Monterey is not a big city, yet thanks to spectacular topography and fascinating history, the area features as many activities and attractions as any of America's top tourist destinations. The world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium is surrounded by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where sea life is protected ands studied and where visitors can enjoy otters, seals, whales and dolphins -- as well as birds and fish -- from whale watching excursion boats, kayaks, and from the piers at Old Fisherman's Wharf. Not only does Monterey's history include two of the original missions, one in Carmel and one further inland at San Juan Bautista, Monterey was both the capital of "Alta California" under Spain and the state's original capitol when California joined the union in 1849. The colorful history of the canning factories of Cannery Row was made famous by John Steinbeck in his book by that name, and many of Steinbeck's other famous books including "East of Eden" and the "Red Pony" were set in Monterey, Salinas, and the surrounding area.
Thanks to its temperate seaside climate, the Monterey peninsula is beautiful any time of year. Temperatures can drop into the 50s or even 40s in December and January, though, so bring warm clothes, hats and gloves if you want to go whale watching or do other outdoor activities this time of year. Ironically, January -- when the gray whales migrate south to Baja California to have their babies -- and March, when they head northward again are peak whale watching times, so there's a good reason to make a winter season visit.
Be prepared for rain between November and April, and for night and morning coastal fog in the summer. In fact, the rule of thumb in Northern California is "be prepared;" packing for any trip at any time of year should include a windbreaker and warm sweater. Summers in Monterey don't typically have rain, but a cold wind can come off the ocean, bringing the fog in. A tip: Before heading to the beach, check the surf report, which can tell you when to expect high and low tides as well as whether you need to beware of rip tides and dangerous currents. (The best tidepooling is at low tide when rocks and pools are exposed.)
Because it's an easy drive from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or Southern California, the majority of visitors arrive by car either up or down the coastal highway 1, or across the coast range on 156. If you're flying, you'll most likely use the San Jose airport but you can also fly directly to Monterey airport, served by American Eagle, United Express, US Airways, and Allegiant. Adventurers can even take Amtrak's Coast Starlight express, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle and stops in Salinas. From there, a free shuttle makes the 30-minute trip to downtown Monterey.
If you'll be taking in Carmel and Salinas, as well as Monterey, a car is essential. And with a car you can make the famous "17-Mile-Drive," a spectacularly picturesque route that's a tourist attraction of its own. Due to its popularity and the fact that it crosses private land, there is an $8 charge to drive it; however it may be worth it if you're a golfer (it's the only way to see the famed Pebble Beach golf course) or you want to photograph the famous "Lone Cypress" immortalized by photographer Ansel Adams. A local's tip: The 17-mile-drive is free to bikes, and bike rental shops abound in downtown Pacific Grove, close to the gate that accesses the drive. Parking is plentiful in all Monterey peninsula towns with the exception of downtown Carmel, where it can be hard to find a spot. However, you'll probably need to pay for lots or use meters, and pay attention to expiration times; these cities makes lots of money off tourists who forget to feed their meters.
The Monterey Jazz Festival, held every year in September, has put Monterey on the musical map (and on dozens of famous recordings) for 52 years. Other musical events include a Dixieland jazz festival in March, the Carmel Bach festival in July, and many other concerts both indoors and out. The first Friday of every month there's a First Friday Art Walk in both oldtown Salinas and downtown Pacific Grove, featuring local painters and craftspeople displaying their work.
The Monterey Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a wide array of information and services for tourists, from pamphlets and maps to booking arrangements. Their website, SeeMonterey.com, has information on each town as well as an online "flip book" Visitor's Guide. You can also call 1-800-Monterey for personal service.
In the "off-season," from November to March, deals abound in Monterey. There are golf packages, spa packages, romance packages, and packages that include restaurant meals.A selection of deals is available on the CVB website. You can also sign up for an email newsletter that sends deals and specials to your mailbox. In addition, many hotels offer family aquarium packages that include aquarium passes in the room price. Nowadays, recession-buster packages --called "Smile Recovery Packages" according to the CVB -- are a great way to take advantage of Monterey at unsually low prices. Steep discounts, second-nights half-off, free breakfasts and parking are just some of the offers available.