Sea Dragon at Monterey Bay Aquarium

By Eileen Ogintz 

Tribune Media Services 


I can’t remember the last time I sat in the back seat of a car. 


But here I am sitting in the back of my daughter’s car as we drive down the spectacular coast from San Francisco to Carmel, waves crashing. 


I usually lead the way, but not this weekend. This weekend I’m following the passions of my 25-year-old daughter Reggie Yemma and her boyfriend, Dan Foldes, who live in San Francisco and know this area well. 


There is much to see and do all around Monterey ( — about 120 miles south of San Francisco — the Monterey Bay Aquarium (, the National Steinbeck Center (, hiking, kayaking, golf, diving, whale-watching, shopping (Carmel-by-the-Sea has more than 100 art galleries, and even wine tasting. Monterey Wine Country ( is home to some 40 wineries and 40,000 acres of vineyards, so when a landslide and a closed road kept us from Big Sur, we weren’t too disappointed. 


All I did was book the hotel — the newly renovated Carmel Valley Ranch (, which sits on nearly 500 acres in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains (and backing up to 4,400 acres of Garland Ranch Regional Park). This is a great locale for a getaway with adult kids (or younger ones) with its oversized suites, complimentary activities (yoga or a morning hike). Later this season, there will be kids’ programming too. I booked one dinner reservation too — at Wickets at the nearby Bernardus Lodge (, which was a hit with my gang from the grilled artichokes to the homemade pizzas and the wine that came from the Bernardus Winery. 


Reg and Dan set the itinerary and the pace, while we picked up the tab. It’s nice for a change not to be in charge and to be able to let grown children lead the way, catching up with them about their lives when we’re not distracted by extended family gathered for a big event or holiday. It’s also nice to be able to just focus on one child at a time too. Hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, known for their stellar views, ( have gotten the memo about grown kids traveling with their families. They have even initiated a new package called “Perfect Pair,” offering two discounted deluxe rooms. 


The best part is that in San Francisco ( and beyond the kids showed us places we never would have found on our own like Harley Farms Goat Dairy ( in Pescadero, Calif., where we ogled the baby goats and bought some delicious cheese. 

One damp, rainy afternoon we found ourselves at Point Lobos State Reserve (, binoculars in hand, looking for sea otters and their pups floating in the kelp. (We found them.) 


And I didn’t have to drum up any enthusiasm for what we were doing or seeing or deflect any complaints about the weather. I didn’t have to check guidebooks. I just had to keep from tripping on the slippery rocks. 


That evening, we relaxed over dinner at Carmel Valley Ranch, glad to see that the salad greens and herbs and other produce comes from the huge organic gardens here (loved the beet salad!). There is lavender growing here to — hence the sweet-smelling soap and shampoo in our room. 


The next morning, after a first-rate breakfast at the small Wagon Wheel Restaurant — a local institution we learn — we headed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium ( where Reg and Dan again lead the way — first to see the rescued sea otters. (The aquarium has a large otter conservation program.) We also saw pink flamingoes (pink because of the shrimp they eat), Magellan Penguins rescued from South America, sea horses (the males are the ones who become pregnant), the touch tank with its anemones, sea stars and sea cucumber and the Kelp forest, which can grow to be 200 feet tall, where we watch a demonstration with an albatross. (These seabirds can sleep while they fly and have wingspans up to 12 feet.) 


It’s easy to see why the Monterey Bay Aquarium is considered one of the best in the country and a top attraction here. I especially love its focus on the sea life right outside its back door in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where we saw a pod of dolphins, sea lions and more. 


In each exhibit, the message of conservation is underscored. (In the sea horse exhibit, for example, we learned that we should only eat U.S. farmed shrimp because other shrimp farmers destroy the habitat where creatures like sea horses live.) 


We also learned that every year, thousands of sea turtles get tangled in fisherman’s nets and drown and that tuna is being overfished. We picked up Seawatch cards (download one at, which explain how each of us can help protect our oceans by purchasing ocean-friendly seafood. (I will never eat farm-raised salmon again!) 


We stopped for lunch at the Aquarium’s new restaurant whose menu was designed by Napa chef Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustard’s Grill, in compliance with Seafood Watch. The results were delicious — fresh oysters from Washington State, Grilled Albacore tuna (troll-caught in California) served on Udon Noodles with sesame seeds and miso glaze, and perhaps the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted with cinnamon-caramel sauce. 


Come this summer and see the new Open Sea galleries that will showcase tufted puffins and sandbar sharks, a new Plankton Lab, and a million-gallon exhibit with sea turtles, giant ocean sunfish, hammerhead sharks and more. 


It’s after 4 p.m. by the time we leave the aquarium but our guides tell us we have more to see. It’s low tide and the rain has finally stopped so we head nearby to Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove to check out the tide pools. Lots of families are out exploring, playing with their pooches and kids on the beach. 


Reg and Dan suggested a spin along the famous 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach ( and the Del Monte Forest (for which we pay roughly $10 for the privilege — but worth every penny). We stood at Bird Rock, home to countless shorebirds, harbor seals and what seemed like a convention of sea lions honking at us from a huge rock offshore. We paused at the famous Lone Cypress that has lived on this rocky ledge for more than 250 years. It’s an incredible sight. 


Of course, so is the golf course — home to the 2010 U.S. Open and the spot where the first national golf tournament was held in 1929. 


The next day, after a morning spent whale-watching (, as dolphins swam, jumped and dived right by our boat, we headed back to San Francisco. 


I’m still in the back seat. And I’m still smiling. 


(For more on Eileen’s northern California adventure, read her travel diaries