Travel: New Year’s Eve in Monterey

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Anyone looking to get out of town for New Year’s Eve has an invitation to Monterey’s First Night, a community event held throughout downtown Monterey. “First Night is about community, celebration, the new year and art,” explains the website for First Night International, the organization that umbrellas First Night events. Monterey holds the only one in Northern California, and it’s the fifth largest of more than 130 First Nights throughout the world. Last year, some 20,000 people converged on downtown Monterey.
     Monterey’s venues—street corners, churches, concert halls, museums, bank lobbies, elevators, balconies, plazas, whatever—come alive as musicians, poets, storytellers, puppeteers, dancers, actors and visual artists do their thing. The hot spot this year will be the Colton Hall lawn, where the main stage will be set up. Bring cash for clam chowder or other Monterey-centric cuisine because participating restaurants dish up favorites at food booths throughout the streets. The fun kicks off with a walking procession down Alvarado Street and ends with a midnight finale that includes numerous New Year’s Eve countdowns, with big ones at the Golden State Theatre and in the Serra Ballroom at the Mon-terey Conference Center. The party goes on rain or shine.
     Spend a few days in the area, dine at a green restaurant in Pacific Grove, and visit the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, where a great white shark might still be on display this month, but the new seahorse exhibit will definitely be in full swing.

Bring the Kids
One of First Night’s charms is its family-friendliness. Kids’ activitiesbegin at 4 p.m. and include creation stations: places to paint, bead, draw, and get henna-tattooed and face-painted. With music and puppet shows, balloon-twisters and dance venues, First Night has a reputation for keeping youngsters entertained right up till the stroke of midnight.

Sleep Over

After the fanfare and fireworks, head to one of downtown Monterey’s hotels—Portola Hotel, the Monterey Marriott or Casa Munras. All sit in the heart of Monterey’s First Night boundaries, which makes it easy to get off your aching feet. If a B&B experience appeals, secure a reservation at the Old Monterey Inn. Located near downtown on a shady side street, the inn beckons with feather beds and down comforters, fireplaces, stained-glass windows and peaceful gardens, not to mention a glorious full breakfast.

Stay Sober
No public drinking is allowed at First Night, so don’t expect to wander around with a beer in your hand. Since the first First Night (in Boston, 1976), First Night organizers have insisted on a nonalcoholic event. But your New Year’s Eve need not be totally teetotaling—First Night venues are alcohol free, but plenty of restaurants and bars in Monterey’s downtown area will be open and serving drinks that evening.

See Pregnant Men
For the next three years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium runs its Secret Lives of Seahorses exhibit. With 15 species of seahorses on display in four multimedia galleries, the aquarium’s collection celebrates the secretive animals’ lives from conception. Learn that seahorses are the only species in the animal kingdom that hangs the burden of pregnancy on men—the males carry and birth the babies. Get clued in to conservation efforts, as the seahorses’ habitat—like most ocean creatures’—is continuously threatened by fishing and coral reef destruction.

Get Passionate About Food

While you’re in the area, make time for dinner one night at Passionfish, a delightful restaurant on Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove. The Monterey Peninsula’s first “green” restaurant, Passionfish prides itself on its sustainable seafood, slow-cooked local meats and vegetarian dishes. The owners, Ted and Cindy Walter (Ted’s the chef) take their passion beyond their restaurant, extending their advocacy for sustainable fishing practices and the ban of nonrecyclable products through legislative arm-twisting, public presentations, and speaking to classrooms
full of chefs and other restaurant professionals. Pop into Passionfish expecting the unexpected, because the menu changes daily.

Walk on the Wild Side
One of the best reasons to visit Mon-terey exists just outside the aquarium: the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail. Fronting the ocean between the aquarium and Lovers Point, the trail meanders through the ice plant and past beaches. Rent a surrey and pedal along the path, or let your feet do the walking as you watch kayakers and paddle surfers glide among the kelp. Keep your eyes peeled for otters. Past Lovers Point, follow the path into Pacific Grove, where the ocean becomes rougher and the waves come charging in to crash against the big rocks that line the shore.    

First Night at a Glance
Where: Monterey’s Historic Downtown.
When: Dec. 31, 2009–Jan. 1, 2010, 4 p.m.–midnight.
How much: Adults $20/Children 5–16 $15/Children 4 and younger free.
Visit: firstnightmonterey.org