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, cozy gastropubs, and even cozier inns.
Just 10 miles from Monterey, the Laguna Seca Recreation Area features serene, undulating hills that harbor a surprising number of adrenaline-fueled activities. Some of its visitors come to cycle, others to camp. But usually, people come to experience the park’s main attraction: the WeatherTech Raceway. This 11-turn, 2.23-mile-long track, originally part of the former Fort Ord military base, was created in 1957 and today hosts a variety of events.
Many of them, not surprisingly, involve car racing, like the SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge California—an eight-hour endurance race held in October. If you’re a Porsche lover, come in September for the Porsche Rennsport Reunion, billed as the world’s largest gathering of Porsche race cars.
But fast cars aren’t all you’ll find here. The Sea Otter Classic, held in April, is a huge festival for bicyclists, hosting some 10,000 athletes and 70,000 fans. And even casual athletes have opportunities to get onto the track. Monthly twilight bike rides, open to the public, allow cyclists to pedal the twists and turns, including a feature called the Corkscrew—a section of track that drops the equivalent of 5½ stories. Or come in November for the family-focused turkey trot, when you can get a workout and support charities with your entry fee.
Laguna Seca also offers activities away from the track. The surrounding recreation area has a rifle and pistol range, with 25 shooting stalls and trained staff on hand for newbies. And outdoor enthusiasts can bring tents or RVs and stay in the park’s campground, open between April and October, with views of the Salinas Valley.
You’ll also find opportunities for wine tasting in the surrounding area. Check out the wineries of nearby Carmel Valley, which lean heavily toward Cabernets and Merlots. Several of the tasting rooms, like Joullian Vineyards and Holman Ranch, are close enough to each other for a DIY walking tour. Or hop onto a five-hour Wine Trolley tour from Monterey, where a vintage trolley takes you to wineries and provides lunch, as well as insider info about the area.
With an incomparable setting along the rocky, curving shores of Monterey Bay and narrow streets lined with 19th-century cottages, Pacific Grove is an unapologetically traditional small town.
Founded in 1875, this Monterey County community always feels authentic, never touristy. It borders the city of Monterey, and you can easily reach the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row (both just across the city line) by walking or bicycling from Pacific Grove along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. The trail runs 18 miles along the shore north to Castroville, and Pacific Grove’s stretch may just be the prettiest part of the entire route. You’ll see wildlife like harbor seals and sea otters just offshore, and can also head out on the water yourself with a kayak rental from Adventures by the Sea at Lovers Point Park and Beach—one of the most popular spots for a photo op.
The Monterey Peninsula is celebrated as one of the true kingdoms of golf, and at the Pacific Grove Golf Links you can tee off by the bay at a fraction of the cost of the fabled courses at Pebble Beach. With a back nine created by Jack Neville, who also co-designed the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, this classic course offers its own beauty and challenges. And the golf links are also home to the 1855 Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast.
Like much of Pacific Grove, Asilomar State Beach & Conference Grounds blends unspoiled natural beauty and historic architecture. A boardwalk explores a restored section of dunes, while the Asilomar Coast Trail follows the shoreline for a mile. For many visitors, the real highlight is Asilomar’s incomparable collection of Arts and Crafts–style buildings designed by Julia Morgan, the architect of Hearst Castle. Asilomar has the largest collection of Morgan buildings at one location, and a self-guided tour stops at eight sites on the grounds. In addition to architecture, you can also find tour options for sailing, fishing, wine tasting, or horseback riding.
As gorgeous as the coast is, you’ll also want to take time to experience Pacific Grove’s vintage downtown. It mostly caters to the local community, but you’ll also find outstanding destination dining at such Pacific Grove restaurants as Passionfish, a favorite for its inventive seafood and an extensive wine list (with minimal markup!).
While Pacific Grove is very much a year-round destination with an average temperature in the 60s, October is a special time here in “Butterfly Town U.S.A.” That’s when thousands of monarch butterflies begin to arrive at the town’s Monarch Grove Sanctuary and the community holds its annual Butterfly Parade & Bazaar.
There’s a sense of place at Bernardus Lodge that’s baked into the resort. It permeates your experience from the moment you arrive at the Monterey County resort, from the welcome glass of Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc to the soap in the bathroom, made with lavender grown on site.
Built in 1999 by Bernardus Pon (who sold the hotel in 2014 but still owns the adjoining winery), the lodge is a California classic, situated on 28 acres of vineyards and gardens among the Santa Lucia Mountains. That environment serves as both setting and theme, the subtle thread that connects the spa to the bar, activities, and award-winning restaurant.
After extensive recent renovations, that restaurant has been rebranded as Lucia, but it’s still helmed by renowned chef Cal Stamenov and still emphasizes the area’s delicious bounty. The kitchen crew pulls from the resort’s own orchards and gardens, as well as local fisherman and foragers, who show up on the loading dock with fresh mushrooms or the day’s catch.
The lodge’s 73 rooms also got an update, with heated bathroom floors, “country-chic” décor, and a brand-new slate of suites and villas, which elevate the experience from luxe to heavenly with outdoor fire pits, al fresco showers, and copper tubs.
Fire is a motif here. Every room has its own fireplace (as well as a complimentary in-room wine bar), and fire pits are placed throughout the property, including next to the hillside whirlpool, so you can soak in the views while soothing your muscles.
For guests seeking even more relaxation, Bernardus’ spa is top-notch. Book a couple’s massage, relax with some tuning-fork therapy, or clear your head in the meditation garden. When you’re ready to explore behind the grounds, take one of the guided hikes in Garland Ranch Regional Park. Or, borrow a Mercedes for Carmel Valley wine-tasting or to check out the abundance of Monterey County’s attractions that are within easy reach—then enjoy a glass of wine by the fire when you get back.
If there was only the beach, that would be enough. It’s a lovely beach, a crescent of pale sand that gives way to turquoise Pacific, backed by Monterey cypress, their foliage flattened into wide fans by the coastal wind. But Carmel Beach isn’t the only star of the petite Monterey County city. Rather, it’s an ensemble cast of charms that make Carmel-by-the-Sea such an enchanting destination.
Officially incorporated in 1916, Carmel has long exerted a magnetic pull on artists and authors. Today Carmel Village is home to nearly 100 art galleries, and some of its earliest residents included writers Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London, who fled post-earthquake San Francisco for the enclave’s bohemian appeal. Poet Robinson Jeffers, arriving with his wife in 1914, called the town “our inevitable place,” and built his stone Tor House overlooking the ocean, now open on weekends for tours.
The tradition of naming homes endures in Carmel, where garden cottages that look plucked from the Brothers Grimm sit next to Mediterranean estates and modern ranches. Builder Hugh Comstock created the fairy tale aesthetic in the 1920s, and 21 of his originals remain, including the Tuck Box, a quaint café that specializes in afternoon tea.
For those in search of heartier fare, there’s Cultura Comida y Bebida, where Oaxacan dishes like smoked pork mole and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with lime and salt) are best paired with one of 39 mezcals. At La Bicyclette, the vibe is pure French bistro, while special occasions merit Aubergine, a tasting-menu splurge inside L’Auberge Carmel resort.
Along with restaurants, Carmel Village is stocked with wine-tasting rooms and boutiques. Sip a Pinot Noir from Central Coast Wine Country or browse fancy pens at Bittner, a shop dedicated to the art of writing.
But it’s the raw environment that best defines this stretch of California, and that means venturing out. Navigate 17-Mile Drive by car or bike, stopping to contemplate the Lone Cypress that’s clung to a patch of rock for centuries. Play a round at Pebble Beach, the No. 1 public golf course in the country, book a surf lesson, or make for Point Lobos State Reserve, where scuba divers and kayakers share the water with harbor seals and sea otters. When the day is almost done, hit the sand to admire the sunset over the Pacific with your canine companion, and ponder why it is you don’t live here.
Set along the curving sweep of its namesake bay, Monterey is a community in touch with both the natural world and the tides of history. On Cannery Row, you’ll find luxurious waterfront hotels and can spend the day at Monterey Bay Aquarium, which gives you close-up looks at the bay’s remarkable marine life. And just a short distance from town, some of the world’s finest golf courses await in Pebble Beach.
Stay along the bay at a posh Cannery Row hotel
Both contemporary and classic, the InterContinental The Clement Monterey hotel gives you a front-row seat to the beauty of Monterey Bay. Step out onto your balcony and scan the waters for harbor seals and sea otters, and even the occasional whale farther offshore. At night, nothing beats a drink by one of the fire pits in the hotel’s Pacific Courtyard. Or enjoy bay views as you dine on such favorites as the day scallops at the hotel’s acclaimed the C restaurant + bar.
Play a round in California’s Kingdom of Golf
Considering this legendary course has hosted five U.S. Open championships (with a sixth forthcoming in 2019) and its Par 5 18th along Carmel Bay is frequently named the most dramatic finishing hole in golf, Pebble Beach Golf Links is hardly lacking for recognition. But when legend Jack Nicklaus declares, “If I only had one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach,” then you know for sure that this Monterey Peninsula course is one for your bucket list.
Discover what’s beneath the surface at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium takes you into the remarkable undersea world waiting just offshore Cannery Row—all without getting your feet wet. You’ll see brilliantly colored jellyfish that resemble some kind of alien life form as they gracefully glide through the water. Go nose-to-nose with adorable sea otters, and catch glimpses of leopard sharks and schools of sardine swimming through the kelp forest exhibit. With 28-foot windows, it’s one of the world’s tallest aquariums.
Dine at a celebrated Monterey restaurant
For more than 20 years, Montrio Bistro has served up its seasonal and sustainable cuisine in an old firehouse building that dates back to 1910. The restaurant takes full advantage of Monterey County’s bounty of locally sourced seafood and organic produce, while its art-filled, brick-walled interior makes it a perfect destination for a night out. Start with a craft cocktail, then work your way through a menu that includes such favorites as the Cabernet-braised boneless beef short rib and a king salmon with citrus risotto.
Explore the waterfront from Cannery Row to Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Cannery Row has come a long way since the days when famed novelist John Steinbeck called it “a poem, a stink, a grating noise.” Its sardine industry is long gone and now this tourist hub is filled with restaurants, boutiques, and tasting rooms pouring Monterey County wines. Take a stroll down Cannery Row and you’ll still see remnants of old cannery buildings as you walk toward Old Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic pier that juts into Monterey Bay. Set out on a whale-watching or fishing trip, and don’t miss the clam chowder at the wharf’s many seafood restaurants.
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, harbor seals, and sea lions, or, further out to sea, look for spouting whales (gray 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 neighboring Monterey Bay are available.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, an unparalleled facility with soaring, glass-walled tanks that make you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for modern marine exhibits. The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. 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 displays 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 administer daily health checks to the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, southern sea otters. The furry mammals get the spotlight on a special experience led by experts; learn how these endangered animals are cared for at the aquarium, and about the aquarium’s ongoing research to protect otters in the wild.
The aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to a real-life Finding Dory as little kids can get. You’ll want to park it for a while in the Splash Zone & Penguins area. Here, they’ll spy Nemo’s cousins in the tropical fish tank, watch African penguins feeding, and explore hands-on educational exhibits. It’s the Splash Zone’s Coral Reef Kingdom, though, that really sets this aquarium apart. The soft safe zone (even the floor is padded!) gives little kids—under 34 inches tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block area, and a touch pool. There are also special family sleepovers, and a chance for kids to become underwater explorers by donning specially designed gear and swimming in the protected Great Tide Pool fronting the aquarium. Behind-the-scenes tours offer the opportunity to learn more about sharks or jellies, and grownups can book customized experiences for two, where you can create your own romantic rendezvous—perhaps champagne and dinner?—with an underwater glow.
Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
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.