Since Kalen had to work most of the time we were in the Bay Area, we didn’t get to do a full vacation’s worth of fun stuff, but we still found time for some really cool diversions. A lot of it wasn’t technically in San Jose, but when you’ve traveled this far anyway, driving a little bit through new and exciting scenery doesn’t feel like a burden.
The most fun I had in San Jose was probably eating, especially at the San Pedro Square Market, which I already detailed in my last post. My pre-travel research showed that there were some neat museums not far from our hotel, and while I hoped to see them, I ended up not finding the time and will have to do that next time.
I’m typically not much of a shopper, but I did do a little shopping in California. There was a huge mall not too far from the hotel, Westfield Valley Fair, and a smaller (but still bigger than most malls in Missouri, outside of Saint Louis and Kansas City) mall in Milpitas, near where Kalen was working. I can’t speak to fancy deals or shops because those vary regionally and seasonally, but after running around with growing frustration at my pants falling down, I did find a replacement pair of jeans that fit much better, which was a smash success (and historically a rarity for me). I also noted that the mall in Milpitas had a large section that smelled phenomenal, but I couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from, and it seemed to spread further than was likely for a smell coming from just one store. I would like to humbly suggest that all malls make more of an effort to smell like waffles, and if they don’t know how, they should ask the Great Mall for tips.
We also ventured a little further south around Monterey Bay to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We initially thought we might be able to visit it after our whale watching excursion, but it closed a little earlier than we expected, so we instead drove back down from San Jose just to visit the aquarium the next day, and it was a very doable drive. The aquarium and its research facilities have been part of some really significant marine conservation and exploration, and it was fascinating to see specimens on display that had been discovered by the facility’s programs. We visited on a Sunday morning, though, and it was packed. This was certainly the largest crowd I’d been in since the start of the pandemic and we wore masks as an extra precaution. Tickets had to be purchased online, which we thankfully saw ahead of time, but even with the admission line being as long as it was, we were surprised with how quickly the line moved.
I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t as impressed with the aquarium as I had hoped to be. I’m sure some of it was just personal discomfort with the crowd. There were also a lot of displays that were great for young children, but I wasn’t feeling particularly compelled to be the weird adult crawling around on the floor with a bunch children who weren’t mine. I did enjoy the kelp forest exhibit, which was beautiful, and the displays with the sea otters and penguins were both lively and entertaining but they weren’t exceptionally different from similar habitats at other aquariums or zoos. There is a gorgeous outdoor area that provides a nice respite from the crowds and exceptional views right into the bay. Contrary to what we’d seen in movies, there were no humpback whales in the outdoor pool (or, indoor either, oddly enough), but I suppose that’s largely because Kirk and Spock had Scotty beam them out of there almost 40 years ago.
A lot of the tanks could have benefitted from more information about the species displayed, and while the aquarium felt very large and sprawling, a surprising amount of that space was not exhibit space. If comparison is the thief of joy, and it is particularly apparent in this situation, because while the Monterey Bay Aquarium was nice, it certainly didn’t stand up to the memory of, say, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta (which I found to be more impressive and less expensive).
When we were finished at the Aquarium, we decided to go for a drive along the coast and admire the view. The road came to a little toll booth where a large man asked us, “Are you doing 17 Mile Drive today?” and since there was a car behind us and a gate in front of us, we said, “Guess so!” We paid the man and he gave us a map and we drove through into Pebble Beach. It wasn’t anything we had planned for but it ended up being a very nice way to spend the afternoon, especially with a convertible at our disposal. We took in the beautiful coast and listened to birds and even pulled off into a parking area to view a fenced and protected section where Harbor Seals congregate to give birth. There weren’t any pups at the moment, but there were a few seals just hanging out.
A little closer to San Jose is the Winchester Mystery House in Santa Clara. We didn’t visit on this trip, but we visited it in 2019, and I really enjoyed it, and if you’re here looking for vacation ideas, I didn’t want to leave this one out. The massive Victorian estate was the home of Sarah Winchester, whose husband was the founder of the Winchester Firearms Company. A lot of the press and publicity for the house centers on its supposed haunting, perhaps even by the ghosts of all the people killed by Winchester guns, and that its unusual and often impractical architecture were Mrs. Winchester’s attempts to confuse the spirits that pursued her from beyond the grave. I don’t know if I believe in any of that, and walking through the house in a medium-sized tour group at midday with a charismatic tour guide didn’t really add any spookiness, but it was still a fascinating tour through a mind-bogglingly expansive home. Rather than trying to hide from vengeful spirits, it seemed to me that Sarah Winchester was a wealthy and well-read woman who was interested in architectural trends of the time and, lonely after the death of her husband and infant daughter, enjoyed the company and liveliness that construction staff and their families brought to the estate. I don’t want to be the turd in the punchbowl for anyone who wants a cheap thrill over stairs to nowhere and doors that only open from one direction, but if anyone wants my no-fun theories, I’d be happy to discuss them somewhere else.
The main attraction for me, though, was whale watching. We had been whale watching on our last trip to San Francisco in 2019, on an all-day excursion out to the Farallon Islands with the Oceanic Society. I discovered on that trip, much to my surprise, that I am profoundly susceptible to seasickness. Even considering that I lost count of how many times I shared my breakfast with the sea, I had no regrets and have looked forward to going whale watching again. Because this trip was a little more pressed for time, we opted to try a different company that offered shorter tours and scheduled with Blue Ocean Whale Watch that would go out into Monterey Bay. My hope was that, since it was a shorter tour and didn’t go as far out into open sea, I wouldn’t feel as compelled to add to the volume of the ocean, but keeping the last adventure in mind, I took some Dramamine anyway to be safe.
We had beautiful weather for our excursion with sunny skies and moderate temperatures. Blue Ocean has a 60 ft boat and they cap tours at 28 people for the 4-5 hour tour. Before we even left the harbor, we saw several sea otters and California sea lions, and after just a few minutes an enormous bird swooped overhead. No one else on the boat said anything about it, but I told Kalen, “I think that was an albatross?” and a few days later, Blue Ocean shared on their social media that they had spied a Laysan albatross, so I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. I hadn’t realized “see an albatross” was on my bucket list, but I feel very accomplished at having seen one, so I guess it must have been. It didn’t come with any wafers, though, and no one could tell me what flavor it was.
We paid the little bit extra to be on the top deck which is limited to 8 people and provides a 360 degree view off the boat. Late February isn’t peak time for whales, but Monterey Bay is special in that it tends to have at least some whales all year long, and it wasn’t long before we found a handful of humpbacks. Captain Kate expertly maneuvered the boat to keep the whales in view as we watched them feed and explained the behavior that we were seeing.
I don’t typically get carsick. Airplanes don’t give me trouble. Roller coasters are good fun unless they’re augmented with video screens. But something about the ocean gets me. About halfway through our whale watching trip, even with dramamine, even with beautifully calm waters, even with land still in sight, I began to feel a little green around the gills and went to the main deck in case my breakfast made a reappearance.
I’ve been on two whale watching trips now and both times spent a considerable amount of the trip holding tightly to the rail waiting to hurl. I did briefly wonder if there was something wrong with me that I should willingly subject myself to such nausea, but I knew it always came back to the fact that the seasickness never actually prevented any whale watching. In fact, while not being sick is obviously the ideal scenario, I firmly believe that the best place to be sick (as we all are, from time to time) is on the back of a boat while watching whales. Instead of kneeling on a cold, hard bathroom floor, clinging to a toilet and staring at the horrors you missed last time you cleaned, you get to stand in the fresh air watching awesome creatures all around you. Imagine: rather than being face to face with unspeakable crusties, your nausea is interrupted by a magnificent beast whose breath sounds like a wave crashing on the shore! It’s a no brainer. And if you do end up doing the rainbow yawn, the ocean whisks it away faster and more thoroughly than even the fanciest of flushes. Seasickness is miserable, but it’s not half as miserable as any time I’ve been sick on land. The worst part, honestly, is the chilling realization that, had I been born a couple hundred years earlier and come to America on a ship across the sea like my ancestors did, I absolutely would have died. But what is life without a little existential horror, right?
As it turns out, I didn’t actually hurl this time; I just felt crummy (although the ginger ale that the crew gave me helped a lot), and we still saw the whales so closely, and a small pod of dolphins as well! I’m not an expert by any means (two trips is not a statistically significant sampling), but let me share this about seasickness and whale watching: it is worth it. When I share about my seasickness, my hope is to convey how awesome it was in spite of the discomfort. If you are thinking about going on a whale watching trip, don’t let the fear of seasickness hold you back.
On our way back to the hotel after whale watching, we stopped in Santa Cruz to see the whale skeletons on display outside the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to visit the inside of the discovery center because our timing didn’t work out, but the outdoor area was fascinating and boasted a stunning view of the bay. The skeletons on display are of a gray whale and a blue whale and, because you can get so close to them, they really convey how big these animals truly are. I’m going to make a point of visiting the center on our next trip to see what else they have.
All in all, it was a great trip. We found a nice balance between keeping busy and not wearing ourselves out, and we returned home refreshed and invigorated by all the things we had seen and done. What did I miss? What should I make time to see on our next visit? Have you been to any of these places and want to chime in? Leave your comments below!