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Make a splash in Monterey
By Nancy Pistorius

Monterey is the California dream, before it got tarnished.

It's San Francisco without the hype, frenetic pace or hordes of gawking tourists in Hawaiian shirts. It's miles of scenic beauty, topped off by one of the prettiest little coastlines you'll ever see. It's got a relaxed, small-town atmosphere, but so many unique attractions and amenities that it'll send your senses reeling. In short, Monterey is the perfect vacation spot for families who want to escape the land-locked Midwest and feel the sea spray on their faces.

As soon as you near the bay on the Monterey-Salinas Airbus (assuming you've landed at the closest major airport, in San Jose), Monterey pours on its charm. The seabirds will be circling, the mighty surf of the blue Pacific will be pounding its siren song and the gamboling sea lions that congregate on Old Fisherman's Wharf will be barking out a greeting.

Even if you were born and raised in the heart of the Midwest, you'll immediately feel that deep connection with the sea in Monterey and its timeless music, a primordial lullabye.

If you're like me, with roots deep in Springfield, Monterey will appear as exotic and magical as fairyland.

There are actually two Montereys — one is the laid-back little town, where you can easily assimilate with the natives downtown on Alvarado Street at the Old Monterey Marketplace every Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m., rain or shine. It's a farmers market, but so much more — you can travel the world in just three jam-packed blocks, finding arts and crafts, handmade jewelry, furniture, clothing, international food, flowers and pastries, as well as organic fruits and vegetables. It's a real treat that most tourists stumble upon only by accident, so make sure that you stay in Monterey at least one Tuesday. I've found holiday gifts at the Marketplace in December, and the freshest peaches I've ever tasted in August. The vendors are friendly, and it's always a hoot.

The streets of downtown Monterey are fun to wander anytime, and you could spend hours visiting the funky, eclectic little shops - I could hang out forever in Book Haven, which is basically a bibliophile's heaven - restaurants and bars.  You can also duck into the Osio Cinemas at Osio Plaza to watch independent films in an alternative, creative atmosphere. Café Lumiere serves up coffee, espresso drinks, bubble teas and pastries that you are welcome to take into the show. If you're in the mood for a hearty, cooked-to-order breakfast, head to Old Monterey Café, where the helpful staff is happy to customize any menu item for you. If you're craving Asian-American food for lunch, Chong's Szechwan Restaurant offers all the usual suspects, plus bean cake soup and mustard green soup. At The Fishwife's Turtle Bay Taqueria, you'll be greeted with a taco bar, where meats and seafood are grilled or charbroiled, and the tacos prepared as you watch. For dinner or drinks, you might duck into Lallapalooza, which boasts an excellent martini bar and an extensive steak and seafood menu. The atmosphere is bubbly, upscale and fun.

The other Monterey is the coastal area, the one that most tourists frequent, and it's filled with all kinds of attractions, both natural and man-made.

Monterey's main drawing point, of course, is its drop-dead-technicolor scenic views of the Pacific ocean with its myriad of sea creatures. Expect to see playful little furry-faced sea otters floating on their backs in the bay as you walk along Cannery Row, as well as proud, bellowing sea lions hamming it up for the tourists on Old Fisherman's Wharf.

But the highlight of your trip to Monterey might well be the place where you can get up-close-and-personal with all the wonders of the sea, without getting wet — the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There are no superlatives too grandiose to describe this place. Imagine that you've woken up one morning to find that you'd sprouted gills on the side of your body and were swimming alongside tuna, barracuda, stingrays, sea turtles, mahi mahi and sharks in the open sea. That's just about what it feels like when you're walking through the Outer Bay wing amidst fast-moving schools of fish. The Outer Bay's viewing window is 54 feet long, 17 feet high and 13 inches thick — one of the largest in the world, and the tank holds one million gallons of water. Elsewhere in the Outer Bay galleries, you can view many varieties of hauntingly beautiful and mysterious jellyfish.

Two of the newest exhibits at the Aquarium are well worth the trip back to the attraction, even if you've been there before. "The Secret Life of Seahorses" exhibit opened in April 2009. More than 15 species of seahorses, sea dragons and pipefish beckon you into the world of these fascinating little creatures. Seahorses are masters of disguise, able to camouflage themselves to blend in with their environment. Wait until you spy the leafy sea dragon - such an unrestrainedly fanciful-looking being that you'd swear he'd just popped out of a children's fantasy.

Just this spring, the exhibit "Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea" opened to highlight "success stories" of people and communities fighting climate change and making a difference. Galleries in the 7,000-square-foot exhibition profile countries and cities that have set goals for reducing carbon pollution and are cutting their carbon footprint in creative ways. Although the exhibit doesn't shy away from demonstrating ways climate change is affecting ocean animals, you'll leave with a feeling of hope.

And did I mention that your kids will be absorbing life-enhancing lessons the entire time they're in this very special place? And that none of you will ever want to leave?

Before you do go, make sure not to miss the Penguin Feeding or the Sea Otter Feeding and Training Session.

Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )

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