Monterey: Where Dreamy Photos are Even Better IRL

Mar 18, 2021

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then what would you say about Monterey County, California—one of the most photogenic places in the country? Especially when you visit this stretch of California Coast and realize that the bigger picture is so much better in person.

Yes, it's easy to get lost in an Instagram daydream as you scroll through #SeeMonterey photos (especially when the images are so, well, dreamy). But these snapshots simply cannot do the place justice. Whether it's to see the setting sun imbuing the rocks at Pinnacles National Park with orange hue or to hear the thunder of waves crashing at Carmel Beach or to take in the postcard view down the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, you really just have to be there. These moments are what turn vacations into memories, so when you're ready, here are our tips on how to make the most of a Monterey County getaway.

Big Sur

Believe it—the beauty of this rugged stretch of coastline is even more stunning IRL than the classic photos suggest. Driving through without a pitstop, though, would mean missing the area's coastal redwood forest hikes (like the easy walk along Liewald Flat trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park) and not discovering one of the hidden beaches (psst—try Los Padres Beach). This area's delicate ecosystem requires responsible travel; remember to leave no trace so that the next visitor can enjoy the pristine surroundings as much as you will.

Rather than moving on after snapping your coastal pic, stop overnight (or at least for a meal) at The Big Sur River Inn—the first hotel and restaurant that set up shop here in 1932. Dine alfresco with a view of the river, and be sure to order a slice of the apple pie (it's the first homesteader's recipe and apparently so good that the inn was originally named after it).


Carmel-by-the-Sea

One could get used to the tranquil small-town beauty of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the loudest sound is often the ocean’s crashing waves. Unsurprisingly, this peaceful atmosphere has been inspiring and attracting artists for more than a century. Prominent past residents include Jack London, Ansel Adams and Clint Eastwood, who also served as the city’s mayor for a term.

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Perhaps the most iconic aspect of the one-square-mile town is its 21 fairytale-style cottages, which date back to the 1920s. Take a self-guided tour on an electric bike rented from Mad Dogs & Englishmen Bike Shop to spot the original two buildings: Hansel and Gretel. Get a closer view of a charming cottage with afternoon tea at the Tuck Box (established in 1927 as a restaurant called Sally's). Afterward, hop back on your bike and cruise Scenic Road along Carmel Beach where the sugar white sand is the perfect spot to catch the sunset.

Don't miss Point Lobos State Reserve to behold what's often referred to as "the greatest meeting of land and water in the world."  For the best views of the opalescent sea, hike the 0.8-mile Cypress Grove Trail. You might even spot sea otters frolicking in the water below. 


Monterey

Long before the bay was a protected marine sanctuary, before the world-renowned aquarium opened, before the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 kicked off the Summer of Love, before Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, before the town of Monterey was founded in 1770 and became the capital of Alta California under Spanish and Mexican rule, native people thrived from the natural riches found in the valleys and shoreline for thousands of years. This land has seen quite a bit of history.

Today, whether you're a sea-shanty-loving whale enthusiast, a family on vacation or a food and wine connoisseur, Monterey's bounties continue to provide. Start on Cannery Row—the waterfront street with shops, eclectic restaurants and hotels (no fish canneries nowadays; the last closed in the 1970s). At the end of Cannery Row, you'll find Monterey Bay Aquarium (set to reopen in spring 2021), one of the city's top attractions.

Old Fisherman's Wharf is another top tourist spot; the former fish market is now filled with attractions and dining outlets. Book kayak rentals, get an ice cream or watch local fishermen grab their catch of the day. Be sure to stop at Monterey Whale Watch (located on the Wharf) to arrange a whale-watching tour; they're available year-round here.

If you want a change of pace from the area’s upscale resorts and boutique inns, try camping at Veteran's Memorial Park, tucked into a forest just a mile from downtown Monterey. Reserve a spot in advance for tent or RV camping. You may find that sleeping under the stars and waking to a sun-drenched tent is the moment you remember most from your visit.


Carmel Valley

Great wine tasting rooms and impressive restaurant wine lists are found throughout Monterey County, but about 20 minutes inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea, you'll find the epicenter of the area's wine scene, dedicated to relaxation and indulgence: Carmel Valley.

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The region's history with viticulture dates back to Spanish friars in the 1770s, so it's easily among the oldest wine-making regions in the country. Today, work your way down Carmel Valley Road, stopping at your choice of the 20+ tasting rooms along the way. A few notable spots: Village Wine & Tap Room, a Carmel Valley-local-owned tasting room that showcases up-and-coming, small production wines. Try the red or white house wine (produced by winemaker Miguel Lepe) which are named after the owners' bulldogs. Stop by The Wine House (owned by two sisters) and cozy up next to the patio's fire pit while snacking on small bites and wine by the glass from the ever-changing (but always delish) menu. Albatross Ridge Tasting Cottage opened their Carmel Valley cellar door in 2020; they specialize on production of two single-variety wines: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—both are excellent and award-winning.

Or you can leave the planning to the experts by booking with Monterey Guided Wine Tours for a private guided wine tasting tour. You'll have your choice of a party bus, limo or town car.


Pacific Grove

Just south of Monterey—on the southern edge of the Monterey Bay—you'll find the unpretentious and charming (yet never touristy) town of Pacific Grove. The historic downtown has narrow streets lined with businesses housed in early 20th-century buildings. This town is also known for its monarch butterfly migration and the annual Butterfly Parade & Bazaar in October.

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To explore bayside, rent a bike or surrey (yes, like the one with "a fringe on top" of Oklahoma! fame, but this is powered by pedals, like a bike) from Adventures by the Sea. They're stationed at Lovers Point Park, incidentally a great place for an IG shot (with or without your lover). With your new set of wheels, hit the 18-mile long Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail north toward Monterey.

Golfers will like the reasonable greens fees and stunning back-nine ocean views from the Pacific Grove Golf Links, which includes a picturesque pass by Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast.


Pebble Beach

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If you’re here for golf, then you’re here for Pebble Beach, where dramatic backdrops are matched only by the challenging public courses that rank among the best in the country—all three landed in Golf Digest's top 50. But the publication's number one public course in the US since 2003? That honor goes to Pebble Beach Golf Links; this course was co-designed by Jack Neville, who also had a hand in the Pacific Grove Golf Links' back nine.

Beyond the green, there's a scenic ride you'll want to take: 17-Mile Drive (perhaps one of the few instances where a toll road is worth the price of admission.) Here the menu of views includes mansions, the roaring Pacific, pocket beaches, famous golf courses and the famed Lone Cypress, a 250-year-old tree which grows on a rocky granite outcropping. Simply put, this tree's location and longevity defy probability. It's the most photographed tree in America, so be sure to snap a shot.


Salinas

Salinas was home to author and Nobel Prize Laureate John Steinbeck and is now, naturally, the location of National Steinbeck Center Museum (temporarily closed as of publish, but planning to reopen when it's safe to do so). Salinas is often referred to as the "Salad Bowl of the World" due to its fertile ground and flourishing agricultural businesses. As you'd expect, the farmers markets here are [chef's kiss]. Check out the Old Town Salinas Market on Saturdays throughout the year.

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From there, head south to Salinas Valley to pick up a bottle of vino straight from the vineyard on the laid-back River Road Wine Trail. With all the makings of a perfect picnic in hand, venture off to Pinnacles National Park for a meal among the remains of an ancient volcano.

After lunch, head out on a hike and do some birdwatching. If you're lucky you'll catch a glimpse of the rare California Condor. Hikes worth exploring are the 1.5-mile Bear Gulch Cave Trail, where you might need a flashlight to navigate the trails' two caves. If you're hiking with kids but don't want to miss the caves, hit the Moses Spring Trail, a technically simple trek that's lined with volcanic structures and an easily-navigable cave.

Ready to grab your moment in Monterey County? Check out their visitor guide for help planning.

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