MONTEREY, Calif. -- "What the heck is that?" says the woman to my left, staring incredulously at the prehistoric-looking ocean sunfish. Weighing some 300 pounds and floating alone in a tank brimming with kaleidoscopic fish, barracudas, hammerhead sharks, and sea turtles, the massive fish looks back at the woman and her many tattoos, probably thinking the same thought.
It's 11 a.m. at Monterey Bay Aquarium's Outer Bay exhibit, the time of day when the normally demure tunas wait anxiously for the more than 140 pounds of squid and fish that will soon be dumped their way in the 1.2 million-gallon tank. Moments later, the fish seem to be on warp speed as they zip around the inside of the glass, sucking up as much food as possible in their feeding frenzy.
More than half a century after the demise of Monterey's number one industry, the canning of sardines, the city is very much alive. During the peak year of 1941, the canneries packed $20 million in sardines, but then, as with cod on the East Coast, overfishing led to smaller and smaller catches until the fish and thus the industry almost disappeared. Yet, in the wake of the sardine, fish have taken center stage again as the Monterey Bay Aquarium has become one of the most innovative in the country. Add a long bike trail along the waterfront that leads past the lounging seals, a playground created by "Dennis the Menace" cartoonist Hank Ketcham, and a slew of shops and restaurants on the street coined Cannery Row, and you have a family-friendly destination that's worthy of a two- or three-night stay.
Don't get me wrong. Monterey is no small fishing village, nor does it have the upscale charm of neighboring Carmel. It feels like a city of 140,000, especially after taking the majestic drive through Big Sur, an hour to the south. But its lack of serenity is overcompensated with rugged scenery, affordability, and a growing number of intriguing sites.
The aquarium takes advantage of its locale on the shores of Monterey Bay to place sea otters in their natural environment. And, yes, they have their requisite million-gallon tank with said ocean sunfish. The aquarium's forte, however, is integrating culture into the viewing areas. A temporary exhibit last summer on colorful jellyfish was paired with a delightful mix of art, like glassware created by Dale Chihuly. In another exhibit on sharks, curators took the time to incorporate Aboriginal paintings, Hawaiian dance and song, and African huts. The result is not just a glimpse of umpteen anonymous fish, but an exciting merger of sealife with interactive museum-quality exhibits that feels right for the 21st century.
The front of the aquarium is on Cannery Row, inside several original buildings once used for canning sardines. This bustling section of town also features a long list of restaurants. We chose Louie Linguini's for its menu of seafood and pasta and the seaside seats overlooking the seals on the rocky shores. Afterward, the kids insisted on sundaes at a sister shop of San Francisco's celebrated ice cream and chocolate emporium, Ghirardelli.
To work off lunch, we rented a bicycle built for four, a four-wheeled surrey, and pedaled a section of the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. We had lofty ambitions of biking to Asilomar State Beach on the western shore, an ideal spot to watch the sun set. But after 10-year-old Jake tumbled off, we realized that making any headway with this bulky apparatus is an accomplishment.
Sheer determination powered us past the Victorian homes and colonies of seals a mile down the road to Pacific Grove. Come winter, thousands of monarch butterflies call the town home. On summer weekends, brides and grooms make the migration to Lovers Point Park. A wedding procession led by a harpist was taking place as our sweaty family dismounted to climb on the rocks. On the water, sailboats and kayaks glided by in a quintessential coastal scene.
We somehow made it back to the bike rental on Cannery Row and drove back to our hotel, Monterey Bay Lodge. Across the street, next to El Estero Park, Ketcham designed a popular playground where kids can clamber atop a 1956 railroad steam engine, stroll across a rope bridge, and tackle a climbing wall. There are also paddleboats on the adjacent lake, but our family was through pedaling for the day, be it land or water.
The early morning fog had yet to burn off when we awoke the next day and had breakfast at First Awakenings. Located in the American Tin Cannery outlets around the corner from the aquarium, this local favorite features every type of pancake imaginable, including bluegerm, a mix of blueberry and wheat germ, and summer oatmeal, a combination of bananas, berries, oatmeal, and granola.
Located upstairs in the same building was a new miniature golf course called Oceans 18. The "black light" glow-in-the-dark-style course, fueled by classic new wave and dance tunes in the background, was a groovy way to play indoors. Of course, the motif was watery, with large paintings of sharks and other sea critters. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, Monterey still uses the ocean to make a living, if not the way John Steinbeck could have imagined when he penned "Cannery Row."
Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer based in Newton, can be reached at email@example.com.