The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for aquariums. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical exhibits near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)
Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the center of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
Wrapped by the Pacific on three sides, the Monterey Peninsula at once offers wind-tossed beaches and quiet coves, fine dining and casual eats, early history and postmodern art. World-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its psychedelic jellies and bat-ray petting tanks is a must-visit, especially for families. Step outside and find yourself among hotels, shops, and restaurants filling former fish-packing plants along Cannery Row, made famous by local author John Steinbeck. Rent bikes to follow the coast south around the peninsula to Pacific Grove, Asilomar State Beach, and the sea-and-spray beauty (and gazillion-dollar homes and celebrated Pebble Beach golf courses) along the 17-Mile Drive.
On Monterey Peninsula’s south side, explore artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea (locals just call it Carmel), a town that deftly straddles the balance point of rich history and new wealth. The Carmel Mission is one of the state’s most beautiful, and shady trails fan out from the site into lush Mission Trail Nature Preserve. Stroll the white sands of dog-friendly Carmel Beach, or explore a mosaic of meadows, wave-battered bluffs, and wind-twisted trees at nearby Point Lobos State Reserve. Venture into Carmel Valley for bright sun if (when) the foghorn starts blowing. Then come back to Carmel’s main village, with gallery-lined streets, cosy gastropubs, and even cosier inns.
With its sugary sand and idyllic setting—edged by wind-carved cypress trees and bluffs topped with quaint cottages with billion-dollar views—this roughly 1-mile/2-km-long crescent is a great place to relax and play. Kids love to build sand castles just above the surf line, or splash in the usually tame breakers (just know that the water is quite chilly—hovering just below 60°F/15.5°C, even in summer).
Carmel Beach isn’t just a paradise for people; this is a canine fun zone too—the dog-friendly beach finds owners tossing tennis balls and romping with their furry pals. It can be foggy here, especially May through August, but stick around and the sun often peeks through. Fall and winter days are often clear, crisp, and beautiful. Parking, especially during summer and on weekends, can be a challenge as the official parking lot isn’t that big.
Farther south, Carmel River State Beach is a more secluded option, with silky sand dunes and a host of seabirds, including marbled godwits, brown pelicans, tiny sanderlings, and black oystercatchers (see if you can spot their long, fire-engine-red bills).
This beautiful coastal park feels a million miles away from anything tourist-y. Walk a poppy-trimmed path to the tip of the park’s dramatic, limestone point to look down into turquoise-blue water, long bands of bull kelp swaying in the waves. Bring binoculars to scan the water for sea otters, harbour seals, and sea lions, or, further out to sea, look for spouting whales (grey whales December through March; blue whales in summer).
If you like to SCUBA dive, you’ll want to go beneath the surface here—but it will take planning ahead. The reserve protects an underwater tapestry of kelp, fish, nudibranchs, sea stars, and anemones. To protect the delicate ecosystem, dives are limited, so make reservations well in advance. Several local companies rent equipment, and guided dive trips here and in neighbouring Monterey Bay are available.
Whether you drive it, bike it, or walk it, this romantic stretch of coastline make you think one thing above all else: how can I live here? The privately managed roadway (fee to drive; biking and walking are free), winding between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach, takes you through a wind-sculpted forest of cypress trees to a rocky coastline dotted with some of the most envy-inducing homes on the planet. You’ll also get great views of the celebrated golf courses of Pebble Beach. In spring, pull over at Fanshell Overlook to see harbor seals and their pups (usually April to June). Bring a picnic and spread out a blanket on the small beach at Spanish Bay, or splurge with a meal at the posh Lodge at Pebble Beach.
Lush gardens frame this classic mission, one of the most faithfully restored of the 21 missions that lead from San Diego to Sonoma. Father Junipero Serra, the leader of the Spanish padres when they headed north from Mexico in the late 1700s, chose this peaceful, garden-trimmed mission overlooking the Pacific as his final resting place, which comes as no surprise considering its elegant Moorish architecture and spectacular coastal setting.
Outside, lush gardens frame pretty views of the buildings, making it a popular destination for plein-air painters. Take a self-guided or docent-led tour to learn about life here centuries ago. Small museums and a chapel gallery showcase art pieces and artifacts. The sparsely furnished cell where Father Serra slept is a sobering reminder of how he lived.
If you’re a golfer—and why else would you be reading this—then what do we need to say? You probably already know all about the Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill, both sites of the star- and top-pro-studded AT&T National Pro-Am. And you probably know that playing these courses will set you back a pretty penny or two, even if you’re a guest at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Still, splurges should be unforgettable, and playing here, at holes that have tried the patience and skills of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, and gotten a snarky comment out of golf lover Bill Murray—well, that’s one for the memory books.
But duffers, take note: outstanding fairways dot the region, with price points and styles of greens for all. Historic Del Monte Golf Course is the oldest golf course in continuous operation west of the Mississippi. The former military-only Bayonet and Black Horse courses, with sweeping views of Monterey Bay, are now open to all. Find more courses—and tempting wine tasting--in sunny Carmel Valley.
Talk about a comeback. Once the site of a booming sardine-canning industry, fell on hard times after World War II, in large part due to overfishing. Lesson learned: Today the Pacific waters around this waterfront are protected as national marine sanctuary and now teem with sea life. And the street has reinvented itself as a lively destination with a heavy nod towards its historic roots.
Many old cannery buildings have been refurbished as restaurants, galleries, shops, with the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Tasting rooms let you sample local wines. And reminders of Cannery Row as the popular (and much-written-about) haunt of Pulitzer Prize – winning author John Steinbeck abound. The unassuming wooden structure at 800 Cannery Row was once Pacific Biological Laboratory, the workplace of marine biologist and ecologist Ed Ricketts—the inspiration for one of Steinbeck’s most unforgettable characters, Doc Ricketts.
Walk or rent a pedal-powered surrey to head over to lively Fisherman’s Wharf, a good place to snack on take-away cups of chowder or ceviche. Or continue south along the paved Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail to scan Monterey Bay for wildlife, and peer into the tide pools at San Carlos Beach, at the south end of Cannery Row. Give your arms a workout—and see otters in their natural habitat—by renting a kayak and paddling out onto calm and clear Monterey Bay (a big hit with kids).
With streets straight out of storybooks, this charming hamlet makes you sigh at every turn. Visitors aren’t the only ones who fall in love with Carmel—artists do too—and their works fill the nearly 100 galleries scattered around town. Also enjoy quality paintings of seascapes and other works at the Carmel Art Association, a non-profit artist’s collective.
Much of the art action—as well boutiques filled with fashion finds and gifts, are packed in along Ocean Avenue—a busy spot indeed on prime weekends. Take a break with a peaceful visit to Tor House; you have to reserve a tour in advance, but the exquisite 1918 stone home and surrounding gardens, the home of poet Robinson Jeffers, is worth the effort and planning. (Tours on Fridays and Saturdays only.) Another entertaining detour: the afternoon “Yappy Hour” in the lobby of Cypress Inn, owned by dog-lover actress Doris Day—all well-behaved, leashed pooches (and their human companions) are welcome.
Still want more? Join a 2-hour guided ramble with Carmel Walks, taking you to secret gardens, hidden paths, and get the inside scoop on Carmel’s famous artists, writers, and celebrities.
The region’s Mediterranean climate means anytime is time for a party—or festival. One of the biggest—and splashiest—is Pebble Beach Food & Wine, a dress-up fancy multi-day affair showcasing celebrity chefs (Thomas Keller, Tyler Florence) and winemakers for a decadent weekend of feasting, toasting, and learning. Beautiful cars, exclusive settings, luxurious atmosphere—sure it’s a splurge, but it’s worth it, at least once. Another premier event is September’s Monterey Jazz Festival, a 3-day party of sound. The world’s best jazz performers (think Herbie Hancock and Booker T. Jones) take part, bee-bopping, boogying, swinging, and syncopating on eight local stages.
Other events round out the calendar. Two premier fall festivals are the Carmel Mission Fiesta, celebrating the region’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, and Taste of Carmel, with local restaurants and food purveyors serving their culinary creations at a series of events, including a swanky soiree at the Carmel Mission.
Finish your trip in one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to visit “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a...