Stunning coastal views, romantic seafood dinners and uncrowded crescent beaches – such scenes seem straight from the movies. Yet they are here every day for the asking along California’sMontereyPeninsula and Big SurCoast.
Give yourself at least three days to explore this region, so you can spend a day at the jaw-dropping aquarium and still have time to pack a picnic and drive along 26 miles of breathtaking coastal highway to postcard-perfect Big Sur. From there, you can wander among the tide pools at Point Lobos and still have time to make it back for a candlelight dinner in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Here are our “must-see” picks along this unique part of the California Coast:
Charmed by Carmel
Located 115 miles south of San Francisco on the Bay of Carmel, the tiny village of Carmel-by-the-Sea is only one square mile in size, yet it boasts tidy, flower-lined streets, prestigious art galleries and five-star restaurants, all the while retaining its natural seaside setting.
The town was once an artists’ colony, where the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Ansel Adams and Mary Austin honed their craft. Even then, the village had strong non-conformist leanings, resisting streetlamps and street numbers. That flare can still be felt today. The town, although quite “touristy,” has a flavor of its own. And it’s still so small that street numbers are rarely used.
Life’s a Beach
Central California is not known for warm waters, but it is known for abundant sea life. At Carmel River Beach State Park in South Carmel, pelicans and gulls bicker in the shallow waters of CarmelRiver as it flows just yards from the sea, breaking through at least once every winter.
Sea otters pop up in the kelp beds and an occasional whale comes close to shore. Look for sea lions porpoising as they chase schools of fish. It’s a great beach for kite flying, sunbathing on warm days and building driftwood houses.
After the winter storms, huge amounts of driftwood pile up above the high tide, leaving lots of materials for creating. At Monastery Beach, located on the far south end of River Beach, you can often watch scuba divers enter the water. Windy, exposed and near the highway, this is not a beach for most beach goers.
Over a mile long, Main Beach at the north end of downtown Carmel is popular with sunbathers, surfers and dog walkers. Some winters, the sand washes out to sea and the surf breaks up against the retaining wall so that beach walkers have to use the pathway at the top of the cliffs to look for whales and watch the fishing boats.
Just a few miles north ofCarmel is the seaside community of Monterey. With lovely views, a pleasant atmosphere and historical architecture, the town has a lot to offer. Best of all, it’s often cheaper to stay here than in Carmel-by-the-Sea, making it an affordable base for your exploration of the Monterey Coast.
It’s no surprise thatMonterey is home to one of the world’s top aquariums. The coastline borders one of the deepest underwater canyons along the continental United States, and the waters are full of unique marine life.
Walking into Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on Monterey’s famous Cannery Row, is like walking directly into the ocean. Life-sized models of whales and dolphins hang overhead. A 28-foot high giant kelp forest sways in the surge machine created surf. The Kelp Forest is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world and the first re-creation of a living kelp forest community in an exhibit. Leopard sharks, sardines and a host of other fishes, sea stars and anemones weave among the frond of kelp, which grows up to eight inches per day out in the bay. Divers hand-feed the fish daily as a docent talks about the kelp forest.
Currently, more than 250,000 sea creatures representing 700 species fill over 34 galleries and nearly 200 exhibits. Raw seawater is piped into the aquarium from the bay at a rate of 1,500 each minute to sustain them.
In the Outer Bay galleries, the jellyfish exhibits are absolutely unearthly. The new age music provides a stage for the ethereal jellies, pulsing in tanks, empty but for the jellies and backlit with blue lights. Originally a special exhibit, the jellies were so popular they gave them a permanent home.
The main tank on theOuter Bay is the first of its kind – an open ocean exhibit. The tank holds a million gallons of water so the sea turtles, tuna schools, salmon, sharks and sunfish have enough room to move. The viewing window, the largest on Earth, is 15 feet high, 54 feet long and 13 inches thick, and starts at the ground.
Around every corner is something new – a red octopus hiding in rock crevices, tiny sea horses holding on to sea grass, a huge seven-gill shark pacing in a giant shark tank, ancient nautiluses pulsing and hundreds of sardines swimming round and round in a circular tank overhead.
The Flippers and Flukes area is designed for kids to play as they learn, as is the Splash Zone with its penguin exhibit and coral reef information.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium achieves its simply stated goal, “To inspire conservation of the ocean.” It does so with technical innovation and a profound sense of purpose and harmony.
Headin’ Down the Highway
FromMonterey and Carmel, make your way down one of the most scenic roads in America, the Pacific Coast Highway. Highway 1, as it is officially numbered, offers views around every bend. The cliffs rise dramatically from the Pacific Ocean as you drive down California’sBig Sur coast. Streams of rainwater plunge down steep canyons as they eagerly rush to meet the rocks and gulls at water’s edge. The Esalan tribes who originally inhabited the area seldom came along the coast, preferring the easier travel inland.
Once you see the twisty drive high above crashing surf, you can guess why. You can also imagine how difficult and perilous building this fragile road must have been. It took over 15 years to construct and many lost their lives. Construction began in 1922 with surveyors lowered on ropes above the pounding Pacific and supplies brought in by boat. By comparison, The Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937, took only four years to build.
Most of the Big Sur coast is uninhabited and protected from development by the California Coastal Initiative and by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Nature created this coastline through erosion, wind and earthquakes, and these same forces continue to alter this intersection of land and sea. Driving along the road’s coils and wriggles, crossing high bridges and admiring the views, cliffs and jumbled shoreline is even more special with this strong reminder of nature’s power.
Point Lobos State Park
Once the site of whaling activities and an abalone cannery, Point Lobos combines history along with abundant sea life and million-dollar views. The small, but fascinating Whaling Station Museum provides a then-and-now look at this picturesque spot. Look for California sea lions popping up next to the scuba divers in the protected bay.
Hike through one of the only two naturally growing cypress groves on earth, and search the many tide pools for hermit crabs, sea anemones, crabs and other sea life. Watch for sea otters cracking open clamshells. Gray whales spout mist as they make their annual migration south in winter (January is the best month) and then north again in March and April. Blue and humpback whales may also be seen.
If You Go
Best time to visit:
The best times to visit are March through June when the wildflowers open in yellows and purples, the fog is out to sea, and the road is open and waiting.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, Calif.; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; $17.95 for adults, $15.75 for students (13-17 or college ID) and seniors and $8.95 for children (3-12) and disabled. Advanced tickets are recommended and can be purchased at 831-648-4937 or www.montereybayaquarium.com.
Point Lobos State Reserve; open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and till 7 p.m. on daylight savings time; limited parking; fees are collected at the ranger station; 831-624-4909 orwww.ptlobos.org