Motor Racing, Road Test Special, Road Trip, Vehicles, Volvo

Laguna Seca – Exceptional Race AND Vacation Destination! (Monterey, California)

Spring OR Fall In Monterey California – The Perfect Holiday!
/ September 21, 2008

As photo-journalists’ and motorsport photographers, my wife and I never really go “on vacation” – we’re always at work – so over the past couple of years, we decided to make a more concerted effort to take in the sights and share our experiences about the race destinations we have the pleasure to visit.
Guilty of it ourselves, we realize that many people rush to a racetrack and then rush home, completely unaware of the surrounding towns, cities and countryside. Unfortunately, all too often that’s the only way most of us can get to a race, as we deal with budgeting our vacation time and keeping the bank balanced!

Again this year, we’re slowing it down a bit for you and are here to tell you about one of the best race vacations we’ve ever enjoyed – Laguna Seca in Monterey California! We hope you enjoy reading about our adventures, and we KNOW you’ll love visiting and chronicling your own …

While we previously had the opportunity to visit California for the race events at Long Beach, this year we were thrilled by the opportunity to see an entirely different region of California – the Monterey Peninsula. Flying into Los Angeles would have meant a 6+ hour drive north via the freeway to Monterey. Flying into San Francisco and heading south, required only 2 hours 45 minutes according to Google Maps. Flying into either airport and transferring to San Jose would have cost more money and saved almost no time versus San Francisco. That decision was easy – we’d fly into San Francisco and head south by car.

After visiting Long Beach a couple of years ago, we were very disappointed that Highway 1 (or 101) was less than inspiring – where was the beautiful California coast we see in the photographs and in the movies? It turns out we were too far south. The picturesque California coastline is actually between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Flying into San Francisco on a beautiful spring day, we pick up our Volvo C-30 T5 (courtesy of Volvo) for our week-long expedition of northern California. Our return trip would be during morning rush hour, so coming back to the airport would be via highway 101 – a straight drive from Monterey to the airport. That being the case, it was easy to decide how we would spend our first day in California – we planned to drive down the coast to Monterey, check into our hotel, and then if we had time take a quick drive in to see the track. We had lots of time, so from the airport we went straight to the coastal route – Highway 1.

Leaving the city of San Francisco behind, it took no more than ½ an hour from the airport before we were standing in awe at the beautiful coastline and the deep blue Pacific Ocean. This is EXACTLY what we thought it would be like – but far better. Pictures and video don’t do it justice.

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Not long into our journey, we decided to stop at a visitor’s center in Pacifica (Pacifica Visitor Center – Rockaway Beach) – our decision turned out to be 15 minutes of completely invaluable travel advice as we were enthusiastically informed about the area by Melissa – there are so many attractions and destinations that it would take us weeks to visit all of her recommendations. She detailed so many unique features of this region of California our heads were spinning when we left but we were grateful to have learned about the best of what we should see – what though could we realistically see in our relatively short time here? Right then and there I knew we were going to have to come back another time because there is just sooo much to do and see.

Heading back out onto Highway 1, we stopped constantly to take pictures. Fortunately the road was relatively quiet, so there was no fear of traffic jams with other tourists doing likewise. For the entire length of our trip to Monterey, the highway had literally dozens of places to park your car so that you could safely stop to take in the scenery. Along the way, there was what seemed like hundreds of beautiful empty beaches with white sand. Combined with that is the rugged rocky coastline being bathed by huge waves crashing into them. At times we had the sea to our right and steep mountains to our left – we found if very reminiscent of Hawaii. After our week in this Region of California, my wife and I both agreed that we’d come back here long before returning to Hawaii for a vacation. It’s just as beautiful – and a lot cleaner, with little to no garbage along the side of the road unlike many parts of Hawaii that we experienced.

With all the stopping and starting, we took a grand total of 5 ½ hours to leisurely drive the route from San Francisco to Monterey – arriving in the late afternoon. I estimate that ‘normal’ tourists would shave at least an hour off that trip (including a stop for lunch). Although the speed limit is 55 mph along most of the highway, there are no overtaking areas, so if you get stuck behind other rubber-necking tourists, you’re in for a long journey. Fortunately, most people out for the view are pulling off frequently to take pictures, so there are plenty of chances to make up time.

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While researching Monterey and the surrounding area, we found it difficult to get a good feel of the area from our various searches through cyberspace – it was quite frustrating actually. For example, until we actually got there we had no idea that Sand City, Seaside, Monterey and Pacific Grove all pretty much run into each other with no breaks between them – street signs and a searching on the map are the only indications that you’ve gone from one area to the other. When we booked our hotel our choices were somewhat limited because we were so late in actually confirming the trip. We booked a hotel in Seaside and held our breath that we’d made the right decision. We needn’t have worried though; Seaside and the surrounding cities are all very clean, with even the mom-and-pop hotels looking very clean and safe. Where we were at the far end of Seaside, our trip to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was never more than 12 minutes.

Once we’d got our bearings, it was time to explore the area and take in the local attractions. Because we were there for the racing, sightseeing had to fit in between our days at the track – so good planning was imperative. We had one particular excursion that dictated all others – whale watching! Because the weather is constantly changing in the Monterey area, we pretty much had to book the charter and hope the weather would cooperate. With that in mind, we set off for Fisherman’s Wharf to check out the numerous whale watching offerings.

A good website we found is – it helped us a lot to figure out what the area has to offer and what we wanted to take in. Also, check out this site –

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The signposts directing you to Fisherman’s Wharf are numerous and easy to follow from anywhere in the Seaside/Monterey area. Arriving at our destination we found two wharfs or piers and were immediately drawn in by the incessant barking of the harbor seals and sea lions. Old Fisherman’s Wharf is very rustic with plenty of daily fishing vessels available for hire as well as several restaurants. The newer Fisherman’s Wharf is a short trek (or you can pay to park closer) past the many boats of all sizes docked in the harbor. Most of the tourists head to the new one because of the abundance of restaurants and shops along the pier. It was getting late in the day by the time we got there, so most of the shops were closed or closing so we planned to return another day when we would have more time to shop for souvenirs.

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Since we didn’t want to go back to our hotel, we thought we’d just keep going and see how long it would take to get to another must-see destination: Cannery Row in Monterey. We arrived at our destination so fast we actually wondered if we were in the right place! Less than 5 minutes from Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row was lit up in all its glory. With top-class hotels, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and plenty of boutique stores this too was on our itinerary for a return visit during the day so we wouldn’t miss a thing.

With daylight disappearing we took the opportunity to check out the spectacular sunset. As typical tourists without their bearings yet, we weren’t quite sure where to best capture the sunset with our camera, but thanks to Melissa at the visitor’s centre we knew we should head toward the Spanish Bay area (just inside the 17-mile Drive) for the best views. Since the sun was already low in the sky, we knew we wouldn’t make it that far, but got to Pacific Grove which is very close. The sunset and the colours were spectacular – we can only imagine the images we could have captured if we’d made it to Spanish Bay or to the world-famous Lone Cypress Tree, which Melissa also recommended.

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Having enjoyed a four-day weekend filled with the adrenaline of motorsport at Mazda Raceway, it was time once again to slow things down and absorb our surroundings.

Whale Watching: (Located at pier 1 in Fisherman’s Wharf).
We chose Monterey Bay Whale Watch ( as our official tour guide of Monterey Bay and our whale watching excursion. Operating year-round, they have Marine Biologists and Marine Naturalists’ on board every trip. They claim to be Monterey’s #1 whale watching operator, and after spending a morning with them we can certainly attest to their claim! We left the harbor a good 25 minutes or more before any of the other tour vessels and returned long after the others had docked and disembarked with no passengers left in sight! Not only are the tours longer, but we actually spent more time in key areas of the ocean watching the huge Humpback and Killer (Orca) whales.

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Other vessels arrived and departed areas where we were stopped watching the Humpbacks crashing in the ocean – but they missed all the good stuff! We followed a group of Killer whales for a good 45 minutes, with them getting so close they almost touched the boat! We even got to witness something very special – two Humpback whales breaching at the same time. Our guide told us she had been doing this for 15 years and had never been able to capture it on film. Today though, this mother and calf breached so many times for us that she was sure many of us would have a good chance at a great shot. Unfortunately for us, one of the photo opportunity breaches was so close to the boat that my wife and I both missed it with our zoom lenses on our cameras. All too soon the trip was over and we had to head back to land.

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Fortunately though, we enjoyed plenty of whale sightings on our way back to the harbor – it was an awesome morning! The trip was worth every penny – and more! One word of advice though – dress warmly – it gets pretty cold out there even on a warm day, and the weather can be very changeable. A nice on-board feature is that you can purchase coffee, tea and hot chocolate at reasonable prices to help you warm up. One more tip we should share – while the water was as smooth as glass during our excursion I’m sure there are other days where it get s a little choppier, so don’t forget to take your Gravol – just in case!

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Returning to Fisherman’s Wharf in the early afternoon, we spent time browsing in the shops that we didn’t get to discover the day we arrived. If you can’t find anything here to take back home to your friends/family then you’re not trying hard enough! Souvenir prices are very reasonable and the selection is plentiful.

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If you have some time, make a trip through downtown Monterey. It’s a beautiful little city that’s very clean and has a small-town look to it.

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Returning to Cannery Row, we found parking to be problematic and everyone is encouraged to park in and around the surrounding area (parking police are everywhere), but we found a parking lot at the beginning of the street (at the opposite end to the Aquarium) which was both convenient and quite cheap – $5 all day. Walking down one side of the street and back up the other afforded us the opportunity to see most of what Cannery Row has to offer. About halfway down on the ocean side is a covered mall that has lots of specialty stores – be sure to take the time to venture inside and explore! There are art galleries and plenty of souvenir shops to visit while taking in the well-preserved and authentic look of Cannery Row. There’s more to Cannery Row than just the main street right on the sea, so be sure to journey further in-land as well.

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Inside the little covered mall we mentioned is a hidden gem – “A Taste Of Monterey”, a one-stop opportunity to sample the many wines from the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel. If you find a wine that’s particularly fine, you can have it shipped anywhere in the world. Overlooking Monterey Bay, this beautiful tasting bar with panoramic views is the perfect place to take a short break and sample some of California’s best wines while soaking in the scenery and trying to spot whales in the bay. We were told that a number of Killer whales were sighted just the week before, and there are always the adorable otters playing in the kelp forests just below the windows of this beautiful shop.

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On our last full day in the Monterey area, we decided to visit the Aquarium in the morning and then hit the highway and set off for the world-famous Big Sur. The plan was to travel quickly to Big Sur and then take a more leisurely route back – taking in Carmel and the 17-Mile Drive if we had any daylight left. It was a tall order, and we didn’t quite manage it all … but it was a wonderful day none-the-less!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is quite different from the one we experienced in Long Beach a couple of years ago – we were expecting them to be very similar, so this was a refreshing surprise! From the outside there is no indication of the true size of the aquarium – it’s huge. Its Oceanside location utilizes the great outdoors to showcase wildlife such as otters, whales and sea lions in their real environment and the beautiful open decks offer exceptional opportunities for creature spotting in the bay. This exceptionally family-friendly attraction offers plenty of areas throughout to keep even the youngest visitor amused for many hours – perhaps even the whole day if your kids are particularly interested in sea creatures.

We were personally astounded by the huge variety of jellyfish on display in the special feature exhibit while we were there – absolutely amazing! We were also taken in by the video area where kids can pretend they’re part of under-sea exploration. While it’s fun for kids it’s also very informative and explains how much research takes place in Monterey Bay and the surrounding ocean – it’s is quite amazing and a real eye-opener! The short videos are only about 5 minutes long, so definitely take the time to view, enjoy and give your feet a rest. As your tour of the Aquarium comes to a close you wander through a display that features the factories of Cannery Row and some of the equipment used in its glory days. There’s a large picture on the wall of Cannery Row taken during the 50’s – it’s stunning how remarkably similar the view is when you walk out the exit doors to modern-day Cannery Row! Due to our time constraints, we didn’t have the opportunity to take in all that the Aquarium has to offer, but we really enjoyed the additional tours that we experienced during our visit to the Long Beach Aquarium a couple of years ago so we encourage you to check out the web site ( so you don’t miss a thing!

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Eager to see all that we could on our last day we heading south on Highway 1, we took our time getting to Big Sur with plenty of stops along the way to take pictures of the coast. I would recommend this as a stand-alone day trip so that you get to see everything in the area. Once we actually got to Big Sur it was a let-down because it wasn’t well marked (or we missed the sign). We got all the way down to the State Park and turned around without realizing we’d actually passed Big Sur! On our downward trek the weather was gorgeous and the sights outstanding. By the time we’d turned around to head back – just a matter of 2 hours – the weather had changed and it was cold and foggy. Talk about perfect timing! The trip back was less than inspiring with no point in stopping along the way, so we were fortunate enough to make it back to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a beautiful little town right on the ocean with a beautiful white sand beach. Carmel is more upper-crust than the other towns and cities we’d visited in the area, with plenty of art galleries and several gourmet restaurants. Take the time to visit and have a relaxing stroll along the tree-lined streets and boulevards. Website: CarmelCalifornia

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Unfortunately, as we headed north from Carmel, we knew we were going to run out of daylight, so, while disappointed, we opted out of travelling the infamous 17-Mile Drive – just one more reason we’d have to come back to Monterey. For details on 17-Mile Drive visit Pebble

Heading back to the hotel, we were glad we’d taken the time to cram so much into our last day in California.

The next morning we were apprehensive about our trip back to San Francisco to the airport. Part of the trip required driving through San Jose and San Francisco during morning rush hour. Our regular jaunts in our area through Toronto, Ontario any time of the day makes us loath the thought of rush hour. Well I can only say this: You call that “Rush Hour”?! It was nothing. We slowed down a little through San Jose, but still didn’t get any slower than 50 mph. San Francisco was barely a slow down from 65 mph. If Americans think this is bad, they’d better stay away from Toronto – or Southern Ontario in general!

Needless to say, we got to the airport 1 ½ hours sooner than planned because of the “Rush Hour” traffic. We were told by Californians that the trip from Monterey to San Francisco on Highway 101 was about 1 hour 45 minutes on a good day, so I added an extra hour to allow for traffic. We did the whole trip in less than two hours, and that included stopping for a quick breakfast and to fill up the car. So there you have it.. you can take a quick trip from the airport to Monterey, or a leisurely 4 or 5 hours. It all depends on what’s important to you.

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The Monterey Peninsula is truly stunning, clean and more than worth the trip. Without a doubt, we’ll return to take in the sights that we missed. It’s certainly tempting to return to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca & Monterrey Peninsula in October for the ALMS events … there are different sights to see at that time of year, with the Monarch Butterfly migration and different species of whales swimming through the area on their migrations. A week in the area really is not enough – especially if you’re taking the time to go to the races – but don’t let that stop you .. be sure to visit Monterey Peninsula and the surrounding area on your next race vacation … you’ll be glad you did!

Copyright © 2008 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text: Iain Shankland / Images: Iain Shankland / Gail Shankland

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