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Monterey Peninsula Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway

Bohemian Splendor
Golden State's Monterey Peninsula
By Carol M. Newman

Big Sur's Pfeiffer Beach
Big Sur's Pfeiffer Beach

From the pristine surf of Carmel Beach, the small town feel of Pacific Grove and the über-fresh seafood of the Monterey Bay to the vast produce fields of Salinas, the elegant vineyards of Carmel Valley and the expansive wilderness of Big Sur, there are a plethora of jewels to be discovered and enjoyed throughout Monterey County.

Monterey's Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck's novel of the same name, toasts the Peninsula's fishing and canning history and is home to the region's most famous tourist attraction: the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Peninsula is also home to Pebble Beach, a resort area where you can unwind at one of many elegant resorts and restaurants after a game on some of the world's finest golf courses. Further inland, Carmel Valley's sunny interior gives way to wineries, an arts and crafts culture and a laid-back spirit. The Peninsula is a playground for weekenders, families, golfers and lovers. After 72 hours of exploration, you'll understand why this place is so inspired — and inspiring.

Monterey Bay Coastline
Monterey Bay Coastline

The Monterey Peninsula lies on the Pacific coast on the southern side of the Monterey Bay, just off Highway 1 and south of Santa Cruz. It's west of Salinas and 75 miles from San Jose, 115 miles from San Francisco and 335 miles north of Los Angeles.  From San Francisco and the north, take Highway 1 to Monterey; or, alternately, take Highway 101, turn west at Highway 156, and head south on Highway 1. From the south, take Highway 1 from Morro Bay and Hearst Castle or from Highway 101, exit in Salinas, and follow the signs to the Monterey Peninsula.

Summer is a season of cool and foggy days when a thick marine layer stubbornly refuses to leave the coast. The spring and fall are vibrant and clear, the Mediterranean climate often playing games with visitors who aren't familiar with its eccentricities. Whatever time of year, do as the locals do and dress in layers. Your light sweater will make a welcome tether.


Art gallery in Carmel
Art gallery in Carmel
You'll start to get a glimpse of Carmel's rich Arts and Crafts and architectural heritage by turning from Highway 1 (Carmel's Main Street) onto Ocean Avenue and then driving down Carmel Hill. Cypress and pine shroud the street, the white sands and glistening waters of Carmel Beach blanket the horizon. As you make your approach into the village "By-the-Sea," you'll get a distinct feel for Carmel's cottage culture, some of the homes made famous by Hugh Comstock, "Carmel's builder of dreams." Today, many of Carmel's "cute" cottage structures have been replaced with modern façades that replicate the original bungalow and Arts and Crafts styles.

In addition to familiarizing yourself with the architectural motifs, get to know some of the quirky local ordinances still on the books.  Live music in pubs is banned, there are no street numbers, neon lights are a no-no and high heels — worn without a permit — are forbidden. Other basic trivia to memorize: Clint Eastwood is no longer mayor; his short two-year reign ended in 1988. He also long ago sold his interest in the western pub, the Hog's Breath Inn — so it's probably not the best place to go Clint watching, though a drink around the outside fireplace never gets old.

The Cypress Inn — co-owned with Hollywood icon Doris Day — is an ideal Carmel spot to call home for a few days. The dog-friendly inn has a history that spans more than a century: In 1906 artist Sidney J. Yard built Carmel's first art gallery on the same site and in 1929, the present structure was built and to this day, it still retains many of its original details through preservation and restoration. Each of the twenty unique rooms, rich with Mediterranean colors and that quintessential Carmel quaintness, is decorated with fresh flowers and supplied with complimentary cream sherry, fresh fruit, nuts and filtered water. Terry's Lounge, located onsite, offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and a stellar selection of local California wines.

Just a few short blocks away is the center of town.  And just off the main drag Ocean Avenue—and next to tiny Piccadilly Park, sits Cantinetta Luca. This spirited dining destination is helmed by talented restaurateur David Fink, who also owns the highly acclaimed Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel. Authentic Italian dishes are served in a big-city style atmosphere. Sit at the counter and watch chef Jason Balestrieri prepare the house specialty, antipasti, or embrace your inner carnivore and order the razor-thin, air-cured beef bresaola.  Alternately, you might want to enjoy the in-house cured salumi and a glass of wine from the all-Italian wine list.

Enjoy a cocktail on the heated patio at La Playa Carmel
Heated patio at La Playa Carmel

You'll also find as many design shops, galleries and fine boutiques as there are restaurants. One store not to miss is Homescapes Carmel. This boutique home design store with a Japanese flair features both imported and local work. You'll marvel at Carmel artist John Chappell's unique "curiosities;" lamps and tables carved in stone, steel and cement. Dawson Cole Fine Art highlights the one-man show of master sculptor and figure artist, Richard MacDonald.

At The Weston Gallery, the oldest and most respected gallery of its kind, you'll discover fine photography by newer talents and legendary artists such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Art openings and exhibits also play a constant role in this village. At the Carmel Art Association, Carmel's oldest art gallery, founded in 1927, the work of more than 120 professional local artists is presented. Check their calendar and maybe you'll catch an opening.

After your initial jaunt through town, stroll to La Playa Carmel for an alfresco afternoon cocktail on the hotel's heated patio. Or, if the fog has played its hand, cozy up inside the wood-paneled lounge where vintage photos of old Carmel adorn the walls and make for a warm backdrop. Afterwards, take a five-minute drive outside Carmel's official city limits. Your eyes might need a moment to adjust to the darkness (another one of Carmel's laws: no street lamps) as you ramble through the storybook village to what locals call, "the mouth of the valley." Here in the Crossroads Shopping Center you'll find Rio Grill, a fixture on the Peninsula for more than 25 years. Chef Cy Yontz emboldens Southwestern cuisine through daring spicing and creative presentations. Start with the quesadilla of the day — perhaps barbecued beef or another festive filling — and then move on to something from the grill. Nothing on the menu is too hot and spicy.

Continue to Day 2


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*Images courtesy of Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau

(Updated: 09/17/12 CT)

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