The Monterey Peninsula almost has too much to offer. There are beaches, wineries, national parks, historic villages, a world-famous golf course and Clint Eastwood mementos to spare.
Packing it all into one weekend would take exhaustive planning, so I’ve done the work for you. Here’s a guide that hits the most the important attractions in one weekend.
Start your first morning in Big Sur, 45 minutes south of Monterey. With its soaring sea stacks pummeled by waves, it’s easy to see why this area has inspired writers such as Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and Robinson Jeffers, whom called it “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.”
Wind your way along the coastline on twisty-turny Highway 1 before turning into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park ($10 entrance fee). Explore redwood groves and the rambling Big Sur River, whose clear water and small rapids are perfect for wading and tubing. Break for lunch at the Big Sur Bakery, a rustic spot in the middle of the forest with a best-selling cookbook under its belt.
Next, head back to Monterey and spend the afternoon at the aquarium (886 Cannery Row, $30 admission for adults). The crowds can overwhelm, but they start to thin out in the afternoons -- and it’s worth rubbing a few shoulders to take in these tanks. With neon-lit jellyfish, a wing dedicated to seahorses and a family of playful sea otters, this aquarium is full of unique sights. Its famous “big tank” is home to three kinds of sharks and the occasional scuba diver.
In the evening, stroll through Cannery Row. Once a bustling hub for the sardine canning industry (and John Steinbeck’s stomping grounds), it’s now filled with shops and restaurants that tend to be touristy -- but the old structures of factories and other historical sites remain.
If you’re feeling energetic on day two, start out at Point Lobos Nature State Reserve ($10 entrance fee), a state park that juts out into the ocean. Hike along the coastline, taking breaks to snap pics of Monterey pines and beaches full of napping harbor seals and sea lions. If you’d rather take it easy, cruise through 17-Mile Drive ($9.50 entrance fee) and take in some of the same sights, along with the legendary Pebble Beach golf course.
In the afternoon, head to Carmel for wine tastings along Carmel Valley Road -- there are 10 tasting rooms to choose from. If you’re indecisive, the Grapevine Tour ($4.50 for an all-day bus pass) hits them all. The views along the way are spectacular -- vineyards and farms flanked by towering green mountains.
Finally, end your weekend with dinner in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small village of high-end boutiques that descends down to the beach. Hog’s Breath Inn (San Carlos Street), a pub once owned by Clint Eastwood (Carmel’s former mayor – and the namesake for local streets and buildings) serves American food in an outdoor area full of fireplaces.
There’s lots more to see in the area -- the Carmel mission, Big Sur’s Pfeiffer state beach (where a waterfall hits the sand), and the old fisherman’s wharf -- but one visit to the Monterey Peninsula usually begets another.
The Monterey Hotel has a $79-per-night offer for stays Sunday-Thursday through Dec. 16. This is a savings of 30% on regular rates. Weekends are just $30 more per night. And, to find other hotel deals in the area, click here.