Content Produced in Partnership with the Monterey County CVB
Monterey and Big Sur are a patchwork of communities each with their own vibe that extend well beyond the stunning film locations. A haven for creative spirits and kindred souls, the rugged cliffs and the sheer power of the waves inspired Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Alanis Morissette, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and all the greatest artists, authors, and musicians of our generation, keen on paying respect to the raw, rugged nature. You can actually feel the reverberations in the air as Monterey has become a sort of refuge for those seeking something – direction, inspiration, a sign. People return year after year in hopes of finding meaning in the place where the ocean blends effortlessly into the sky.
On land, it’s nickname is “America’s last hometown,” but make no mistake, it’s the water that rules the area. The blue marine canyon extends as deep as the Grand Canyon, proving the depths of the ocean are just as much a mystery as outer space. Home to sea life and marine animals found nowhere else on the planet; it’s simultaneously the familiar and the foreign that is so mesmerizing.
One of those love it but leave it wild kind of places, when you visit Monterey, understand it’s a journey more than a trip. The people you meet along the way will be just as important as the places where you stop to watch the waves.
The most iconic stretch of Pacific Coast Highway 1, Big Sur’s winding, twisting roads are made for driving… if you can manage not to be seduced by the views. There is almost no cell service but no one seems to care. We even forgot to turn on the music from time to time, the crashing waves the best soundtrack and white noise, everyone lost in their own thoughts and reflections. Stop for photos and to stretch your legs at Garrapata State Park (there are plenty of hiking trails if you’re into that), Bixby Bridge (pull over at designated turnouts at either side of the bridge), and McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Meet the Locals
Regularly voted the best aquarium in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is Monterey’s biggest attraction and a window into the unique microclimate of the National Marine Sanctuary. Featuring both indoor and outdoor ocean exhibits, don’t miss the otters, jellies, penguins, octopus, kelp forest feedings, and a huge touch tank for the kids.
Explore Old Fisherman’s Wharf
The place to take in the sights, smells, and sounds of coastal California, wander the wharf’s never-ending row of candy shops and seafood shacks. There are dozens of clam chowder samples to sustain you, but the signature dish requires a bread bowl. You can take a glass bottom boat to look for whales or dolphins, and watch for seals and sea lions sunning themselves by the shore. The Blue Blues coffeeshop from Big Little Lies is actually Paluca Trattoria so if you’re a fan of the show, be sure to pay homage to Jane, Madeline, and Celeste’s regular hangout.
Sip and Swirl in California Wine Country
Carmel Valley is home to more than 25 tasting rooms in a quarter-mile, which makes wine-tasting both easy and approachable. You can make it a self-guided tour or hop on the Wine Trolley for a fun and festive afternoon. Known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals, together they make up about 70% of the area’s AVA. One not to miss stop is Twisted Roots, which just celebrated its 100-year anniversary. It’s the perfect example of the spirit of the local winemakers, founded by a humble farmer with great passion and better stories.
Hit the Greens
Monterey’s golf game is famous the world over. Whether you’re a pro or prefer to stick to the driving range, Pebble Beach is the #1 public course in the country and a longtime host of the PGA Tour. Test your mettle on the “cliffs of doom” or enjoy being serenaded by the bagpiper at Spanish Bay at sunset. Travel + Leisure called 17-mile drive “one of the most scenic drives in America” so even if putting’s not your cup of tea, it’s worth exploring the area.
Literary Stops Around Big Sur:
For my fellow book nerds, here’s where to walk in the footsteps of the greats.
Henry Miller Memorial Library – An eclectic, eccentric nonprofit performance venue, memorial, and bookstore housed in Miller’s former secretary’s home, the Henry Miller Library is a treasure trove of old manuscripts, typewriters, scribbled thoughts and notes that feels like an intimate look into the inner workings of a crazy-genius mind.
Cannery Row – Renamed after Steinbeck’s namesake novel, Cannery Row is one of the most popular districts in Monterey. Keep an eye out for the statue dedicated to the characters in the book and the tiles commemorating the old sardine canning factories. After you walk the streets and browse the shops, you can also explore the area on a kayak tour of the wharf.
The National Steinbeck Center – Located in the Nobel Prize winning author’s hometown of Salinas, the interactive museum has multi-sensory exhibits dedicated to East of Eden, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. You can also have lunch at the Steinbeck house, the author’s childhood home.
Esalen Institute – A self-proclaimed place for self-discovery, the Esalen Institute is a spiritual retreat. While most come to soak in the healing waters of the hot springs (clothing optional after dark), they also offer workshops and classes dedicated to personal transformation. Famous alum include Deepak Chopra, Ansel Adams, Carl Rogers, and dozens more.
Unmissable Monterey Photo Ops:
- The Lone Cypress (along 17-Mile Drive)
- Lovers Point Park
- The Monterey Bay Aquarium (the circle window in the kelp forest)
- Point Pinos Lighthouse (the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast)
- Bixby Bridge (as seen from both sides of the road)
- McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Whales, dolphins, and surfers, oh my
Places to Indulge in Monterey:
Sardine Factory – One of the can’t-miss restaurants on Cannery Row, the Sardine Factory is a testament to the longevity of the area. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, they’ve won virtually every food award in the book from best fine dining experience to best wine list. A classic splurge meal, expect refined dishes like bone marrow, escargot, and surf and turf with extravagant touches like sorbet served on glowing ice swans and smoked chocolate bonbons doused in dry ice.
Lucia Restaurant & Bar – The restaurant in Bernardus Lodge is the epitome of California cuisine. The patio is perfect for sipping vino and eating crisp, fresh veg while listening to an acoustic guitarist set the mood. Seasonal artichokes and heirloom tomatoes are the stars of the show with house-made honey and wine to compliment the dishes. Chef Cal Stamenov is revered the world over with Julia Child the first to sign his kitchen wall.
Vesuvio – New-school Italian, Chef Pepe blends his rich European heritage with California coastal cuisine. Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, there’s a bit of everything on the menu from wood-fired pizza to homemade pasta and even sushi. Make it a carb feast with the garlic bread (a 100-year old family recipe), truffle gnocchi, lasagna, and homemade ravioli.
Nepenthe – The most iconic restaurant on Highway 1, Nepenthe is set on a cliff 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Family owned and operated since 1949, it’s been a gathering place for poets, artists, and travelers for decades. Even when temporarily shuttered for the fires, people would still show up wanting service, refusing to heed evacuation warnings. Food is causal with classic dishes like the Ambrosia burger and the broiled shrimp BLT. Be sure to leave time to explore Phoenix, the cute boho souvenir shop underneath.
Montrio – The best bartender in Monterey for 10+ years, Montrio has fun cocktails like “If you’re not into yoga.” A green-certified restaurant, it’s another example of seasonal small plates focused around sustainable, locally sourced seafood.
Sunset Lounge – Located in the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, the 1,200-square foot sundeck is actually Celeste’s glass window view from Big Little Lies so expect an insane panoramic overlook of the ocean. Seasonal farm-to-table cuisine, about 90% of their produce comes from within a 50-mile radius with drinks that are also out of this world.
The C Restaurant – Tucked inside the InterContinental The Clement on Cannery Row, the hotel décor is fully inspired by the sea. With both sweet and savory selections, C Restaurant is a great option for brunch before the aquarium.
Where to Stay in Monterey:
With so many amazing hideaways in Monterey, it’s hard to recommend just one. Here are a few standouts and their vibes.
Treebones Resort (Rustic, Big Sur) – If you’re adventurous and like unique accommodations, you can actually spend the night in a treehouse or yurt. Described as a community of coastal dwellers, it’s made for people who want to try living off the land.
Deetjens Big Sur Inn (Rustic, Big Sur) – For a true cabin in the woods vibe, guests return to Deetjens year after year because they say it feels like coming home. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s run as a not-for-profit, a treasure to be enjoyed by all. Romantic and rustic, expect no door locks, TV, or internet. As such, reservations must be made the old-fashioned way – by picking up the phone.
Lighthouse Lodge & Cottages (Comfortable, Pacific Grove) – Fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs, what more do you need? A cozy getaway a few blocks from Point Pinos Lighthouse, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, amazing golf, and the beach, you can watch the waves while looking for breaching whales virtually in your backyard.
Hotel Pacific (Comfortable, Monterey) – Just steps from Fisherman’s Wharf, Hotel Pacific is all about location, location, location. In the heart of downtown Monterey, the décor mirrors the seashore.
Bernardus Lodge (Splurge, Carmel Valley) – An intimate and understated wine country retreat for those who appreciate the finer things in life, Bernardus was the resort that put Carmel Valley on the map. While the winery came before the lodge, the whole property feels like an aromatherapy retreat with gardens that mimic the clean California cuisine. There is bocce, croquet, and tennis, along with a Forbes four-star spa for those in need of a little R&R.
Ventana Big Sur (Splurge, Big Sur) – An exclusive five-star resort built into the forest that still manages to overlook the ocean, Ventana translates to “window” in Spanish, which reflects the modern, glass facades with views of pure serenity. The sprawling grounds feature Japanese baths, a glass house art gallery, clothing optional infinity pools, meditation classes, and wine and cheese happy hours.
Post Ranch Inn (Splurge, Big Sur) – Called “a sanctuary for the soul,” 39 posh guest rooms are built right into the cliffs overlooking Big Sur. Expect an elegant and exclusive splurge-worthy retreat complete with morning yoga, guided nature walks, stargazing, and a car service.
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