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Pilot Getaways: Gem of the Central CoastPilot Getaways: Gem of the Central Coast

Monterey, CaliforniaMonterey, California

Editor's note: To give you some ideas for airports to visit when you attend the AOPA Fly-In at Salinas, California, on May 16, we asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite nearby fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA members-only discount pricing for a subscription. Plus, you can peruse other Pilot Getaways articles on
  • Cari Miller and Michelle Kole fly Cari’s Cessna 340 along the coast southwest of Monterey. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Aerial view of Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) facing north. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • McAbee Beach offers a view of the entire bay. Photo by Martha Garcia.
  • Princess Monterey Whale Watching conducts cruises on the bay. Photo courtesy of Princess Monterey Whale Watching.
  • Once the home of a booming sardine industry, Cannery Row is now a popular tourist attraction. Photo courtesy of Cannery Row.
  • Steinbeck Plaza, named after the author, showcases the turnaround of Cannery Row with its modern-style specialty shops, galleries, and eateries. Photo courtesy of Cannery Row.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium houses a giant Pacific octopus and has a new exhibit: “Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid, and Cuttlefishes.” Photo by Martha Garcia.
  • Ivy, a southern sea otter, delights visitors. Photo by Randy Wilder/Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • Portola Hotel & Spa features 379 plush guest rooms within walking distance to downtown, the Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Custom House Plaza. Photo by Mark Boisclair/Portola Hotel & Spa.
  • First Awakenings is known for its tasty breakfasts. Photo by Martha Garcia.
  • The famed Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop is a favorite among visitors. Photo by Martha Garcia.

By Martha Garcia

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.Monterey is famous for its beaches and unsurpassed array of ocean wildlife. Federally protected marine areas surround this bustling city on the Monterey Peninsula and extend 276 miles along the California coast. Once a polluted fishing and industrial wasteland, Monterey Bay is now a wildlife preserve and paradise of oceanographic beauty. This gem of California’s central coast sits just 100 miles south of San Francisco, yet feels like a world away.

What makes Monterey Bay so unique biologically is the Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon, which extends 95 miles into the Pacific Ocean and reaches depths of up to 11,800 feet. Strange fish and invertebrates live at these great depths. Meanwhile, cold-water upwelling brings large quantities of zooplankton and other nutrients to the surface, where a giant kelp forest shelters abundant marine life. The ocean life initially drew settlers who started an industrial whaling and sardine boom. John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” made Monterey famous, but the bay, its wildlife, and the aquarium built to study them continue to attract scientists, naturalists, and tourists.

Flying There

Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) is about three miles southeast of Monterey. Arrivals from the south can enjoy a scenic detour along Highway 1 that runs along the coast between Monterey and Big Sur, past lovely deserted beaches, pristine golf courses, dramatic coastal cliffs, and the iconic Bixby Bridge. Along the coast to Monterey from either direction, pilots are requested to remain at or above 2,000 feet AGL over several wildlife refuges. Note that flight below 1,000 feet AGL over the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, depicted on the sectional chart, violates NOAA regulations (see 15 CFR 922) and could result in civil fines up to $100,000.

The entire California coast is prone to fog, especially in spring and summer. Over the Monterey Bay, prevailing northwest breezes tend to push fog away from the Santa Cruz area and toward Monterey. Monterey offers several instrument approaches, including an ILS, but if conditions prevent landing at Monterey, Watsonville Municipal Airport (WVI) is 21 nm north, slightly inland, and can be used as an alternate. Salinas Municipal Airport (SNS), 12 nm northeast, is also often clear when Monterey is not.

Turning final to Runway 28L; The pattern is higher on the south side due to terrain. Photo by George A. Kounis.

Monterey Regional Airport is a Class C airport with airline service, yet it is friendly to small planes. Two FBOs offer services including flight planning rooms and crew cars. Establish two-way communication with NorCal Approach on 127.15 or 133.0 MHz before entering the airspace. Prevailing winds are out of the west, so expect Runway 28R; the parallel Runway 28L is longer and usually reserved for larger turbine aircraft. Pattern altitude is 1,500 feet MSL north of the field and 1,800 feet MSL south of the field, due to terrain. On departure to the west, pilots are requested to make no turns until 900 feet AGL and east of Highway 1 for noise abatement. During a voluntary curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., departures are discouraged, and landings are limited to Runway 28L and takeoffs to Runway 10R unless conditions dictate otherwise.

Just west of the tower, Del Monte Aviation has a single-engine handling fee of $45 (twins $55), nightly parking $10 (twins $20), waived with 15-gallon fuel purchase or top-off (twins 25-gallon purchase or top-off). They also have five courtesy cars, open daily 5 a.m.–10 p.m., 831-373-4151 or 800-452-6184. At press time, Monterey Jet Center, at the southwest corner of the field, has the same handling and tiedown fee prices and policies as Del Monte; they also have five courtesy cars, open 5 a.m.–10 p.m., 831-373-0100 or 800-679-2992.


The Rumsen Ohlone tribe inhabited the Monterey Peninsula thousands of years ago. They thrived on a diet of abundant mussels and abalone. Monterey was first glimpsed by European explorers in search of riches in the New World in 1542, but high winds prevented the expedition from landing. Don Sebastian Vizcaino was the first explorer to land in the area in 1602. He named the port in honor of Spain’s Count of Monterrey.

The first settlement was not established until 1770 by Father Junipero Serra and explorer Gaspar de Portola. Monterey served as the capital of California from 1777 to 1849, under both Spanish and Mexican rule. Monterey is home to many historical “firsts.” The oldest stone building in California is the Royal Presidio Chapel, which was rebuilt in 1794 after a fire. It is also the state’s oldest continuously operating parish. In addition, Monterey is home to California’s first theater, publicly funded school, library, and printing press, where California’s first newspaper, The Californian, was printed. During the Mexican American War in 1846, John D. Sloat first raised the American flag over the Custom House, claiming Monterey for the U.S.

A prolific whaling industry thrived in Monterey during the 1800s and drew many Japanese and Italian settlers. By 1920, the sardine industry began to grow, and Cannery Row was established. Nearly 250,000 tons of sardines were processed in Monterey each year. As overfishing and pollution corrupted the bay and city, the sardine industry began to dwindle and businesses closed or moved away. The city turned to tourism as a means to bolster the dwindling economy. Canning facilities were renovated to become restaurants, hotels, and other tourist attractions. Today, the city holds a reputation for preserving marine life, natural beauty, and environmental protection and awareness.

What to Do

Traveling into Monterey from the airport will require a taxi or rental or courtesy car. Most attractions in the heart of the city are accessible by foot. If you plan to explore outlying areas, a rental car is the best option.

Watch harbor seals bask in the sunshine at Moss Landing on three-hour kayak tour with Kayak Connection. Photo by Martha Garcia.

One of the best wildlife viewing areas in the western U.S. is about 21 miles north of the airport at Elkhorn Slough. A shallow body of water with large biodiversity, the slough is home to sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and more than 40 species of birds. Rent a kayak or take a three-hour kayak tour with the Kayak Connection. Curious sea otters often swim right up to kayaks. As our tour came to a close, we were delighted to glimpse several jellyfish floating by, so close we could almost touch them. To deviate from the ordinary, take the Bioluminescence Tour at night and witness the glowing flash of plankton on the dark water, tours $50–$65, open daily 9–5 p.m., closed Wed in winter, 2370 Highway 1, 831-724-5692.

If you have the need for speed, visit the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, an 11-turn, 2.2-mile road course about eight miles east of the airport. Throughout the year, you might see the Monterey Grand Prix, Ferrari Racing Days, Superbike World Championships, or MotoGP motorcycle races. The challenging course is best known for its “Corkscrew” blind turns that drop an equivalent of 5 1/2 stories. An interesting way to get intimate with the track is on one of their monthly twilight bicycle rides, $10. The raceway is at 1021 Salinas Hwy, 831-242-8201.

Fisherman’s Wharf offers an abundance of dining, shopping, and activities. Over a dozen restaurants serve delectable seafood dishes like the bay’s famous clam chowder. Exciting day excursions leave directly from the wharf, making it easy to experience adventure and grab a bite to eat. You can explore the history of the wharf on a monthly Wharf Walk led by historian and author Tim Thomas, reservations required, held the first Sat of every month, 10 a.m.–noon, $20, 831-521-3304. For more information on the wharf, visit the website.

Travelers may view many types of marine life including birds and gray, humpback, or even blue whales on the 2 1/2- to 3-hour whale watching and nature tours operated by Princess Monterey Whale Watching. Experienced marine biologists narrate the tours, $40–$45, 831-372-2203 or 888-223-9153. Specialty tours include the shorter, 30-minute tour around Monterey Bay aboard the Little Mermaid glass bottom boat. This tour highlights points of interest and features an introduction to the Monterey Bay’s Marine Sanctuary and is available on weekends (daily tours run mid-June to mid-September) 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., departing hourly, adults $14, children $12, 96 Fisherman’s Wharf No. 1, 831-372-7151.

Once the center of commerce for the booming whaling and sardine industries, the mile-long Cannery Row was made famous in 1945 by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name. (City officials renamed the street from Ocean View Avenue to Cannery Row 13 years after Steinbeck’s book was published.) Today, the street along the waterfront is the picture of tourism, with hotels, inns, restaurants, shopping, and tourist attractions, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Walk under a kelp canopy in the Splash Zone galleries. Photo by Randy Wilder/Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium at the west end of Cannery Row is on the site of the old Hovden Cannery, the largest on Cannery Row and the last to close, in 1973 after the sardine fishery collapsed. The aquarium showcases the tremendous diversity of marine life off the California coast. Initially funded by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, it has been operated by daughter and marine biologist Julie Packard since its opening in 1984, and she has grown it into the world-class research and educational institution it is today. Visit the giant kelp forest, one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world, with 28 feet of underwater kelp. At feeding time, watch divers offer fish to the leopard sharks. Check out the jellies exhibit, with several jellyfish species never exhibited there before, adults $40, children $25, seniors and students $35, open 10 a.m.–5 p.m., 886 Cannery Row, 831-648-4800.

The wide range of sea life in Monterey Bay makes it a perfect spot for scuba diving, and Breakwater Cove is a premiere dive site. Glenn’s Aquarius II Dive Shop offers PADI certified dive courses with a flexible training schedule. The Discover Scuba Diving course offers visitors a taste of underwater life while under the supervision of an instructor (remember not to fly for at least 24 hours after a dive), $225 includes equipment, call for appointment, 32 Cannery Row, 831-375-6605.

To extend your visit beyond Monterey, drive south of Cannery Row to the adjacent city of Pacific Grove. Pacific Grove offers beautiful, yet mostly deserted, beaches, many with tidepools and dramatic rock formations that are perfect for walking. Look for exquisite old homes across the street from the beaches, two of which have been turned into highly praised B&Bs that are booked out months in advance (the Green Gables Inn and Seven Gables Inn). At the western tip of the Monterey Peninsula, the Point Pinos Lighthouse is the perfect location to take in spectacular sunset and picturesque ocean views. Built in 1855, it is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast, $1–$2, open Thu–Mon 1–4 p.m., 80 Asilomar Ave., 831-648-3176.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast, sits atop the Pacific Grove Golf Links. Photo by Martha Garcia.

One of the most scenic drives in the world, 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach, loops around the stunning beaches of Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach through the Del Monte Forest south of Monterey. Fabulous estate homes are sprinkled along the way. While there, stop in and play a legendary round of golf at one of Pebble Beach’s fine golf courses. Pebble Beach features four par-72 golf courses and a nine-hole course. One of the most famous golf courses in the world, Pebble Beach Golf Links has hosted the U.S. Open multiple times, 18 holes $495. Another not-to-be-missed experience is an evening at the Inn at Spanish Bay. Sit on the terrace and watch the sun kiss the Pacific Ocean as you sip a glass of local wine and listen to the famous Scottish bagpiper “put the golf course to sleep.” Pebble Beach offers three luxury hotels for guests who want to stay close to the links: the Lodge at Pebble Beach, the Inn at Spanish Bay, and Casa Palmero at Pebble Beach. For golf rates and hotel reservations call 800-877-0597. An extensive list of hotels, restaurants, golf course, fitness centers, and shops in Pebble Beach with local phone numbers is available online.

The 17-Mile Drive culminates at the charming sea town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, noted for its European influences and pristine white sand beaches. Rated one of the top ten destinations in the U.S. by Conde Nast Traveler, it is often called the Hamptons of the West Coast. Carmel is home to shops, art galleries, vegan eateries, and other restaurants; it has long been a beacon for artists and others with a creative side. The Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea is a performing arts center that features events from symphony to rock and roll. The intimate 700-seat auditorium offers programs that include the annual Christmas performance of the Nutcracker by Monterey Bay Dancekids, Carmel Bach Festival, Tao: The Art of the Drum, and national star performances by Los Lonely Boys and John Lithgow. The Sunset Center is also home to the renowned Carmel Art & Film Festival and the Carmel Author’s and Ideas Festival, 831-620-2048. For more information on Carmel, visit the website.

Where to Stay

The expansive Portola Hotel & Spa is Monterey’s only AAA four-diamond, silver LEED-certified hotel. Located on Monterey Bay’s waterfront, it is within easy walking distance from Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic Custom House Plaza, and downtown Monterey. Its 379 rooms are comfortably outfitted in nautical themes, and many feature ocean views and private patios; all have refrigerators. Unwind at the onsite Jack’s Restaurant and Lounge or Peter B’s Brewpub, or melt your cares away at the Spa on the Plaza, named Monterey’s number one spa year after year. Signature services include the Spa Salt Glow, Warm stone massage, and English Rose Facial. Hotel rooms & suites run $199 and up, Presidential Suite $1,000, pets $50, 2 Portola Plaza, 831-649-4511 or 888-222-5851.

Boutique-style Hotel Abrego offers guestrooms with Italian linens, many of which feature an in-room fireplace. Photo by Patrick Tregenza/Hotel Abrego.

One of Monterey’s newest hotels, Hotel Abrego offers 93 luxurious rooms outfitted with Italian linens, spa-like bathrooms, refrigerators, and free WiFi. In addition to a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, the hotel has many rooms with cozy fireplaces that are perfect for a romantic getaway. Its location in the heart of downtown provides easy access to many local attractions and restaurants. The on-site restaurant has breakfast, dinner, and bar menus, rooms $119–$269, 755 Abrego St., 831-372-7551 or 800-982-1986.

The Spindrift Inn, at the center of Cannery Row on the shore of McAbee Beach, offers picturesque ocean views and beautiful sunsets from window seating in the rooms. The 45 spacious rooms feature elegantly padded European-style furnishings, like canopied feather beds and hardwood floors. Most rooms also feature real wood-burning fireplaces to gently spark the flames of romance; it’s no wonder it was named the Best Hotel for Romance in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 by TripAdvisor travelers, $152–$589, 652 Cannery Row, 831-646-8900 or 800-841-1879.

Where to Eat

Schooners Coastal Kitchen, a local favorite on the first floor of Cannery Row’s Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, combines fresh sustainable food, a relaxed atmosphere, and ocean views. Schooner’s “Locally Overboard: Farm to Fork, Sea to Table” program offers fresh fish caught off the California coast along with local produce and meats. The standard of quality and freshness was evident throughout our meal. The top-notch staff also offered us binoculars to view sea otters at play while we dined. Try their signature Angry Prawns grilled with garlic, lemon, and chili flavors. The fresh Tuna Poke is served atop a block of frozen pink sea salt and garnished with wasabi cream sauce. The creamy Lobster Risotto provided a tasty side to sample while feasting on the Grilled King Salmon, entrées $28–$42.50, 6:30 a.m.–11 p.m., 400 Cannery Row, 831-372-2628.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen in the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa offers prime views and some of the best cuisine in the area. Photo courtesy of Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.

Just one block from the Monterey Aquarium in the American Tin Cannery outlet center, First Awakenings is ideal for breakfast. The family-friendly restaurant offers both traditional breakfast fare and a few with new flair, like their All that Razz pancakes with raspberries, coconut, and granola. First Awakenings was voted “Best Breakfast” in the Best of Monterey County six years running, entrées $8–$12, Mon–Fri 7 a.m.–2 p.m., Sat–Sun 7 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 125 Oceanview Blvd., 831-372-1125.

Monterey’s only craft brewery is Peter B’s Brewpub, behind the Portola Hotel & Spa. They serve award-winning beers, including the seasonal Crabbit Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, which won a Beverage Tasting Institute Gold Medal in March 2013. Dig into an assortment of pub food, from pizza to burgers. Try the Warm Crab, Spinach, and Artichoke Dip, $11, entrées $10–$19, happy hour 4–6:30 p.m. daily, open Mon–Thu 4–11 p.m., Fri–Sat 11 a.m.–1 a.m., Sun 11 a.m.–11 p.m., 2 Portola Plaza, 831-649-2699.

Take a stroll down Cannery Row to see an endless assortment of boutique shops, fun gift shops, and mouth-watering restaurants. After eating at one of the many Cannery Row spots, stop in at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop to satisfy your sweet tooth. Sample rich chocolate squares or sip on a decadent Sea Salt Caramel Hot Cocoa for $4.50 while sitting on the outside patio taking in spectacular views of McAbee Beach and Monterey Bay, Sun–Thu 10 a.m.–8 p.m., Fri 10 a.m.– 9 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.–10 p.m., 660 Cannery Row, 831-373-0997.

The Monterey Regional Airport offers several dining options. The Golden Tee Restaurant & Bar, midfield, south of the runways, serves a wide range of items including Eggs Benedict, Calamari Sandwiches, and Filet Mignon. There is also a full bar and wine list, dinner entrées $13–$28, Mon–Wed 9 a.m.–9 p.m., Thu–Sun 8:30 a.m.–9 p.m., 200 Fred Kane Dr., 831-373-1232.

For a quick bite after flying in, visit Tarpy’s Roadhouse, less than two miles east of the airport on Salinas Highway. Don’t let the name fool you, Tarpy’s is a fine dining restaurant, with what they call “five-star American country cuisine.” The interesting title translates into fresh meats and fish prepared on a wood-burning grill, entrées from sandwiches to prime rib, an extensive wine list and full bar, all surrounded by five acres of land with abundant greenery. It’s a treat to sit outside on a sunny day and relax in the lush gardens. For a sweet delight, wrap up your meal with the Warm Pineapple Upside Down Cake served with vanilla ice cream, $8.50, Entrées run $13–$39, lunch daily from 11:30 a.m., dinner daily from 4 p.m., Sunday Brunch 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., 2999 Salinas Hwy, 831-655-2999.


The heart of Monterey is about five miles from the airport. Del Monte Aviation and Monterey Jet Center each have five courtesy cars available for three to four hours on a first-come, first-served basis.

An onsite taxi coordinator can help secure a cab from the several companies that serve the airport. For call-ahead service, contact Central Coast Taxi; typical fare to town is $21, 831-626-3333.

Once downtown (in summer), catch the WAVE (Waterfront Area Visitor Express), a free trolley that operates between Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the aquarium. Look for the green MST Trolley signs to board. It runs daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, weekdays 10 a.m.–7 p.m., weekends and holidays 10 a.m.–8 p.m.

To explore on your own and visit outlying attractions, a rental car is the way to go. Several rental car offices are located in the baggage claim area of the main terminal; companies include Avis, 800-352-7900, Enterprise, 800-736-8222, and Hertz, 800-654-3131. Typical rates range $38–$55 for a compact car.

Monterey has been a magnet, from the earliest inhabitants who sustained themselves with the bay’s abundant shellfish and the myriads who arrived to work in the canneries to the scientists who helped restore the bay’s abundance. Whether you prefer to explore the mysteries of the deep, taste fresh, local seafood, marvel at nature’s beauty, or race to new speeds, Monterey offers it all in a setting of exquisite beauty. And with an excellent regional airport so near, Monterey is at the top of many pilots’ favorite getaway destinations. Why not make it yours?

Cari Miller and Michelle Kole fly Cari’s Cessna 340 along the coast southwest of Monterey. Photo by George A. Kounis.
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