Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium
A Great Vacation Getaway
There are many things to do and see in the historic coastal town of Monterey, California. One of them is a stroll down Cannery Row with a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can get an overview of the area by riding the free trolley tram that takes you around the Row area as well as to Old Fisherman's Wharf, and through the Pacific Grove area. There is also a trolley loop that takes you through the historic downtown area. Trams come along every ten minutes, and you can get on and off as many times as you wish.
The first time we visited Cannery Row was in 1962. We were on our honeymoon, heading to Old Fisherman's Wharf for a seafood lunch. We only gave the deteriorating canning factory buildings a passing glance. Most of them were neglected and abandoned at that time, and the last remaining cannery closed about ten years later. There seemed to be no pedestrians and few vehicles in the area.
The over-fished coastal waters were no longer yielding the huge tonnage of sardines and anchovies which had kept fishermen and factory workers busy in previous decades.Many of the huge buildings and warehouses had fallen into disrepair. The area was obviously not providing many employment opportunities back then. Some of the old buildings were eventually torn down, but other factories and warehouses have since been remodeled and repurposed. Original foundations, piers, and walls of old factories have been incorporated into some of the new establishments.
The area has now turned into a major tourist attraction with hotels, restaurants, shops, parking structures, and a variety of businesses. Especially during the summer, the narrow street is full of people seeking a seaside town experience.
The huge Monterey Bay Aquarium was once the site of a sardine factory operation. Part of their exhibit includes the large boilers where the canned fish was pressure cooked. The street itself was originally called Ocean View, but it was renamed "Cannery Row" for the famous John Steinbeck novel which presented a nostalgic slice of life with a colorful cast of characters. Set in the Depression when the factories were at peak production, the story was written by Steinbeck in 1945. Since the author grew up in the area, he was well acquainted with the flavor of the canning district, which he used as a backdrop for his tale.
When I first saw the prices for the aquarium, I wondered if it was worth it just to go look at fish. As it turned out, our hotel offered a discount ticket that was good for two days. We found out that there was much, much more to see than we originally thought. Not only that, our pre-paid discounted tickets meant we did not have to stand in line to purchase admission. We walked right in and were clicked through the turnstile.
And yes—even at full price, the experience would have been very interesting and worthwhile.
When you enter, you will get a diagram map of the exhibits and a list of times for feedings and special presentations.
We enjoyed seeing the puffins diving for their food and "flying" underwater, but we did not get as good of a view of the sea otters. It is a very popular exhibit, and I think it could have been planned to provide better viewing. Also, we heard that the particular Saturday when we were there might have been a record-breaker for a day's attendance. The aquarium is large but it got quite crowded by noon. The good news is, you can have your hand stamped to go out and have lunch or shop and come back later in the day, which we did.
Make sure you see the largest tank, called "The Open Sea". It is a 1,200,000-gallon tank which has one of the world's largest single-pane acrylic windows. The size of the13 inch thick window makes you say, "how did they do that?" (It's a closely guarded trade secret of a Japanese company.)
I originally thought the exhibit was "open to the sea", but it is not. Unlike most of the other underwater displays, there are no rocks, kelp or sea plants that are typical in coastal zones, in the "Open Sea" exhibit. Instead, it is made to simulate the deep oceans, rather than the shores.
The creatures in there are impressive, even when just swimming at a leisurely pace, but they really show their speed and power during feeding times.
Someone advised us to get a spot at least 15 minutes before the scheduled feeding-- which we did-- and we also secured a good viewing spot by sitting in the balcony where there was no one standing in front of us. There are a few tiers of benches up there, and it was also a good time to rest the feet.
The tank has giant sea turtles, a huge sunfish, dolphin fish (mahi mahi), tuna, various sharks, rays, a few other things as well as a silvery school of about 25,000 sardines. At various times they have had a Great White Shark, but these are usually studied for a few months, then released again.
All of the residents eat different diets and the aquarium has devised a special way to feed each species. Don't miss this one.
Other Aquarium Offerings
Since we had a two-day pass, we went back the following morning to see the shorebirds without so many people in the same place. This is one area where you walk through without glass between you and the creatures. The birds seem accustomed to the people passing by just a few feet away. It is a wonderful way to get a close look at them.
The caretakers had just filled the feeders and sprinkled live crickets in the habitat, so the birds were active and visible.
They seemed to ignore people, so it is very easy to see them up close with no windows in front of them.
There are Avocets, Stilts, Phaleropes, Sanderlings, Oystercatchers, and others. The habitat is beautifully designed to simulate a natural setting with a beach that has gently lapping waves at one end.
In much of the aquarium, it can be difficult to take pictures in the dim light.
I found that you can have a little bit of luck if you have a "museum" setting on your camera, but if you have a flash setting, you are going to get bad reflections if you try a straight on shot. You may also get bad reactions if there are people around you.
In some areas—like the jellyfish exhibits—photos are restricted. Jellyfish apparently freak out if you try a flash picture. (No one wants to see a jellyfish freak.)
More of the Aquarium
There are lots of "touch pools" where the kids (and the big people) can feel the squishy sea cucumbers, the bumpy sea stars, or even let a reclusive hermit crab crawl across their hand. Another pool lets people feel the sand-papery skin of the sting rays (stingers removed).
There are no extra charges for the shows and programs, and most of them are brief. You can spend more money if you want souvenirs or if you decide to take a scuba lesson. Watching people take the diving lessons is free.
Other Things to Do
Aside from visiting the aquarium, there are a lot of other things to do on Cannery Row.
Preserving Your Image
One fun activity that leaves you with a personal memento, is posing in the photo gallery that puts you into another era.
Choose an old western theme, Civil War clothing, or some Victorian apparel.
It doesn't take long, though the photographer gives a lot of attention to detail and coaches you on the poses.
It's even fun to see other people getting their portraits taken.
Checking Out The Stores
Shopping is popular with a lot of visitors. Even though there are many shops full of tacky and cheap souvenirs, there are also a few upscale places for apparel, jewelry and gourmet foods.
Art galleries and stores with handcrafted items are also here and there.
People Watching and Pedaling
People from all over the world visit this area, and it seemed that there were a lot of families with young children. You will hear many languages being spoken.
Especially on the weekends, you are likely to hear street musicians playing in many different styles.
The local people are often biking or walking their dogs on the bike and pedestrian path that is just one street over and free from motor vehicles.
Bikes and pedal cars are also for rent, especially for those who want to pedal to Fisherman's Wharf or along the Pacific Grove shoreline.
Tide Pools and the Rocky Shore
The shoreline in this area is a protected nature preserve. There are several places where you can observe tide pools and sea birds, as well as harbor seals and sea lions.
Near the Fish Hopper restaurant, you can walk down to the water, especially at low tide and perhaps you will see a mommy sea lion with her pup, out of reach on the rocks.
Eating and Drinking
The area is jammed with restaurants, cafes, brewpubs and wine tasting rooms. Some are casual some are fancy. In fact, some say there are 199 restaurants in Monterey, but who's counting? As you might imagine, seafood is king here. Most eateries have a seafood specialty or several, even if they are a steakhouse, fast food, Mexican or Italian.
As on the Old Fisherman's Wharf, many cafes on cannery row have a person out in front ladling tiny free tastes of clam chowder and giving them to the people who pass by. I think some people bring their own sourdough roll and make a meal out of the chowder samples as they walk down the streets. Others may choose their meal site by which chowder they deem tastiest.
On Friday we had already had eaten a big lunch on the wharf, so were not too hungry by dinner time. We tasted the chowder samples, anyway. One of them was so good, we went into the Fish Hopper and had a bread bowl filled with clam chowder-- and shared a crab cake appetizer, plus a fresh berry and raspberry lemonade cocktail. (We weren't hungry, you see.)
The next day we had fish and chips and a draft at the brewery, and dinner at "The C" at our hotel. The service was great and we had a four-course "Chef's menu with wine pairing" It was delicious and the service was impeccable. Nice ocean view, too.
It was an anniversary splurge.
Wine Tasting in Monterey
Monterey County is also one of California's wine growing regions there are at least four or five wine tasting rooms on Cannery Row. They charge a nominal fee for a certain number of tastes, but usually also offer a discount with the purchase of something in their shop.
Most of these places are sponsored by a single winery, but the "Taste of Monterey" on the upper floor of the Monterey Canning Co. building represents several local wineries.
They also have an arrangement with many local restaurants that allows you to buy their wines and take it to a participating restaurant which will not charge a corkage fee. This tasting room also has a nice view of the bay through their window walls. You can sit down with your tastes. I even saw some people who had brought along their own cheese and crackers to enjoy while watching the water, and sipping wine.
The Clement Hotel
Our time was limited. We didn't want to waste it by spending it in traffic and hunting for scarce metered parking.
We decided to stay at The Clement which is in the heart of Cannery Row, within walking distance to a lot of restaurants, and virtually 'next door' to the Aquarium.
Even though it was WAY more expensive than the places we usually stay, it was very nice and had a lot of advantages. (Look online for different rates, packages and deals for the rooms.)
It was a special anniversary for us, so, as I said before, we splurged a bit.
The staff was excellent, efficient and unobtrusive. Also, they were polite and helpful when you had a question or request. In the restaurant, they know how to refill a glass so that you barely notice.
Interior design was what I would call "minimalist modern" with subtle neutral colors, which also gave it a very calm and clean feeling—a contrast to the busy outdoor street.
Rooms are large, quiet and comfortable. The linens were high quality; towels and robes, large and thirsty. The bed was comfortable; there was a large flatscreen TV. (Nice, since the Olympics were on.) The marble/granite bathroom had a big enclosed glass shower and separate deep bathtub.
A refrigerator contained a full bar of mini-liquors, beer, juices, mixers and even energy drinks. I'm pretty sure there is an extra charge for these, and we didn't use any since we brought our own beverages. If they were part of the deal, we missed out.
I think most of the rooms have a gas flame fireplace. Ours did. Even though it was early August the coastline weather was overcast and cool. We turned on the fireplace and opened the window to breathe the evening sea air. This was probably not energy efficient, but it was very pleasant. They also have spa services and kid activity rooms (babysitting). The kids even had a climbing wall, and it looked like they were having a great time.
Room service arrived at the breakfast time we requested with the correct order.
Plenty of utensils, heavy plates (I don't know how that girl lifted the big wooden tray with all that), and lots of tiny condiments like jam, honey, catsup, hot sauce, sugars and real cream.
There were many other little details and extras: A plush sea-otter mommy and baby were snuggled between the pillows on the bed.
There were also luxury toiletries, including palm oil soap made in Poland (Polish palm trees?), manicure items, a tiny sewing kit, bottled water with their logo on it, a live bonsai tree as well as subtle maritime-themed art.
There was also an amenity I have never before seen in a hotel room ... a miniature zen garden with white sand, pebbles and a tiny rake.
Look for the Deals and the Freebies!
Cannery Row and The Monterey Bay Aquarium provide a nice weekend trip or an interesting stop on your tour of California, but it can be pricey. Lodging, food and even the aquarium tickets can be more expensive than you might expect. Look for deals and discounts online. Take advantage of the free trams, and taste all of the clam chowder samples you can.
Spend some time watching the seabirds and the sea lions along the rocky shore. If you are lucky, you might spy some sea otters playing in the kelp beds. Their shows are free!