Carmel, Monterey and Big Sur all boast stunning natural beauty, but these Central Coast gems also have their own distinct appeal.
Carmel’s charm is undeniable. From the storybook-like storefronts to the ocean views along the coastal walk, the hamlet enthralls all who fill its shops, galleries and restaurants. Inland, Carmel Valley Village is the “in” place for exploration of Central Coast wines: 20 tasting rooms are framed by the Santa Lucia Mountains.
In neighboring Monterey, a stroll or bike ride along the recreation trail reveals an abundance of wildlife. Otters frolic while harbor seals sunbathe on jutting rocks. And if the critters happen to be hiding, visit the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium for an up-close-and personal look.
About 30 miles south, you’ll discover a whole different landscape. In Big Sur, blue-green water slams against craggy coastlines, making for dramatic scenery. Stray from the shore and colossal redwoods and gushing waterfalls will leave you in awe.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
One of California’s most popular destinations and one of the foremost institutions, the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a front-row seat to ocean life with more than 35,000 animals and plants in its exhibits. Watch penguins and otters eat a midday meal, touch a jellyfish and learn about important issues affecting the ocean’s health.
Rent a bike and follow the rocky shores of Pacific Grove’s coastline all the way to famed 17-Mile Drive. Or grab a paddle, hit Monterey Bay and kayak alongside sea lions. Adventures by the Sea offers varied means for exploring land and water.
Take the well-known 17-Mile Drive from Pacific Grove for one of the most scenic stretches in the country. It ends with a grand finale: Pebble Beach.
Every golfer dreams of playing Pebble Beach Golf Links, especially the panoramic seventh hole, which hangs on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. It’s hailed as one of the best public courses in the country.
While golf is a big draw (Pebble Beach has hosted U.S. Opens, PGA Tour events and the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am), the exclusive Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival has earned a devoted following among foodies and big-name chefs.
After a day of activity, check into Four-Star Casa Palmero at Pebble Beach, an intimate Mediterranean hideaway that looks out over the golf course’s first and second fairways.
The Restaurant at Mission Ranch
Gather round the piano bar here and you might have a Clint Eastwood sighting. The local director-actor owns the restaurant and the adjacent hotel. A sing-along takes place nightly from 9 to 11 p.m. and is as favored by locals as it is out-of-town visitors.
Bernardus Lodge & Spa
Set on 28 lavender- and vineyard-filled Carmel Valley acres with spectacular views of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Four-Star Bernardus is the epitome of casual elegance. Enjoy a glass of Bernardus sauvignon blanc at check-in (if you like the wine, visit Bernardus Winery for a tasting) and let the R&R begin.
New ranch-chic suites and spacious villas feature private patios and fire pits, but original rooms are equally luxurious. The Four-Star spa employs an individualized approach to wellness. And at Four-Star Lucia Restaurant & Bar, chef Cal Stamenov uses ingredients from the resort’s two-acre organic garden.
Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea
Savor the Central Coast’s many varietals with a Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea wine tasting passport. Enjoy one flight at 10 of the village’s 13 participating tasting rooms — all within walking distance of each other on Ocean Avenue.
This winsome Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star inn is proof that great things come in small packages. Echoing Carmel’s storybook aesthetic, the exterior’s white stucco, flower boxes and mullion and muntin windows exude Old World charm. A cozy lobby salon flows to a serene central courtyard and fountain, flanked by 20 luxurious rooms.
Even if you aren’t staying here, don’t miss the hotel’s Aubergine restaurant, which serves imaginative California cuisine. Helmed by the talented Justin Cogley, the Five-Star restaurant is among the best in the world.
Starlight Rooftop Lounge
Vesuvio features the only rooftop bar in Carmel. In the Starlight Rooftop Lounge, pull up a comfortable chair in front of the fire pits, sip housemade limoncello and get lovely views of town.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
The Big Sur River runs through the redwoods, conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows on Pfeiffer’s pristine 1,000 acres. Tackle one of the scenic hikes — you’ll be rewarded with sweeping vistas and a 60-foot waterfall (check the park website to ensure trails are open).
Head one mile south from the park’s entrance and at the second right turn is hard-to-find Pfeiffer Beach. From the purple sand (the color comes from manganese garnet rock particles that wash down the hills when it rains), you’ll get fantastic views of the rugged coast and its famous keyhole arch.
When you come upon the iconic Bixby, follow the masses and pull over to snap some photos of one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world. No other scene better captures the natural splendor of Big Sur.