By Debbie Stone February 16, 2016
The central California coast is a veritable playground for families. With its numerous parks, beaches, and reserves, this area has been called the "greatest meeting of land, sea and sky." The natural beauty of the Monterey Peninsula draws visitors, but it is the endless activities that keep them coming back year after year.

Within the charming seaside town of Monterey, there are several must-dos. Start exploring historic Monterey by visiting John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. This waterfront street once used to be a mecca for sardine canning factories. Today, it's a family-friendly locale with restaurants, shops (including pirate stores!), and the famed aquarium. Follow the yellow tiles on the Old Monterey sidewalks for a self-guided walking tour past sites of architectural, artistic, and historical interest.

Rated the nation's top aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is chock-full of mesmerizing displays of fascinating sea creatures. The Ocean's Edge galleries will amaze you with its three-story living kelp forest, above and below the surface views of playful sea otters, and a walk-through wave crash experience. The Outer Bay galleries provide a nose-to-nose experience with giant tunas, sea turtles, and sharks, as well as the always mysterious living jellies. You can also visit a coral reef kingdom, check out the giant Pacific octopus, and watch the comedic penguins get fed. As the aquarium is perched on the edge of Monterey Bay, it makes the perfect vantage point to spot wildlife cavorting in the water below.

After all that exploration, head to Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, where you can sit on the patio and enjoy the ocean views. Or stop by at the Nestlé Toll House Cafe for some piping hot chocolate chip cookies. Either way, you're in for a decadent treat!

To get an even closer, more personal experience with the sea life, join a guided kayak trip. Paddling in the waters around Monterey Bay is great fun — not to mention good exercise — for the entire clan. You'll be in the company of a host of ocean wildlife as you explore one of the nation's largest marine sanctuaries. Kids will delight in seeing the seals sunning themselves and the sea otters feeding, while finding themselves accompanied by frolicking sea lions swimming under and around their boat.

Whale watching is another popular activity in Monterey. Mid-December through March is the time to see gray whales and dolphins; humpback whales, blue whales, and dolphins can be spotted from April through mid-December. You can find companies that offer tours down at Fisherman's Wharf, along with a myriad of eateries, each boasting the best fresh seafood and clam chowder.

If you need a place for the kids to expend some more energy, take them to Dennis the Menace Playground. Developed and partially funded by Hank Ketcham, the creator of the well-known comic strip, this beloved municipal playground is a winner. Plan on spending a few hours here, as play structures of every kind abound, including a climbing wall, a maze made of hedges with a lookout tower, old steam engine, suspension bridge, tunnels, and slides. There's even a statue of Dennis himself.

For the ultimate outdoors experience, make a beeline for Big Sur (roughly 30 miles from Monterey along spectacular Highway 1) and its wild and beautiful beaches. Pfeiffer Beach is Big Sur's most popular coastal access point. A short, well-marked path takes to you to a breathtaking stretch of sand with towering cliffs and a large arch-shaped rock formation just off shore. The widest expanse of sand can be found at Sand Dollar Beach. Two miles south is Jade Cove, a favorite of beachcombers and rock hounds for its jade reserves.

Though Highway 1 is the granddaddy of them all when it comes to California's coastal highways, the scenic 17-Mile Drive is also worth mentioning. This route takes you through an exclusive neighborhood amid the majestic Del Monte Forest and along the ocean. Some of the high points include Spanish Bay, where Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portola and his crew camped in 1769 while searching for Monterey Bay; Bird Rock, the home to countless shorebirds and groups of harbor seals and sea lions; the Lone Cyprus, one of California’s most enduring landmarks which has prevailed on its rocky perch for more than 250 years; and the Ghost Tree, a unique Monterey cypress with its trunk bleached white from the wind, giving it an eerie silhouette. The road also passes by the legendary Pebble Beach golf course.

Your family will never lack for things to see and do in Monterey. The iconic California experiences you'll have are guaranteed to provide a host of memorable vacation moments.