Whale Watching and Wine Tasting on California’s Central Coast

For my latest excursion, I returned to the Bay Area to visit a friend from college, Stephanie, who was a totally amazing tour guide of San Jose and the nearby California coast! I assumed that this trip would be similar to my recent journey to San Francisco, but I was pleasantly surprised by how different it was. San Jose is close to a huge number of outdoorsy attractions and activities, all of which were very refreshing and rejuvenating after a stressful week.

We spent most of Saturday on a day trip heading towards Big Sur, a beautiful area of coastline with a scenic highway and stopped at numerous points along the way. On Sunday, we stayed closer to San Jose, but still left city limits to check out a winery as well as the salt flats at the south end of San Francisco Bay.

Here is the short list of highlights of our adventure-filled weekend:

  1. Whale watching in Santa Cruz
  2. Looking for sea otters at Moss Landing
  3. A quick scenic hike at Point Lobos
  4. Sunset at Big Sur
  5. Wine Tasting in Saratoga
  6. Exploring the salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park
  7. Some food ideas
A red-tailed hawk spotted near the salt ponds.

Saturday: Day Trip South

Whale Watching in Santa Cruz

This was definitely my favorite part of the entire weekend. We ended up booking a tour with Santa Cruz Whale Watching which was great. Our guide was very friendly and shared a bunch of interesting trivia with us as our charter boat navigated Monterey Bay looking for humpbacks.

The ride was a bit bumpy, so if you’re prone to motion sickness you might want to pick up some medicine beforehand.

The tour lasted for about three hours, and although they offered some food on the boat, it seemed like a limited and probably overpriced selection. If you want to grab a meal before or afterwards, check out Salsa’s Taco Bar, which happens to be right next to the whale watching office where you should check in.

Looking for Sea Otters at Moss Landing

About a thirty minute drive south of Santa Cruz is Moss Landing, an interesting area where some sloughs (marshlands) meet the ocean. Moss Landing is famous for being a place to see sea otters, but unfortunately there weren’t too many there the day we went.

Nevertheless, it is still a pretty place with a distinctive industrial plant overlooking the beaches and waterways.

A Scenic Hike at Point Lobos

After exploring Moss Landing, we stopped briefly in Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea for some coffee and snacks. Both towns are very quaint and it would be nice to go back and spend more time in this area eventually.

About seven miles south of Carmel is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This park has a main trail loop with some truly stunning views and interesting rock formations jutting out of the sea.

Sunset at Big Sur

By this time, the sun was already setting, so we decided to drive a little further south to try and catch a good sunset. We ended up stopping near Bixby Creek Bridge and sunset here over the Pacific Ocean was quite impressive.

From San Jose to this area is about 90 miles in total via US-101 S, which is definitely the route you want to take since it follows the rocky shoreline. With all the stops we made though, it’s no surprise that it basically took us the whole day to make it to this point by sunset!

Sunday: Activities Around San Jose

Wine Tasting in Saratoga

After a restful night’ sleep, we began our day Sunday with a Mediterranean brunch buffet (more on food below). Afterwards, we decided to check out one of the many wineries in Saratoga, a beautiful town with winding country roads on the southwestern outskirts of San Jose.

Although we had a number of choices, it looked like the wineries tended to close a bit early at least on Sunday, so we decided to just check out one called Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards.

They had a great $15 tasting option that came with samples of five different wines. The employees who served us were very friendly and shared some of the stories behind their aviation-themed offerings. The setting was really beautiful especially with all of the fall colors of the surrounding countryside.

The Salt Ponds of Alviso Marina County Park

By the time we departed from the winery, it was already late in the afternoon, leaving us with time to do one more activity. Stephanie recommended checking out the salt ponds located at Alviso Marina County Park, and I’m so glad we went because they were an incredible sight.

The whole park area has an almost otherworldly atmosphere and is so calming, quiet, and undeveloped despite being only about fifteen minutes away from downtown San Jose. After seeing salinas in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, I was curious to see what these would look like. Everything from the mountains in the background to the Amtrak line cutting through the park made this an interesting place to visit.

Ideas for Food

Seeing as this is the Bay Area, delicious international cuisine is never far away. The Mediterranean buffet I mentioned briefly earlier is called Jerusalem Grill and Catering. Despite being a buffet, they only had about seven or eight hot options to choose from in addition to a salad bar, and it was clear that they’ve really perfected all of their recipes.

Another cool place we had dinner was called the San Pedro Square Market in downtown San Jose. This trendy food-court-style venue had a bunch of different options to choose from. We ended up getting pizza, beer, and ice-cream, all of which were a bit pricey but also very good.

Another interesting place to try is Chicago’s Pizza With A Twist, which is what we had for dinner on Friday night. They specialize in pizza with Indian-inspired toppings, so we ordered a butter chicken pizza which actually was really good. It really is a perfect fusion of pizza and some additional spices that aren’t standard pizza ingredients.

Looking Forward

This post is short and sweet (compared to my very in-depth report on Quito from the previous weekend). Spending some time outside of big cities and absorbing a little bit of nature was probably just what I needed, and if you’re looking for a similar getaway you should definitely consider the string of towns and attractions south of San Jose!

The beach at Moss Landing.

Up next is my first real vacation since moving to Mexico: I’m headed to Greece! I am so excited to go back to Europe and explore a new country that looks insanely beautiful from the pictures online. Until then, enjoy your week!

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