Monterey County: 11 Reasons to Escape to California’s Coast with the Most
Monterey County encompasses the best of California — in one place — from wine country to redwood forests to 159 km of coastline.
Go wine tasting in lush Salinas Valley, play a round of golf in Pebble Beach, hike through towering redwoods in Big Sur, and shop the boutiques in Carmel-by-the-Sea — all in one long weekend.
Did you know there’s an airport too? You can connect in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas for nonstop flights to Monterey Regional Airport. Alternately, San Jose International Airport is just over an hour’s drive (120 km), and San Francisco International Airport is about a two-hour drive (175 km) to Monterey County.
It’s time to put the everyday in the rearview mirror and set out along scenic Highway 1 to explore Monterey County:
1. Sea lions, boat rides and waterfront promenades are all in downtown Monterey.
Colourful Old Fisherman’s Wharf is a prime spot to see sea lions and gulls; whale-watching tours, glass-bottom boat rides and kayak rentals can be found here. Next door is the oceanfront street of Cannery Row — you can’t miss it thanks to the red historic cannery. Families can play laser tag or chow down on fresh seafood, while adults should head upstairs for wine flights at A Taste of Monterey — its second-floor location offers terrific bay views.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see on Cannery Row. Life-size whale models swim overhead in the Marine Mammal Gallery, while real-life giant Pacific octopuses disguise themselves in the Tentacles exhibit. Stay dry in the Splash Zone with 45 interactive exhibits that educate children about coral reefs, rocky shore animals and kelp. And keep an eye out for sea turtles, sharks and jellyfish in Open Sea, the aquarium’s largest exhibit.
These popular attractions are less crowded during winter months. During the summer, visit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for fewer crowds.
2. You can play in the Pacific.
The waves at Monterey State Beach are small and calm, and it’s common to see kayakers and scuba divers alongside children building sandcastles. Further north is a different story, with towering sand dunes covering the beaches of Seaside, Sand City and Marina. Look up and, you’ll see paragliders and hang gliders taking advantage of the perfect conditions.
If solitude is more your style, venture to one of Monterey County’s more secret beaches — there are seven of them.
3. It’s right out of a John Steinbeck novel.
Monterey County was centre stage in John Steinbeck’s novels, among them “Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men” and “East of Eden.” Cannery Row was even named in honour of his novel of the same name. Start your Steinbeck tour in Salinas at the National Steinbeck Center, which houses more than 40,000 relics including first edition novels and a Model T Ford. And be sure to stop at the Steinbeck House, the author’s childhood home, for lunch featuring local Salinas Valley produce.
4. There are 27 km of ocean views and famous sights.
Arguably one of the most famous (and scenic) roads on the West Coast is 17-Mile Drive. This two-lane road twists its way along oceanside cliffs providing uninterrupted dewy morning and evening sunset views. Pose for a selfie at The Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in the world. Your destination is the exclusive neighbourhood of Pebble Beach, home to legendary golf courses and high-end resorts — don’t miss the sunset bagpiper performance at The Inn at Spanish Bay.
Entrances to 17-Mile Drive are in Pacific Grove and Carmel. Access requires a US$10 cash fee, which can then be used as credit toward purchases along the route.
5. Luxury experiences await in Big Sur, Carmel and Pebble Beach.
Monterey County resorts consistently top award lists for the world’s best hotels, golf courses and restaurants. You can customize your family vacation with horseback rides and kayak rentals at the exclusive Lodge at Pebble Beach, or make it a couples getaway with a retreat to the Forbes-ranked 5-star spa. In Big Sur, Post Ranch Inn offers up uninterrupted ocean views and an array of complimentary amenities from Lexus car service to morning yoga and evening star gazing.
If the countryside is more your pace, venture to Carmel Valley Ranch. This hideaway is on a 202-hectare ranch off Highway 1 amid wine country and near quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea.
6. One-of-a-kind spa experiences.
Chardonnay bubble baths, seaweed wraps and private yoga sessions — enough said. Relax with a spa day at Vista Blue Spa (Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa) — recognized as a top spa in North America by Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveller — with a Pacific Ocean salt scrub and a rooftop sun deck. Wine enthusiasts will love the chardonnay massage oils and facial treatments at Bernardus Lodge.
Get the most bang for your buck at Refuge Spa, an immensely relaxing co-ed spa. A kid- and electronics-free spa day starts at US$44 for access to four Nordic cool pools, a eucalyptus steam bath and six hot pools with thermal waterfalls in Carmel Valley — truly invigorating on a cold day.
7. Some of California’s best golf courses are here.
Pebble Beach Golf Links is a bucket-list pilgrimage for any serious golfer. The par-3 7th is only 97 metres, but the picturesque peninsula green is fiercely defended by wind. The finishing par-5 18th runs 497 metres along the bay, with sea lions barking applause for tee shots into the fairway. Tee times are coveted at this public course (US$525 a round), and only Pebble Beach Resorts overnight guests can reserve a round more than one day in advance.
Aside from Pebble Beach, there are more than 450 holes of golf in the county, with courses that rank among the world’s best. Highlights include the very difficult Spyglass Hill and redesigned Poppy Hills, the 36 holes at one time military courses Bayonet and Black Horse (good luck in “Combat Corner”), the shorter Pacific Grove Golf Links with its US$50 greens fee and views of Point Pinos Lighthouse and the family-friendly par-3 Peter Hay Golf Course.
8. You can get up close to sea otters and whales.
California is one of the only places where whales can be seen year-round. The best season to see them is spring when gray whales migrate north along the coastline. Be sure to reserve whale-watching cruises in advance as trips can fill up fast. If you’re travelling with little ones, opt for a glass bottom boat ride from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a smoother ride, and you’ll still see plenty of sea lions and sea otters.
Moss Landing State Beach is a sure bet to spot sea otters from the shore. There is a protected cove near the dunes where sea otters are often huddled together in rafts — that’s what a group of floating sea otters is called.
9. 85+ wineries call Monterey County home.
Sample local chardonnays, pinot noirs, syrahs and cabernets at family-owned wineries along River Road in the Salinas Valley or at award-winning tasting rooms — like Bernardus Winery, Holman Ranch Vineyards and Joyce Vineyards — all within walking distance of Carmel Valley Village.
There are plenty of tasting rooms across the county as well. In Carmel-by-the-Sea alone there are more than a dozen options. And the town’s visitor centre offers a Wine Tasting Passport for US$65 (a US$90 value) that includes wine flights at nine places, all on Ocean Avenue — and the passport doesn’t expire until you use it all up.
10. Seafood reigns supreme here.
Think steaming bowls of clam chowder, freshly shucked oysters and just-out-of-the-fryer calamari. In fact, seafood is so quintessential to Monterey that the Sardine Factory was a key location in “Play Misty for Me,” Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut — the whole movie was actually filmed in Monterey County.
A must-visit for foodies is The Wharf Marketplace. Inspired by Seattle’s Pike Place, the market features local produce, cheese, seafood and wine; that’s as farm-to-table as you can get. Lettuce has never tasted as fresh as it does here — after all, nearby Salinas Valley is known as the “salad bowl of America.” About 70% of the nation’s lettuce is grown there. In Carmel Valley, The Farm Stand at Earthbound Farm combines a cut-your-own herb garden with an outdoor picnic area and organic salad bar.
11. The sun rises and sets here.
Dawn patrol isn’t just for surfers at Lovers Point Beach. This east-facing Pacific Grove beach boasts a sunrise over the ocean, one of the only ones on the West Coast. Yes, the sun does rise and set over the water in Monterey County. For spectacular sunsets, head to Big Sur, where the light bounces off rock formations at Garrapata and Pfeiffer beaches creating one-of-a-kind views in the region.
Ready to go?
Winter and spring are when we see some of the best hotel deals of the year in Monterey County. Midweek rates are often lower, so extend your weekend an extra night or two so you can explore even more.