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, sets 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. Mesmerising 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 centre of a swirling school of sardines, let 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 programmes, 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.
Just 10 miles from Monterey, the Laguna Seca Recreation Area features serene, undulating hills that harbour a surprising number of adrenaline-fuelled 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 motor 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 cyclists, 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 beginners. And outdoor enthusiasts can bring tents or camper vans and stay at the park’s campsite, 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 towards Cabernets and Merlots. Several of the tasting rooms, such as 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 trolleybus 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 boundary) by walking or cycling 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 including harbour seals and sea otters just offshore, and can also head out on the water yourself by hiring a kayak 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 historical 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 in one location, and a self-guided tour stops at eight sites in the grounds. In addition to architecture, you can also find tour options for sailing, fishing, wine tasting and horse riding.
As gorgeous as the coast is, you’ll also want to take time to experience Pacific Grove’s old-fashioned town centre. It mostly caters to the local community, but you’ll find outstanding destination dining at Pacific Grove restaurants such as Passionfish, a favourite for its inventive seafood and extensive wine list (with minimal mark-up!).
While Pacific Grove is very much a year-round destination with an average temperature of 15 degrees, October is a special time here in 'Butterfly Town USA'. It’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.
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-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 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 from May to August, but stick around and the sun often peeks through. Autumn and winter days are mostly clear, crisp, and beautiful. Parking, especially during summer and on weekends, can be a challenge as the official car park isn’t that big.
Further 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 touristy. Walk along 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 in December to 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 bookings well in advance. Several local companies rent equipment, and guided diving trips here and in neighbouring Monterey Bay are available.
Whether you drive it, cycle it or walk it, this romantic stretch of coastline will make you think one thing above all else: how can I live here? The privately managed roadway (fee to drive; cycling 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 harbour seals and their pups (usually April to June). Bring a picnic and spread out a blanket on the small beach at Spanish Bay, or splash out on a meal at the 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 guided tour to learn about life here centuries ago. Small museums and a chapel gallery showcase art pieces and artefacts. The sparsely furnished cell where Father Serra slept is a sobering reminder of how he lived.
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 were also updated, 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 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 got an irked 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, it 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 and shops, along 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 (rickshaw) 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-loving 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 and hidden paths, and get the inside scoop on Carmel’s famous artists, writers and celebrities.
The region’s Mediterranean climate means any time is time for a party—or festival. One of the biggest—and splashiest—is Pebble Beach Food & Wine, a smart 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 autumn festivals are the Carmel Mission Fiesta, celebrating the region’s Spanish and Mexican history, 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.