The ocean view rooms have two different sized balconies. The rooms in the middle (three) have large balconies with iron railing going to the bottom of the deck, but the ones on the end (two, one on each side) have a wall with a short iron railing on top; these balconies are much smaller. I prefer the large balcony as it is roomier and not as closed in feeling, plus I can lay in bed and see more of the ocean. However, the room itself was still comfortable. My only complaint about the room besides the balcony was that the people in the room above (I was on the third floor) sounded like a constantly moving heard of elephants. It was very annoying. If I stay at the MBI again, I will try for a fourth floor room. Although, I think for my next visit to Monterey I will book a room at the Spindrift Inn, further down Cannery Row. It is a sister hotel to the Monterey Bay Inn. My boyfriend and I checked out one of the ocean view rooms at the Spindrift and found it to be quite large and comfortable. While these rooms don't have balconies, the are right over a small beach and have window seats with windows that open. The theme of this hotel is cozy Victorian.


Sausalito is a small town on San Francisco Bay that I've been wanting to go to for several years. This time I finally made it. It is a cute, quaint little town that is filled with boutiques, bars, and restaurants. The houses are all built up the hillside, with a few at ground level across from the Bay. The streets are steep, as is the price of the real estate, but the views are worth it. This is a good town for walking or biking.

You can either drive over the Golden Gate Bridge (take the first exit) or take the ferry from San Francisco (either from Fisherman's Wharf or the ferry terminal) in order to reach Sausalito. From San Francisco you can also bike over the bridge either on your own or on a guided bike tour with Bay City Bike.

While in Sausalito my boyfriend and I stopped at The Spinnaker for drinks and a shrimp cocktail. The Spinnaker is located on the bay (built out on piers) with floor to ceiling windows and a panoramic view. We then walked back to the main street of town and checked out some of the shops. The shops range from typical tourist type shops to high end art galleries. Then we each got an ice cream waffle cone from Lappert's, a small, premium ice cream was some of the best ice cream I've ever had. There are many dining and drinking options in come hungry and thirsty! There are also several hotels you can stay at in town...I plan to stay at one of them on my next trip to California.

The Marin Headlands

The Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, provides spectacular views of the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco, as well as the surrounding landscape. During the day, there are paths and roads to walk, climb, bike, and drive. Besides the breathtaking views, the park also contains an active lighthouse (Point Bonita Lighthouse), the NIKE Missile Site, historic forts, and a visitor center on the land side (as opposed to the ocean side) located in the historic Fort Barry Chapel. You can drive a short way up the hillside or all around the this link for a map of the area (National Park Service Marin Headlands Map).

If you plan to get out of the car and do any kind of waking or climbing to take advantage of the views, make sure you have decent walking shoes on and that you are prepared to get dirty. There is a lot of red tinged earth and if it is dry, it is VERY dusty. If it is wet, it will be muddy as most of the walking areas are not paved. If you are ambitious, you can walk down the steep hillside to reach the beach areas; there is also a more accessible dog friendly beach further out the headlands. Be careful in the area when on the walking trails as there could be poison oak or other natural hazards, including coyotes or snakes.

At night there are great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the brightly lit city skyline. If you go to the lookout spots at night, make sure you bring a flashlight as there are no lights in these places and the pathways are uneven and potentially treacherous. The view, however, is definitely worth it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tomorrow is Day One

Tomorrow marks the first day of my latest trip to California. I will be taking lots of pics, gathering lots of information, and will have many new tips to post when I return. Look for more updates in November.

I am looking forward to the trip as the weather will be perfect and there are so many new things to see and do. I know I don't have enough time to cover everything I want to, but I certainly am hoping to have many new adventures to report.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Things to Do in Monterey

The 17 Mile Drive is a scenic drive in the Monterey area. You enter through the gate in Pacific Grove and pay a per car fee. The drive is well marked and provides many photo ops. The drive takes you by the famous Pebble Beach golf course and by some impressive mansions. One of the spots of interest is the "Lone Cypress" (pictured above), the official symbol of Pebble Creek.

Cannery Row is the locale made famous by John Steinbeck's novel of the same name. Today it is a bustling tourist strip in Monterey anchored at one end by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Cannery Row is home to a variety of shops, hotels, and restaurants. It is also home to the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum, a dusty exhibit documenting the history of Monterey from the Spanish settlers up to the time of John Steinbeck. This definitely qualifies as one of the cheesiest exhibits I've ever seen. It takes less than half an hour to see and might be worth it if you have nothing else to do, otherwise I would skip it. Other activities on Cannery Row involve, shopping and eating. I definitely recommend a visit to the Fish Hopper, a restaurant with both great food and good service.

Old Fisherman's Wharf
in Monterey is one of the main tourist areas in Monterey. It is full of the ubiquitous t-shirt shops, as well as populated by numerous restaurants. This is the place to go for an on-the-water tour of Monterey. Cabo's Wild Mexican Seafood* is the place to go on the wharf for breakfast as none of the other wharf restaurants open that early. Of course, most of the restaurants are seafood themed and this is definitely a great place to be eating seafood.

Adjacent to Fisherman's Wharf is the Monterey Maritime Museum and the Custom House (pictured above). The Custom House is part of the California State Parks system.

*UPDATE: It seems that Cabo's is now called "The Breakfast Spot" according to the sign out front on my recent trip to Monterey. So, you can still get breakfast there, but maybe not the Mexican food they has before as they had a sign outside that said "Fish and Chips" among other things...not a very Mexican dish.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Countdown is On...

I will be leaving for my next trip to California in just nine days. I will have lots of new pictures and information following my trip. If I'm lucky, I may have time while I'm gone for some new posts. If not, stay tuned in November as updated information and new featured locations will be flowing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is a coastal town in San Mateo County. It has a number of small shops and restaurants in the town itself and the surrounding areas off Highway 1. One of my favorite dining options is the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, a restaurant on the Pillar Point Harbor that has both indoor and outdoor dining options. They also, as the name indicates, serve their own micro brews. The seafood items on their menu are Seafood Watch safe. They also have frequent live entertainment and dining or drink specials. The food is good and the location is nice. It can get crowded for dinner, especially on the weekend.

Another good dining option is in downtown Half Moon Bay, the Half Moon Bay Inn. The Half Moon Bay Inn offers both dining and lodging. The Inn is located on a prominent corner in downtown Half Moon Bay near many of the small local shops and businesses.

Half Moon Bay has a small arts community and you can find many unique and original items in the local shops. It is also a good place to go antiquing. Every October Half Moon Bay is host to the annual Pumpkin Festival, an event that includes arts and crafts, food, entertainment, and, of course, pumpkins.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beach House - Half Moon Bay

The Beach House at Half Moon Bay is a luxurious boutique hotel. The first time I stayed there, I stumbled upon it during a drive by. It is right off of the CabrilloHighway (Hwy. 1) near the Pillar Point Harbor. It has only 54 rooms, most with a view or partial view of the ocean and harbor. The rooms facing out to the highway are less expensive, but I recommend the partial view rooms. You get a nice view of the harbor (there is currently an open field to the one side) and it is less expensive than the full view rooms, plus a little more private on the deck.

The rooms are set up in an open loft, studio style. They are luxuriously appointed and include a small kitchenette set-up that includes plates, glasses, and silverware, plus a refrigerator. The rooms all have a wood-burning fireplace (complimentary logs are available at the front desk) and a 5-disc CD stereo. The bathroom features a separate shower stall and tub, as well as Aveda toiletries. There is a continental breakfast featured daily in the reception area. There is generally a very nice selection of fruit.

The partial view rooms have balconies that are a little staggered, so not right next to or on top of each other. The full ocean view rooms have decks that are directly on top of one another and directly next to each other in line. Weekday stays are much less expensive than the weekend and the weekday rates have less variance between the room types than on the weekend. For example a partial view room is $235 during the week and $315 on the weekend, while an ocean view room is $265 during the week and $385 on the weekend. The hotel has a very good website that includes suggestions on area activities. The hotel doesn't have a restaurant, but you can get food delivered from several area restaurants. The front desk has menus for the local dining options and can make recommendations or reservations for you.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cliff House - San Francsico

The Cliff House, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is locatred in the Sutro District at the tip of San Francisco, Point Lobos. The Cliff House and Sutro Baths are located on the north end of Ocean Beach, where Geary Boulevard and the Great Highway converge.

The Cliff House offers two restaurants, both a casual dining and a more formal dining option. I have not eaten at either place, as the day I was there it was very crowded with a long wait. Nearby the Cliff House is a diner, Louis', that is very popular, mainly for it's cheap food and fantastic view. It's a good place to eat breakfast, although my mushroom and cheese omelet would have been better had the cheese not been Velveeta. If you want a seat by the windows, you will definitely have to wait, but you will probably have to wait regardless as the place is pretty small. However, it overlooks the ruins of the Sutro Baths, so the scenery is worth it.
Near Louis' there was a volunteer guide for the Sutro Baths. He gave some background on the baths and pointed out some of the features of the area.