California Dreaming: Monterey to Big Sur

Alan and I started talking last weekend about our plans for spring break and it brought to mind the trip we took last year to California.  We had been to San Francisco and places north a few times and this time we wanted to head south.  Our itinerary was to explore the coast from Monterey down to Los Angeles so when we landed in San Fran we headed south straightaway.  We had planed to go to the Monterey Aquarium our first afternoon but after being delayed here in NJ and driving down to Monterey, we modified our plan and stayed close to our hotel, Asilomar.  This was only the first of many times on this trip where we looked at each other and wished we could spend a week right where we were.  Located not in Monterey, but in nearby Pacific Grove, this is a wonderful, quiet place to recover from jet lag and explore the outdoors.  The lodge, built in 1913, is rustic but has been updated with all modern conveniences and there is a great Social Hall with pool tables, a fireplace, gift shop and a small cafe open for breakfast, lunch or a quick late-afternoon snack or coffee.  After grabbing a bite, we headed across the street to check out the tidal pools and look out for seals and otters (we saw both).

This was the building we stayed in.  There are two types of rooms available here:  historic, which are part of the original buildings from 1913 and the Asilomar rooms, which are more modern but in the same style of the historic rooms.  We were in the latter and found them very comfortable.  Our room had 4 beds which was great as everybody could be comfortable and there was no fighting over who had to sleep on the pull-out.  

For dinner, there was a multitude of options.  We chose the Fishwifewhich we could walk to from Asilomar and were so happy we did.  The menu is predominately seafood with a Caribbean accent and everything we had was very good.  They have a great kids' menu with a choice of grilled or fried sole, tilapia and shrimp (there are chicken tenders too).  The staff was super nice and great with the kids.  It was the perfect meal to end a long day of traveling made even better by the quick 5-minute walk home to our waiting beds.  

The next morning we were up early and had time to kill before the aquarium opened.  We did a quick drive-by of the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuing-operating lighthouse on the west coast. Unfortunately it was closed so we had to settle for a glimpse from the road.

February is one of the months that Monarch butterflies overwinter in the area and there is a special park in Pacific Grove to spot these beauties, the Monarch Grove Sanctuary.  We spied a few here and there, enough to enchant Ava as we walked though the early morning fog.  Many of them were high in the trees trying to warm up in the sunshine, so if you go, bring binoculars.  


The Monterey Aquarium is consistently on the list of best aquariums in the country so we knew we couldn't miss it.  Located in a former canning factory on the edge of Monterey Bay,  it is a great place to visit.  Plan to spend much of the day here and there are many nice options for lunch: a sit-down restaurant overlooking the bay (be sure to make reservations beforehand), a more casual cafe offering burgers and brick-oven pizzas and a coffee bar if you just want a quick snack.  We spent our time watching otters and penguins frolic and play, touching starfish and horseshoe crabs, and watching green sea turtles and hammerhead sharks swim by in the Open Sea exhibit.  Our favorite thing was "The Jellies Experience," populated with the most amazing and fantastic jellyfish imaginable.  

After we finished up at the aquarium, we drove down to Carmel for lunch.  Unfortunately, everybody else seemed to have the same idea so we had to settle for a forgettable lunch and just a quick look around before heading to our next stop for the night, Big Sur.  

Winter Car Trip Part III

Before heading out to our final stop of Asheville, we grabbed breakfast at Rise Biscuits and Donuts.  Tucked into a strip mall on the outskirts of Durham, they had delicious homemade biscuits with a variety of fillings and donuts with traditional flavors (glazed, chocolate glazed) to the more exotic such as creme brûlée and pomegranate glaze.  


Once we got to Asheville, we found (somewhat unexpectedly) that this is a popular vacation spot during the holidays.  After being turned away from several places for lunch, we finally settled at Doc Chey's Noodle House.  The menu is expansive and the portions are huge so two kids could easily share an entree.  They also offer a nice kids menu if you prefer to go that route.  Everything we had was delicious and their emphasis is on locally-grown, organic ingredients (as is the case with most of the restaurants in Asheville).  

Just down the street is an Asheville institution, Mast General Store.  Founded in the 1940s, this store has everything you could want or need.  From clothing to toys to birdhouses to a huge selection of penny candy, you are sure to find a souvenir to take home in this place.  

The Grove Park Inn is a historic hotel which has seen many famous visitors, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris, and Barack Obama (twice).  Built in the early 20th century in the Arts and Crafts style, this is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever visited.  Unfortunately we weren't spending the night; we were just there to view the annual gingerbread competition the hotel hosts each holiday season.  Next time I definitely want to sit in front of one of the huge fireplaces and enjoy a glass of wine or sit out on the porch and watch as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Looking at the website, there is plenty to keep you busy:  golfing, an outdoors center which offers guided rafting and hiking trips, and history tours of the inn.  They also offer both a children's day program and a kids' night out for parents who want a little adult time.  

The gingerbread competition was lots of fun.  We had gone to a local one in NJ before Christmas, but this was beyond all expectations.  It was hard to believe that some of these were made from just a little flour and sugar!  The competition was spread out throughout the inn so you could enjoy the views over the mountains and the beauty of the hotel as you went through the exhibit.

Towards the end there is a nice collection of shops.  The favorite of the group was The Pink Pig,  selling beautiful christmas ornaments and decorations, lots of sweet treats, and a nice coffee bar to boot.  

We took one last picture on the porch in Santa's sleigh and then reluctantly headed back to our car.  We thought about having dinner at the inn's newest restaurant, Edison, but decided to save that for next time.

The next day was cold and rainy and despite howls of protest from Jack, we set out early to tour the Biltmore EstateGeorge Vanderbilt's "vacation" home.  This had been on my to-see list for a long time and visiting it while it was decorated for the holidays was even better than I could have hoped.  We chose the self-guided tour with timed entry and then purchased the audio tour once we arrived at the house.  There is a special tour for kids narrated by one of the Vanderbilt's dogs, Cedric, which was a big hit with our two.  There are suggested itineraries for families on the website as well as helpful tips, particularly for those traveling with younger children.  For Downton Abbey fans, the exhibit we saw earlier this year of costumes from the series is coming here and will be on display February 5 - May 25.

Biltmore House Christmas.jpg
                                                          Image courtesy of Saturday Evening Post

                                                         Image courtesy of Saturday Evening Post

The kids loved the house and immediately wanted to move in.  They enjoyed looking for good hiding places and imagining how long it would take their friends to find them!  The tour is a little long at 90 minutes and we were all ready to head outside and explore the gardens once it ended.  Both the formal gardens and the surrounding countryside were designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who is also responsible for the design of Central Park in Manhattan and our family's beloved Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  

Because of the cold, we didn't get to walk around as much as would have liked.  Be sure to look out for the shops including a toy store and a confectionery as well as a restaurant and coffee bar adjacent to the house in what was formerly the stables.  This is a nice place to take a break after touring the house and before heading outside.  There is also a restaurant in Antler Hill Village which is on property but can only be reached by car once you have finished touring the main house.  Also at Antler Hill is a playground, farm yard, and winery.  

Take your time as your drive out and enjoy the beautiful views and landscapes courtesy of Mr. Olmsted.  

We headed back to downtown Asheville for lunch at Early Girl Eatery.  A great place with a funky atmosphere, they serve breakfast all day (a big draw for our kids) with a focus on local, organic ingredients. The kids had delicious multi-grain pancakes, but if that's not your thing there are salads, sandwiches, and a "protein and two sides" entree.

Later on we grabbed some ice cream at Ultimate Ice Cream.  On their menu are the usual suspects such as vanilla and chocolate but they aren't just ordinary vanilla and chocolate here.  No, it is Madagascar Vanilla Bean and Belgian Dark Chocolate and it is awesome!  There are also choices beyond the basics such as Kahlua Mocha Almond and White Chocolate with Raspberry Swirl.  They are known for one of their more unique flavors, Brown Sugar Maple and Bacon, but unfortunately this wasn't on the menu the night we visited.

Sadly, this ended our time in Asheville but we will definitely be back.  This area is so beautiful and has so much to offer it is impossible to do it justice in just two days!

Winter Car Trip Part II

We arrived in Raleigh for a late lunch at Chuck's Burgers and Frites, one of many restaurants owned by local restauranteur, Ashley Christensen.  Everything was delicious and was served in a very hip, urban environment.  Burger joints are sometimes a little hard for us as Ava is not a burger fan but luckily she has recently acquired a taste for veggie burgers and she gave this one a big thumbs up.  They also offer a grilled cheese if you have non-burger lovers along.  The fries are served Belgian-style in a paper cone with your choice of 8 dipping sauces.  The shakes looked yummy and they had a nice selection of local craft beers.  

Later we decided to grab some ice cream from a newly opened shop in downtown Durham.  The Parlour began as a food truck and then opened a storefront after raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign.  The ice cream is delicious and there are several vegan flavors available as well.  


The next morning we headed back to downtown Durham for breakfast at Scratch.  This was one of the best meals of our trip!  Southern biscuits and grits, great muffins, and delicious coffee made this a breakfast we all loved.  

The restaurant was right next to Parrish Street, also known as the Black Wall Street.  There was a small museum showcasing the history of black entrepreneurship in the area and several street markers highlighting areas of interest.

After breakfast we drove over to Chapel Hill and walked around the campus a bit (this was really not a college tour).  We stopped at the Old Well, the symbol of the university that for many years was the only source of water for the two dormitories that flank it on either side.  Now it is considered good luck for a student to drink from it on the first day of school. 

Also in the area is the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, which offers multiple shows daily on weekends and the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, with the newly opened Children's Wonder Garden.

We stopped for lunch at Foster's Market, located between Durham and Chapel Hill.  Featuring lots of lunch selections such as salads and sandwiches, this is a great option that will please everyone.  Don't miss the desserts on your way out!  

Next we headed over to the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.  This is truly a great spot for kids and we easily spent 3 hours here and could have spent even more.  Inside, there are all sorts of science-based exhibits on weather, space exploration, and engineering.  

But outside is where this place really shines.  There is something to please everyone no matter what their interests: a farmyard, a butterfly house, a dinosaur trail and fossil dig and much, much more.  We spent the bulk of our time outside and finished just as the museum was closing.  

The farmyard is typical of anything you will see at a zoo, although petting and feeding the animals is not allowed.  What makes it better than a zoo are the charming red buildings and cute information cards provided about each animal, giving information such as name, age, and how they came to be here.  There are goats, a donkey, alpacas, rabbits, a jersey cow, and...

our favorite, Miss Piggy! 

The dinosaur trail and fossil dig is a must for all the dinosaur lovers out there.  All of the plantings are from the time of dinosaurs and velociraptors, triceratops and T-Rex are all represented.  The dig area has soil brought in from a fossil-rich area of North Carolina and finds can include shark teeth (we found several easily), shells, coral and small bones.

There is also a great exhibit on the wind, how topography shapes the weather (with a fairy village feel) and brown bears, red wolves and lemurs!

That night we were all in the mood for Mexican and so we decided to try Dos Perros.  Lucky for us it was Sunday, which meant taco night.  On Sundays and Mondays, the restaurant serves 6-7 different taco combinations in lieu of their regular dinner options and they were all amazing (between the 4 of us we sampled all of them).  From the green tomatillo salsa to the delicious tacos, we ended the day on a great note!

Winter Car Trip Part I

We decided to take a quick trip down South over the Christmas break and check out some of the places we had been wanting to see while enjoying warmer temperatures than New Jersey was offering.  We were only gone six days and one of those was a full day of driving so it felt like we only scratched the surface in many ways.  

We reached our first stop of Charlottesville late in the afternoon and squeezed in a visit to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.  We had just enough time to tour the house, explore the grounds and walk back down to the visitors center just as the sun was setting.  There is a family friendly tour that is about 15 minutes shorter than the regular tour but we just missed the last one.  

The shuttle bus takes you up the mountain and drops you at the back of the house.  We had time before our tour started to walk around and look at the outbuildings such as the kitchen, wine cellar and storage areas and take some pictures of the grounds.  

The kids and I (mostly me) were impressed at the "stove-top" in the kitchen and all the beautiful copper pots.

Seeing some of the slave's rooms generated a fair amount of discussion from the kids about slavery and how they were treated.  Sally Hemmings is mentioned during the tour as it is the belief of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which oversees the house) that Thomas Jefferson is the father of her children.  This necessitated a brief explanation for Jack but went right over Ava's head.  

The house tours are on a timed basis and last approximately 45 minutes.  They are informative but move quick enough to keep everyone's interest.  Pictures are not allowed inside the house so all photos are courtesy of The Jefferson Foundation.

                                                         Entrance Hall

                                                         Entrance Hall



                           North Octagonal Room

                           North Octagonal Room

As the tour ended, the sun began to set over the surrounding hills and we headed down the hill to our car.


Later that night we had a delicious dinner at Shebeen Pub and Braai, a South African restaurant in downtown Charlottesville.  The kids and I all had fish and chips which were fantastic and Alan had a tasty west african ground nut stew which is similar to a ratatouille.  I would also highly recommend the "hammies" appetizer which are small square-shaped yeast biscuits with harpers county ham and brown sugar butter.  

The next morning we looked around the UVA campus before setting off for Raleigh.  There are walking tours available when school is in session but we settled for poking around on our own.  The symbol of the university, the Rotunda, is undergoing restoration work and will not be open until next summer, but it was still nice to wander around the grounds.  All of the early university buildings were also designed by Jefferson and then, later, by Stanford White.  Everything was eerily quiet as it was holiday break but it was easy to imagine it bustling with student activity on a brisk winter morning.  There are shops and restaurants across the street if you are looking for a quick bite or to pick up some Cavaliers paraphernalia (we escaped with just a T-shirt for Jack).