The Monterey Peninsula, the region that birthed John Steinbeck and lured Henry Miller as well as scores of Hollywood directors, has an unparalleled combination of natural beauty. From fragrant fields to majestic forests and jagged coastline to world-class golf greens, this is a paradise that needs to be explored. And luxury hotels with plush rooms, oh-so-fine dining and pampering spas are plentiful, too, making this a great place to visit.
We suggest you make your base camp in either Pebble Beach or Carmel and then explore either south or north. For a tony and serene stay in Pebble Beach, head to Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Inn at Spanish Bay. Tucked away off of 17-Mile Drive (which charges a $10 cash toll), the warmly traditional and clean-lined inn hugs the Pacific Ocean. The lobby is surrounded by glass to take advantage of the view, so settling in for a welcome glass of wine or cup of tea is a nice way to soak it all in. Guest rooms — outfitted with fireplaces, expansive bath suites, patios and beds topped with French linens — share the same earthy color scheme accented by natural wood, travertine and marble. Our favorite amenity, though, may be the Lexus house cars — such as the red coupe — available for two hours on a first-come, first-served basis from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If a posh vintage inn surrounded by a quaint seaside village is more your taste, check into Four-Star L’Auberge Carmel. The European-style stucco building in the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea dates back to 1929, though the 16 rooms and interiors are thoroughly modern with iPod docks, heated marble floors and flat-screen TVs. One of the best parts of the L’Auberge experience is the staff, which takes care of everything from the moment you arrive. You’ll find complimentary goodies such as a savory snack mix, cookies or caramels created by chef Justin Cogley at Five-Star Aubergine, the Restaurant at L’Auberge Carmel. If the morsels make you hungry for more, the concierge can help reserve a table at Aubergine for dinner. Cogley offers one of the most satisfying, inventive and visually stunning meals we’ve had in years with his ocean- and Asian-influenced cuisine.
Use your first day to discover Monterey and its environs. Head over to The Wharf Marketplace for fresh bagels and croissants to start the morning off right. It’s inspired by Seattle’s Pike Place and San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza, so you’ll find 100 percent locally grown or made goodies such as real Monterey Jack cheese, chocolate, bacon, craft beer, olive oil, wine and seasonal produce.
Plan to spend a good part of the day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium — it’s even better than you’ve heard. You’ll be mesmerized by the vast collection of jellyfish in every size and shape, delighted by the cheeky otters and fascinated by the new “Tentacles” exhibit of unusual octopuses, squid and cuttlefish.
Enjoy a late lunch at Cindy’s Waterfront (in the aquarium) for a meal crafted from seasonal produce and sustainable seafood. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn injects a clean and fresh style into dishes such as fish and chips, or the adult grilled cheese with local truffle tremor cheese. Our favorite was the fritto misto with fried Monterey Bay calamari and local baby artichokes, but we did feel a little guilty after seeing “Tentacles.” Ask about a table by the window, though nearly the entire restaurant has an expansive ocean view.
Return to your hotel of choice for a refresh, some relaxation and maybe a short nap. If you’re staying at The Inn at Spanish Bay, be sure to time your arrival at the Lobby Lounge with sunset, when you can hear a bagpiper serenading the sinking sun. Then dine at Roy’s at Pebble Beach, an independent seafood restaurant owned by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi. But if you’re staying at L’Auberge Carmel, it would be remiss of you to skip dinner at Aubergine.
The next day, get outdoors; after all, this is one of the most beautiful regions in the world. If your game is up to it, book a tee time at one of the world-famous Pebble Beach golf courses, such as Spyglass Hill Golf Course ($385) or Pebble Beach Golf Links ($495). You’ll get a Jack Nicklaus- and Tiger Woods-level experience here, plus resort guests get a complimentary golf cart.
Perhaps a hike is more your speed. Make your way over to 17-Mile Drive, park and then set out. The Ghost Tree, Bird Rock and the Lone Cypress are picture-perfect vistas you’ll want to capture on your iPhone. If you have more time, we suggest driving down to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel, which draws visitors from all over the world to revel in the breathtaking beauty. Hike into coves, scuba dive, spot wildlife — including the occasional whale — and settle in for a picnic. And if you want to go further afield, there’s Big Sur, which has some unbelievable vistas, too. Our favorite vantage point is from the patio of Nepenthe, where a flame-grilled burger and a glass of pinot noir make a fantastic lunch.
If you’re sore from playing 18 holes, Five-Star The Spa at Pebble Beach is the place to repair to after a day on the links; it offers a Post-Golf Therapy treatment to ease neck and arm muscle tension. Worn-out hikers can opt for the Pebble Massage (the spa’s version of a hot-stone rubdown).
For your final evening, head to the casual Cantinetta Luca in Carmel for a fine Northern Italian dinner of a wood-fired pizza, housemade tagliatelle Bolognese or the killer house-cut bistecca sold by the ounce. Order your choice of a porterhouse, T-bone or Kansas City steak, which the chef will season with salt, pepper and balsamic before searing it to perfection in a cast-iron skillet.
As your two days come to a close, don’t be sad to leave for home; there’s a pretty good chance you’ll return to the Monterey Peninsula.
Photos Courtesy of iStock and L’Auberge Carmel