Growing up on a tropical island, my image of beaches has always been that of coconut trees dotting the white sand shoreline, the harsh sun painting the sky a highly saturated blue, and a sweltering heat that makes the clear water a welcome respite.
That certainly wasn’t the case when we drive up to the beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a city in the Monterey Peninsula. For one, the group was balled up in sweaters for the late afternoon chill, and large cypress trees hold onto the last bits of soil before the grass gave way to the sand. Dogs were the only ones who dared going into the icy cold water—they cheerfully chase after the sticks their owners toss into the waves, shaking off the moisture as they bring their prized possession back for another go.
This was the kind of charm that permeated through the Monterey Peninsula, a row of cities that dotted this stretch of coast on Northern California. With its picturesque natural sights—including several hiking trails and a bay with thriving marine life—it’s the perfect escape from the frenzied days in the big cities.
PEBBLE BEACH AND 17-MILE DRIVE
A resort destination and a community with some affluent people in residence, Pebble Beach is a gated community that’s home to eight golf courses—courses that have some of the best views of the world—and the 17-Mile Drive. The scenic road requires a $10 toll fee, but it sure is worth it. Entering the gates lead you on a winding path through tall trees before running alongside the shore.
The 17-Mile Drive provides plenty of opportunities for photo ops, with markers and picnic tables to designate points of interest. Some of our favorites include the harbor seals at Fanshell Overlook, the rock formations at Point Joe (which we’re told is where many early mariners mistakenly crashed into the shore, thinking it was the entrance to Monterey Bay), and the rows of beautiful houses that overlook the shoreline—but the most notable would have to be The Lone Cypress. An iconic image in the region, the cypress has been growing on the graphite cliff for more than 200 years, and after being damaged in a fire, had to be reinforced with cables to help keep it in place. Standing over the thundering waves below, it’s a majestic sight that has become a symbol for Pebble beach.
MISSION SAN CARLOS BORROMEO DE CARMELO
Located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo was built by Franciscan missionaries—headed by St. Junipero Serra—in 1770. Listed as a US National Historic Landmark, it’s one of the oldest missions in California and still has its original bell tower. With its stone façade, clay tile roofs and surrounding foliage, the complex also houses a museum that chronicles the history of the mission and the area.
LOVER’S POINT PARK
If you’re lucky enough to be in the area during the spring, you can’t miss a visit to Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove. That’s when a section of the 4.4-acre stretch is in bloom, with pink and purple flora covering entire fields and some of the rock outcroppings. It’s a beautiful sight, and certain areas of the park are popular for weddings.
Sure, the famous one’s in San Francisco with its rows of restaurants and herds of tourists—but the one in Monterey Bay is quaint. The wooden pier is lined with charming store fronts, many of which offer a free taste of their clam chowder. A visit to the wharf is definitely not complete without the chowder, served in a sourdough bread bowl—hearty and warm, it’s the perfect companion in the chilly sea breeze.
The chowder is best enjoyed from the viewing deck at the end of the pier, which features views of the marina—yachts floating in their slips, and harbor seals lounging on the rocks jutting out of the water. Just make sure to hold on to your food, because the sea gulls flying overhead are all too eager to snatch it out of your hands.
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM
Of all the places I’d visited in the Monterey Peninsula, the Monterey Bay Aquarium would have to be my favorite. Located at the end of Cannery Row, the aquarium has a number of sea creatures in residence—jellyfish, penguins, seahorses, and the most varied species of fish I’d ever seen in one place. It’s easy to lose an entire day in the establishment; the different sections have markers with all the information on each specie to satiate any curiosity. And if that weren’t enough, the aquarium’s staff are happy to answer any questions.
The Ocean’s Edge Wing is one of the best stops, a 28-foot high display that showcases marine life native to California. It houses the Kelp Forest, which was arranged to mimic how kelp grew naturally. The jellyfish exhibit is displayed in colorfully lit tanks, making the entire experience visually spectacular. Younger visitors love the Splash Zone, where there’s a petting pool and the penguin exhibit.
Make sure to spend some time by the Open Sea exhibit, which has the world’s largest single-paned window. With 1.2 million gallons of water, the tank has sardines, sea turtles and sharks. In fact, the aquarium has hosted several great white sharks temporarily—these were sharks caught in the bay and kept in observation before they are released back in the wild.
Popularized by the John Steinbeck novel about workers in the sardine canneries in the area, Cannery Row is now a major tourist destination. The former sardine canneries have been transformed to house restaurants, inns and gift shops, all of which enjoy views of Monterey Bay.
GARRAPATA STATE PARK
This climb is not for the faint of heart—and it’s a miracle I did it. Located south of Carmel, the 2,939-hectare park is a popular spot for hiking. The trail begins through dense foliage and some small streams, before the trees clear out into a steep meadow. From there, it’s a challenging two-hour hike to the top. The view, though, is definitely worth it. On a clear day, you can see the bay stretching out below, and on more overcast ones, the summit stands over what looks like a sea of clouds.
We made the hike at sunset, where the sun bathed the horizon in shades of orange and pink. Just make sure you have someone who knows the hike well if you do. The downhill hike is extra challenging in the dark.
For those a little wilder at heart, the Garrapata beach is a favorite for nude sunbathers.
With the cliffs lining its rugged coastline, Big Sur is unarguably one of the most beautiful drives you’ll ever take in your life. The Bixby Creek Bridge is a notable spot, its arch standing high over the ridge. Big Sur is also popular for camping and hiking, with many parks offering trails that enjoy spectacular views of the mountain and ocean—the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with the picturesque McWay Falls, one of only two waterfalls in the Pacific Coast that fall directly into the ocean.