Monterey, Carmel, & Big Sur: 3 Days of California Dreaming

The Monterey Peninsula is indubitably my favorite part of the United States. Few other places offer so much scenery and culture jam packed into one drivable area. The awe-inspiring natural landscape, teeming with wildlife from otters to sea lions to humpback whales, stays with you long after you leave. The cultural depth of the area, with everything from Steinbeck museum to the Henry Miller library, is enough to pique your intellectual curiosity. And with no shortage of tantalizing food and wine options, this place gives everyone a taste of the good life.

Monterey Bay
View of Monterey Bay

I’ve visited this area 2 times now, and have managed to do completely different things. Even after 2 trips I’ve not managed to see everything on my list, which is fine by me, as it inspires future getaways to this area. Both times I’ve arrived with a loose idea of what I want to see, but I’ve let the itinerary unfold naturally in a way that allows me to go with the flow and do as I feel (which seems natural in California). As such, I’ve compiled this post to highlight several can’t-miss experiences that are noteworthy and worth taking your time to explore.

 

Monterey & Pacific Grove by Land

Monterey is the largest of these three areas, and certainly feels the most developed. With a deep history that dates back to the 1800’s, this town served as a fishing village and the heart of the sardine/anchovy industry. As such, the aptly named “Cannery Row”, serves as the main tourist drag. Cannery Row has historical significance and was the setting for John Steinbeck’s book of the same name (which I highly recommend reading to get a sense of the history before you visit). While this stretch is a bit touristy for my taste, it is a convenient home base as you can walk or bike to much of the best sites in Monterey. Our preferred homebase is the InterContinental The Clement Monterey, as its located right on the water and has all of the creature comforts you’d expect of a luxury hotel, but in a very relaxed coastal California way. It’s also next to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a must-see. The stretch from cannery row east towards the old fisherman’s wharf is a very nice walk. At the wharf, you may be lucky enough to see otters cracking open shells, or seals sunning themselves. And you are certainly guaranteed to see the sea lions barking out on the jetty. The Wharf is the spot you’ll want to go to pick up a whale-watching tour or similar activity.

Monterey Sunrise
Sunrise over Monterey Bay as viewed from the InterContinental Hotel on Cannery Row

One of my favorite ways to explore Monterey is on bike, as there are easy-to-navigate paths throughout the area. You can easily rent a bike on Cannery row and head West towards Pacific Grove. Check out Lovers Point Park and beach, and continue up the coast. You can pop into downtown Pacific Grove and see the quaint Victorian shops and restaurants along Forest Ave for a quick bite, or swing by Happy Girl Kitchen for delicious vegetarian fare. If you’re in town during the fall and winter months, you can catch the migrating Monarch butterflies as they make their journey to warmer climates at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. What appears to be moss on the trees is actually a plethora of butterflies that line the branches. [Note: The ‘sanctuary’ is located behind an Inn and isn’t a formal building. It’s simply a forested area with a walking path. Bring binoculars. It may not feel like you’re in the right place, but look up closely at the tree branches and you’ll see them lined with thousands of butterflies]

 

Monterey Bay by Water

Sea Lions

The other great way to explore Monterey is by getting close to the water in a kayak. Adventures by the Sea rents kayaks that novice and experts alike can enjoy. A quick kayak adventure puts you up close with the bay wildlife, including the famous resident otters. As otters raft together in groups, you’re likely to encounter at least one set that you can observe. Kayaking on the water also allows you to get up close to the kelp forests that blanket the bay. Seeing them up close helps you appreciate their beauty and the complexity of the ecosystem they provide. A kayaking adventure also allows you to journey to the jetty by Fisherman’s wharf and get up close and personal to the hundreds of barking sea lions. They’ll be as equally as interested in you, and likely swim around your kayak to see what you’re all about (from a safe distance of course).

 

Views for Days in Big Sur

Big Sur View
View of Big Sur from Nepenthe

In terms of natural beauty, Big Sur provides some of the most jaw-dropping views I’ve ever seen on this planet. Where the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains dip into the sea, many astonishing vistas are created. One of the easiest ways to explore this area is to simply drive South from Carmel on Highway 1. There are many look-out points along the way to snap photos (so many stopping points that you may actually tire of stopping, but each view will lure you back for more with its breathtaking beauty).

Get an early start and spend the morning enjoying the views of highway 1. Take a detour to Pfeiffer Beach. Enjoy exploring this unique beach with purple-hued sands, expansive beach, and unique arch rock formations. If you happen to find yourself here at sunset, there is an arched rock that perfectly frames it. (Note: there are no signs, so plug it into your GPS. Be aware that it’s a sharp, hairpin turn to your right and a few miles down a narrow road).

 

When hunger strikes, Big Sur provides at least 3 notable options to dine while taking in the views, ranging from a budget-friendly café up to James-Beard worthy fine dining.  If you’re a foodie at heart, it’s worth the splurge to pay a visit to Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn. Perched high on a cliff, this boutique luxury inn serves Michelin-star worthy meals in an environment that is as close as one can get to Heaven without leaving this earth.  The quiet reflective environment serve as the perfect backdrop to frame the views, providing such an elevated dining experience that you’ll likely never want to leave. You’ll need reservations, but it’s definitely worth a visit for either lunch or dinner. Beyond Post Ranch Inn, more affordable (and casual) options include the adjoining Nepenthe and Café Kevah, which offer just as stunning views but in a more relaxed and informal environment.

View from Post Ranch Inn
View from the Sierre Mar restaurant at Post Ranch Inn

After lunch, take a culture break and explore the nearby Henry Miller Memorial Library. Once home to the famed author, the library now serves as an almost bohemian mecca that pays homage to Miller and the beatnik generation. There is an intimate outdoor performance venue (check schedules to see if there is an event happening), and a small library full of interesting books you’ll want to take home.

Once you are filled and feeling cultured, it’s time to get back to nature. A few miles down the road (2.8 miles to be exact), take a detour to explore Partington Cove. A 15 minute hike down to the ocean and you’ll see an alcove that of constantly-churning seafoam (the water in this area is so frothy it looks like a matcha latte). Take in the views of this area, then head back up the trail and take the footbridge to the other side. Enter a tunnel and emerge the other side with cragged rocks that look like as if they suddenly appeared from a postcard of a Greek isle. (note: this used to be a shipping point for tanning bark in the early 19th century, and the tunnel was constructed as part of the trade route).  Spend a few moments taking in the view here, then hike back up to your car and continue heading south on High way 1 down to Julia Pfeffier Burns State Park (sidenote: the Pfeiffer family name is heavily used in this area, and it gets confusing. Remember the full name of the area you intend to visit to make sure you end up there). At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, take Waterfall Overlook trail to get a view of McWay Falls. [Note: you will not be able to actually get to the beach or waterfall…but you can get lovely views from the trail].

By now it’s likely late in the day. It’s a good stopping point to turn around and head back up the coast to make it in time for dinner. If time allows, stop at the Bixby Bridge to take a few photos with the glowing afternoon sun.

Bixby Bridge
Bixby Bridge on Highway 1

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Of the towns on the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel-by-the-sea certainly feels the most moneyed and international, with the adjacent Pebble Beach serving as an extension of the town. Walking along the quaint shops of Ocean Drive, you’ll hear many languages spoken as this town attracts visitors from all over the world. The charming street is filled with boutique shops and cafes that you could easily while away the day. Be sure to wind your day down to Carmel Beach at the end of Ocean Drive, for one of the best spots to take in the sunset.

Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea

The legendary Pebble Beach Resort is worth exploring even if you have no interest in golf, and can be seen a number of ways. I recommend grabbing a later afternoon drink at the Terrace Lounge by the famed 18th Hole and enjoying the view of Carmel from here. Then move over to the Inn at Spanish Bay of Pebble Beach to take in the sunset, complete with a Scottish bagpiper. The Inn at Spanish Bay has 2 high-end restaurants if you’d like to dine while taking in the sunset:  Roys (Hawaiian) or Peppoli (Italian). If you want multiple viewpoints of the sunset, take the 17 mile drive along the coast of Pebble Beach and stop along the way to find the perfect spot (of note: the 17 mile drive is well worth doing ANY time of day as well. But bring cash. It costs $10.25 and only cash is accepted).

Pebble Beach
Sunset dinner at Peppoli at Pebble Beach

Beyond Pebble Beach, other notable spots to eat in Carmel include Mission Inn Ranch, a historic spot restored by Clint Eastwood. While the food and drink is more old-school, the setting on a ranch (complete with sheep) is a beautiful backdrop for an unforgettable sunset.

Nearby Carmel is also one of my favorite coastal hikes at Point Lobos State Park. In the same hike (and possible from one vantage point) you can see whales breaching at sea, sea lions sunning on an island, and otters hunting for clams. The walk along the coastal cliff is one of the most high-yield hikes that offers you to see so much in a relatively short amount of time. Certainly worth doing even if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

As the Monterey Peninsula is a place I hope to visit time and time again, I will continue to update this post with new spots I discover while exploring the area on a future trip.

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