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Beautiful Monterey, CA

Monterey enchanted us. This small city of nearly 30,000 has the draw and allure of a city of 200,000. I first visited as a teenager on a family vacation 20 years ago. Since becoming a father, I have always wanted to share the aquarium with my kids. This visit we relaxed in the comfort of the Lover's Point Inn (10% off with military ID http://www.loverspointinnpg.com/), which has great rooms a mere two-minute walk from the beach – we recommend the Mermaid Beach House to really relax in style. It offers all the comforts of home and convenience of a hotel. This location fit our vacation plans perfectly; we parked our car for a few days and enjoy strolling to the main attractions and restaurants. An idyllic path along the shoreline let us experience the wildlife of the sea everywhere we went. The seals sunbathed on rocks and in sandy coves while we walked in the brisk air to the aquarium and cannery row.

We spent a breathtaking day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium marveling at nature’s beautiful creations. My favorites were the mischievous otters, the feeding of the penguins and foremost the "open sea" exhibit where the crowd gasped in unison when the 20,000-sardine school and 5,000 pound sunfish flashed and shimmered past. Our family wished that we could have returned for a second day. We've enjoyed many southern California aquariums and while all were good and worthwhile, none of them captured the kids for more than a couple hours; this one went above and beyond. If your family loves aquariums this should be on your bucket list. It’s worth making a vacation destination. Note that you can’t buy military discount tickets at the entrance. Check out their webpage, it lists the places where you can: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/vi/vi_tickets/militaryx (Naval Post Graduate School and the Presidio are both in Monterey).

Since you're in Monterey, you would be remissed if you overlooked Cannery Row. It brought back fond memories of our visit to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco; just as fun with similar attractions, scents and tastes. You can scratch your clam-chowder-in-a-sourdough-bowl itch here, get fresh saltwater taffy or walk the pier. One of our favorite San Francisco activities is a visit to Ghirardelli Square for sundaes; to our surprise and pleasure, Cannery Row also has a Ghirardelli Chocolate store. The kids will love it. In addition to that, amidst all the shopping and consumer delights for Mom and Dad is an island of kid fun; Lazer Challenge/Mirror Maze/Mini Golf (http://www.highway1golf.com/ 10% of with mil ID) where you can distract the kids while Mom shops – except that Mom kept coming back to try and best me in “Speed Freak”.

To finish off your time in Monterey, you must wander southward and take in what is arguably California's most dramatic and picturesque coastline – Big Sur. Big Sur stretches from the Monterey peninsula south for ~90 miles. The Big Sur coastline shelters the southernmost stands of Coastal Redwoods and heralds unmatched views from a highway that hangs upon the cliffy walls where the Santa Lucia Mountains clash with the ocean swells and rise abruptly 5000 feet. Even if you don't stay overnight, a winding and jaw-dropping trip to one of the most photographed waterfalls in Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park is worth an afternoon. If you continue south, be prepared for remote areas with few towns and services once you pass the Big Sur townsite, but camping and resorts abound.

When you return, take a few hours to enjoy Carmel by the Sea grab some burgers and finish the night off with a bonfire on the beach at the Carmel City Beach Park to watch the sun set (http://ci.carmel.ca.us/carmel/index.cfm/residents/city-services/beach-rules/). For a great alternative to the classic hamburger, try 400 degrees Fahrenheit (10% off with mil ID) – our favorites were the Kobe Burger and pumpkin shake (I’d take it over In-n-Out any day). Other must-see locations around Carmel include the famed Pebble Beach (17-mile drive), shopping on Ocean Ave and the sanctuary of pristine vistas along the trails of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Once you've visited, you’ll be tempted to sell everything and try to move here. At the end of our trip, Monterey left us renewed instead of frazzled and in awe of Mother Nature's magnificence.

-Kent Jensen