Driving along sparsely populated Highway 1 between Monterey and Big Sur, you will discover another side of California. This stretch of two-lane road is a hidden gem with views of sparkling sapphire seas, emerald-green hills and rocks so big, you’ll be blinded by sunlight if you look straight up at them.
On either end of this scenic drive, you’ll find darling destinations. The three main towns (Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur) that make up the Central Coast are a pocket of paradise that’s best explored from the driver’s seat.
So, hop in a rental car, roll down the windows and follow our guide for a road trip through this slice of small-town America.
Though you’ll most likely have a connecting flight, arriving at quaint Monterey Regional Airport (the facility only has five gates) is a breeze and finding the rental car counter is even easier — almost every major company is represented on the strip of hallway between security and the exit.
Once you’ve gotten your ride (opt for a convertible, if possible), drive less than 10 minutes east to the former fishing village of Monterey — you might recognize it as the setting of HBO drama Big Little Lies. Admire the Spanish colonial architecture as you stroll down Alvarado Street to one of the town’s top attractions: Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
The boardwalk is kitschy in all the right ways, with souvenir shops, seafood shacks and sea breezes welcoming you into its festive atmosphere. Vendors are stationed outside each of the myriad restaurants, beckoning you to try their take on the local staple, clam chowder. Order a steaming helping in a San Francisco sourdough bread bowl.
After a hearty lunch, venture into town toward its other main draw, Cannery Row. So named for a John Steinbeck novel chronicling Monterey’s sardine-canning industry, this historic drag is in the midst of a renaissance. Former industrial spaces are being renovated into trendy restaurants, breweries and galleries. While you’re here, visit Monterey Bay Aquarium — the three-story Kelp Forest and million-gallon Open Sea exhibits are not to be missed.
Hit the Road
After your Monterey adventure, it’s time to traverse that open road. Hop on Highway 1 and continue south toward Big Sur for stunning vistas around almost every corner. Don’t be surprised if you see multiple Ford Mustangs on the road. The drive down from San Francisco in the iconic vehicle is an American bucket-list item for many international tourists.
Along the way, be sure to pull off and snap a few photos of the dramatic shoreline, or just take in the spectacular views — there are plenty of strategically placed shoulders along the way that allow you pull over safely. For an iconic Big Sur shot, park just before Bixby Creek Bridge, an elegantly arched 260-foot-tall crossing that is often touted as one of the most photographed bridges in the state.
If crossing a 26-story bridge isn’t adventurous enough for you, stop by one of the area’s pristine nature preserves (Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Garrapata State Park are highlights) for a hike or quick photo opportunity.
Commune with Nature in Big Sur
There’s a Pacific Northwest vibe to the remote enclave of Big Sur. This is one of the few places you’ll find the world’s tallest tree: the redwood. See these gorgeous giants in all their splendor when you check into Ventana Big Sur — the hideaway offers guided morning hikes through an enchanting redwood forest.
But daily treks aren’t the only way to commune with nature at this 160-acre resort. The lavish, camp-like retreat is home to a Japanese onsen (hot bath) under the stars, a mountain-facing, infinity-edge hot tub, an ocean-view terrace at The Sur House restaurant and even a dedicated glamping site. Settle into one of the 59 cabin-inspired accommodations — you’ll be far from roughing it, though, with a deep-soaking tub, artisan mini-bar and a wood-burning fireplace all within arm’s reach — for a good night’s rest.
The next morning, stretch out with a yoga class (or try out tai chi on Fridays) before investigating more of your striking surroundings. If you’re feeling ambitious, opt for another hike in one of the nearby state parks.
When you get hungry, go about 10 minutes down the road for an early lunch at Nepenthe. This 70-year-old Big Sur restaurant is a staple for a reason — the Pacific views from its terrace are breathtaking. Snag a sea-facing seat (you might even spot whales during winter migration season) and order up a fresh salad or the Ambrosiaburger while you soak up some sun.
Continue on to Carmel
After a leisurely lunch, hop back in the car and prepare for another scenic afternoon of driving. Before departing Big Sur, stop for something sweet at Big Sur River Inn, where a colorful ice cream bus is always on hand to serve a creamy scoop.
Continue about 45 minutes north along Highway 1 until you reach the enclave of Carmel-by-the-Sea. You might as well turn off your GPS when you reach this whimsical neighborhood — the one-square-mile city has no street numbers.
Visit Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Tradewinds Carmel to check in and park your car for the remainder of your stay. The 60-year-old, Asian-inspired inn is a little slice of Zen with bamboo details, a quaint courtyard complete with a bubbling fountain Buddha statue and twin foo dogs guarding the reception area. Fireplaces that roar to life with the flip of a switch and Jacuzzi-style bathtubs help you stay warm during chilly Carmel nights.
As tempting as it may be to hole up in the room, you won’t want to miss out on any of the boutiques, galleries and cafés that make up this postcard-worthy stop. Pop into Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company for a pick-me-up before meandering around town.
It’s easy to lose track of time perusing Carmel-by-the-Sea’s charming courtyards, but don’t be late for your dinner reservation at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel. An evening at this European-inspired dining room is one you won’t soon forget, as perfectly prepared plates of Pacific seafood and local produce are presented, consumed and swept away with the efficiency and timing of a Broadway musical.
Highlights from the eight-course feast include three “gifts from the sea” (the amuse-bouche) to start off your meal, and a mouthwatering ribeye finished off table-side by executive chef Justin Cogley (or one of the other talented chefs) with a dollop of celery root puree. Before you waddle your way out of the restaurant, you’ll be presented with a parting gift: a miniature loaf of sweet walnut bread.
A Day on Foot
After sleeping off your fabulous feast from the night before, you’ll likely feel the need to get in some exercise. Lace up your sneakers and head down Ocean Avenue to Carmel Beach for a lovely walk along the shore. Arrive early to enjoy some solitude — the dog-friendly beach is popular for late-morning games of fetch.
To explore more of Carmel’s stunning coast, you’ll need a bit of a boost. For a lift that’s as fashionable as it is efficient, go to Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a locally owned bike shop specializing in vintage-style e-bikes. These electric rides make getting up central California’s notoriously hilly streets a breeze, and long routes like 17-Mile Drive to Pebble Beach much more accessible. While on two wheels, make sure to pedal through Mission Ranch, a 19th-century working ranch and hotel rescued from demolition and restored by former Carmel mayor Clint Eastwood.
After working up an appetite, it’s time for brunch. The hottest new table in town might just be Stationaery, a 34-seat eatery with a seasonal menu and year-round appeal. This family-run address specializes in coffee (co-owner Anthony Carnazzo has a background in the bean business), but the chilaquiles (lightly fried tortillas layered with salsa, egg, chorizo and avocado) are the staple. The restaurant received so many complaints when the dish came off the menu, that it has become a permanent fixture.
Following brunch, freshen up back at your hotel for another afternoon of exploring. Carmel is home to 20 wine tasting rooms and nearly 100 art galleries, making it easy to while away a day or two. Between sips, don’t be afraid to also wander down the 41 passageways and courtyards that pepper the charming downtown area — you never know what kind of unique boutiques you’ll encounter.
For your last night in town, check out one of the city’s newest restaurants, Seventh & Dolores. This contemporary steakhouse boasts a blend of classics with a modern twist: onion rings get a splash of “everything” seasoning; cauliflower is tossed in curry; and a basic burger is elevated with dry-aged filet mignon, bone marrow and cognac-roasted onions.
End your meal on a fun note with the 7D Cigar, a tube-shaped chocolate tuile filled with spicy chocolate ganache and presented in a wooden cigar box complete with a billow of smoke — a whimsical way to conclude your delightful road trip down the Central Coast.