Arguably some of the most beautiful spots in California, the coastal towns of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-sea near Big Sur have long been upscale havens for the jet set. It’s definitely high end, with its ocean view cottages, European ivy wrapped cafes and the famed Pebble Beach Golf Club. Clint Eastwood is the former mayor of Carmel for pete’s sake! With its million dollar (baby) homes overlooking the picturesque Central Californian coast, you can see why this area is the background for many novels (notably those of native son John Steinbeck), movies and television shows, most recently Big Little Lies.
It does seem like a place to where a person with secrets would escape (just picture yourself out on a balcony, wrapped in a cashmere shawl, wind whipping through your hair, gazing wistfully over the turbulent surf–channel your inner Nicole Kidman for this). You can see it, can’t you?
I made my escape there for a weekend wedding, making a mini-road trip of it, Joad family style. It is definitely doable in a weekend, but obviously the more time, the better to experience the serenity and calm of this seaside retreat.
An early Saturday morning drive is the best to get to the central coast because the 101 flows and you don’t get stuck in hours and hours of bay area traffic. It takes about 3.5 hours from SF, 1.5 hours from San Jose. The best is the final turn to get to Highway 1, or Pacific Coast Highway and you see the navy tones of the bay appear around the bend. Downtown Monterey has very California-specific Spanish architecture, with old adobes and the large Old Spanish Cemetery, with its above ground mausoleums and crypts like in New Orleans.
First stop is to get some food. Monterey has an abundance of french bakeries, but you’ll want to stop at Parker- Lusseau (not open on Sundays). Their almond croissant tastes so authentically European, with gooey marzipan laced into the folds of flaky dough. Paris Bakery is another solid choice for delectable pastries in Downtown Monterey.
From there, you can meander around Del Monte Street, where there’s the main drag of restaurants and shops. It’s like any cute downtown, but this isn’t where the action is, you have to head towards the water for that.
The Old Customs House sits at the entrance to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The wharf is like any–lots of touristy seafood counters and souvenir shops, along with a myriad of boats ready to take you on a whale watching adventure of a lifetime. Not a huge fan of boats, but have seen Blue Whales and Humpbacks on these wayfaring vessels as a child. Worth it if you’ve never been–at least it’ll make a whale of a tale.
A hidden gem amongst the kitsch is Water + Leaves. This hip coffee shop has a back patio where you can view stand up paddle boarders and kayaks skim the waters of the back bay. They have huge vats of local honey, so I couldn’t help myself a added some Morgan Hill Lotus Blossom honey to my Golden Yunnan tea latte. ’twas delicious.
If you’re an avid cyclist or if you’re not lazy like me, you can walk 1 mile along the shore to Cannery Row. This former sardine canning area was forever immortalized in John Steinbeck’s identically titled novel. John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, his realistic depictions of the Depression and Dust Bowl era 1930s-1940s, industry and farming communities interwoven with themes of morality and justice is true Americana. Are you a Mack or a Doc? Or maybe you’re a George or a Lenny.
At the end of this waterfront stretch is the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m going to warn you: it’s very expensive. But, the money goes to protecting oceans and marine life, so it’s not wanton by any means. It’s worth it. It’s one of the best aquariums in the world, in my opinion, and such a stalwart destination in this area. Growing up, when you thought of Monterey, you thought of the aquarium and the Jazz Festival.
Speaking of the Jazz Pop Festival, this happens in early June every year, and has drawn luminaries from Jimi Hendrix to the Who. It was one of the first major festivals and probably one of the most influential (Janis Joplin’s first wide scale public performance). This ain’t your millennials taking selfies in a field somewhere kind of festival. It’s a true celebration of sound.
Anyway, back to the aquarium. It opens at 10 and even if you get there early, there will be a line that wraps around the building. Buy your tickets online, there’s a separate line that is shorter, and also the ticket is good for anytime within the year, so you can buy and go at any time and receive as gifts.
Everyone loves the sea otters, and I mean, you should they’re super cute, but I always high tail it to the Ocean exhibit to hit the jellyfish wall first. This is my favorite.
These translucent creatures are illuminated by the soft glow of perfect lighting in their tanks and it’s a sight to behold. Seriously this aquarium has photo lighting down to a science.
There’s also a GIGANTAUR floor to ceiling aquarium where you can see tornadoes of fish, turtles, manta rays swimming. It’s truly immersive, you feel like you’re Jacques Cousteau in the deep with them.
Everything is so well done in this aquarium, from the tide pool touching areas (starfish, hermit crabs, urchins, bat rays), shark tanks, penguin and sea otter feedings, tropical fish and octopus exhibits.
There’s also educational and scientific programs depicting how pollution is affecting our oceans. It’s great for visitors of all ages, not just kids.
You can spend hours here. Unfortunately, I had to high tail it to the wedding, but if I could I would’ve floated on for the whole afternoon. I hadn’t been here in about 20 years, so it was definitely wonderful to experience again.
The drive into Carmel Valley is fairly short. Now there’s a difference between Carmel and Carmel by the Sea. You can probably tell based on the names what the geographical disparity are. Carmel Valley is about a 20 mile drive down Carmel Valley Road from C-b-t-s, which we’ll get to–patience, my friends There’s a lot of resorts and hotels, some restaurants dotting this sides of the roads, but it’s a little off the beaten track. My friends got married at Holman Ranch, which is a beautiful venue with the Carmel highlands in the background. Just all around postcard views.
Next door is the Blue Sky Lodge, which is a little motel that has everything you need for a short stay. Nothing less, nothing more.
Even after staying up way past by bedtime, my insomnia still prevailed and I woke up at the crack of dawn the next morning. This was perfect because I drive the ~ 15 minutes south towards Big Sur to catch the sunrise at the Bixby Creek Bridge. This bridge is famous. It’s been in tons of movies and TV shows, it’s the title of a Death Cab for Cutie song.
The architecture of it is stunning, with its graceful arches. There’s a little place to pull over and take pictures, but I actually prefer the view from the north on Coast Road which is just off to the left of the bridge. If you park up there, you can snap a shot of the bridge against the water, and with the sunrise in the opposite direction, you get a view that looks like this.
Continuing the drive south, I went all the way down to Point Sur, where there’s a lighthouse on the little island, but it wasn’t open that early. Central California coast is gorgeous in the low light of dawn. Actually in any light, but especially so in the morning.
You can get some pretty cool shots of the bridge from the south from the vantage points along the road though.
Making my way back into town, I entered the Pebble Beach 17 mile drive ($10.50). This is the visitor’s fee to the Del Monte forest, which contains many notable landmarks and the Pebble Beach Golf Course. It would be a dream to live in this area, although you’d have to share the area with looky-loo tourists like me I guess.
Pebble Beach is the #1 public golf course/resort in America, and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful. Location to multiple US Opens, it sits on the southern part of the Monterey peninsula, the greens abutting the coastline. Could you imagine a more beautiful view than this while you’re golfing?
The 17 mile drive will also take you past the Lone Cypress. This is one of the most famous trees in the world, a single tree standing up to the rugged shore. It’s the logo of Pebble Beach and has been battered and beaten by winds and fires over the years. Still she stands tall (with the help of cables).
After the drive, I stopped in Carmel-by-the-sea because I am fancy and I needed to grab a quick bite to eat because I was famished. Mission Ranch is the classic brunch spot in town, the Inn is one of the renowned in the area for its luxury accommodations. But as a solo traveler, and someone who has some awareness of my lack of self-control at buffets, I opted for something more simple.
La Bicyclette is an adorable cafe that serves pizzas and Southern French/Mediterranean region fare. It literally looks like you’re in Belle’s village in Beauty & the Beast. I had the fig and proscuitto pizza, which was crusty and lovely and fatty and rich. Reservations highly recommended, as this place fills up if you’re not the first in line when it opens.
Dolores Street is part of the main drag through town and there’s a very East Hampton vibe about it (can be a little pretentious but overall quaint). Very Ina Garten (who is fancy but down home and I love her so don’t @ me)–little bakeries, cafes, inns, antique shops. Everything I love in one place.
Down the road on Junipero Serra Street, you’ll find Mission Carmel. One of California’s historic missions, this is probably the most beautiful in terms of architecture. It is also the one I selected for my 4th grade mission project, so I have a special place in my heart for this one. Father Serra also had a special place in his heart as he requested to be buried here. It’s also the location of the first library in California. Very literary area.
On the drive back home, I drove through Salinas which is the birthplace of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner John Steinbeck. There’s a National Steinbeck Center, library and his boyhood home, which serves food in its restaurant on the weekdays. Driving from the coast to this inland agricultural area, you can see how the name East of Eden fits perfectly (even though he borrowed it from the book of Genesis). This was probably his most ambitious book, biblical in length and themes, and it is a modern masterpiece. It’s one of my favorites. Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice & Men get more love, but East of Eden is an epic treasure.
Notably there’s also FABULOSO Mexican food in this town. El Charrito is a take out place/market that has amazing burritos. They are small, but that means you can eat more of them. The flour tortillas are made in house and are filled with anything from marinated chicharrones (!!!), lengua, carnitas, carne asada and al pastor meats. I bought three, and they were demolished before the day was over.
There’s no better way to experience all that central California has to offer than to enjoy the beauty of the Monterey Bay and Big Sur, the tranquil of the aquarium, the rustic sophistication of a ranch, the upscale trappings of Carmel-by-the-sea, the winding roads of the Del Monte forest, the depth of area’s literary history, the charming Spanish architecture of a mission, and the downright deliciousness of home cooked authentic Mexican fare. Nothing but California love for the central coast.