In the push to compete for your tourist dollars, Monterey has always been known for its outreach. But some of its best ambassadors have not one arm, but eight, to embrace you.
The giant Pacific octopus is one of the biggest draws to an area that attracts some four million tourists a year. With its reddish brown body and huge bulbous head, this crafty creature gets plenty of attention at the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- especially at feeding time.
On a recent overnight in the aquarium, school kids were staking out claims for their sleeping bags. The octopus tank was a favorite for those seeking dinner and a show. "It's really cool to see them eat fish," one boy exclaimed breathlessly.
Yet, when it comes to fresh seafood, octopi aren't the only ones living large. The aquarium's partnership with top local restaurants means landlubbers like us will find Monterey seafood is not only fresh and sustainable -- it's safe to eat.
At Jack's Restaurant in the Portola Hotel & Spa, Chef Jason Giles works with local fishermen to determine his menu. On the day that I'm there, he turns Portola day boat scallops into a masterpiece, served over black pepper pasta with wild mushrooms and a shallot nage. For oyster lovers, a new oyster bar and live action kitchen lets diners watch as their order is prepared.
Not far from downtown, Cannery Row takes on a romantic glow as diners watch the sun set over Monterey Bay. A favorite place for seafood is Schooners Coastal Kitchen and Bar in the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa. Chef James Waller is another culinary artist who works in tandem with local fishermen and the aquarium's Seafood Watch. He has the added advantage of being located inside one of TripAdvisor's top 25 hotels in the United States. The Plaza's bayside rooms include private balconies overlooking the water, and guests can launch kayaks from the hotel's beach or go sailing, whale watching or diving.
A third Seafood Watch partner is the venerable Fish Hopper Seafood and Steaks. Perched over the water in one of Cannery Row's original sardine factories, the Fish Hopper has been serving its "Monterey Style" creamy clam chowder since 1950. And while the steaming-hot chowder wins awards every year, the crab cakes, seared ahi and steaks top the list of palate-pleasers.
Monterey has been blessed by nature's abundance, yet the hospitality industry doesn't seem to take anything for granted. At the above-mentioned places, the management and staff are raising the bar on customer service. They may not have eight arms, but you can still feel their warm embrace.
You can find out more about Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch at http://www.montereybayaquarium.org
The Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa website is http://www.montereyplazahotel.com.
The Portola Hotel and Spa website is http://www.portolahotel.com.
The Fish Hopper website is http://www.fishhopper.com.