VACATION IDEAS

Ultimate California Road Trip

From the Monterey Bay down to Hearst Castle, California's central coast has been enchanting visitors for decades. Warning: you may never go home again.

Big Sur along California Highway 1.

Take a drive through California's Big Sur along scenic Highway 1.

(Greg Mcafee/Dreamstime.com)

My first visit to Big Sur, um, changed my life. I know I’m setting the bar awfully high, and I can’t promise that this road trip will do the same for you. But when my wife and I first careened own the vertigo-inducing Highway 1 along the Central California Coast, the vastness of the ocean, the height of the cliffs, and the scent of the wild anise that grows along the side of the road packed quite a wallop. In short: Big Sur ain’t Brooklyn. When we returned home to that hipper-than-thou NYC borough and began to tentatively, tenderly reminisce about our vacation, I burst into tears. Yadda, yadda, yadda: We packed up our tiny, overpriced apartment and moved to San Francisco, where we spent nearly a decade devoting long weekends and PTO to the California coast from Mendocino down to San Diego. That said, it is perfectly acceptable—and even advisable—to make the Central Coast a neat little road trip without turning it into a permanent lifestyle choice. Here, my best tips for exploring the region from Monterey Bay down to San Simeon.

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Monterey

The most spectacular stretch of California’s Pacific coast runs from Monterey down to San Simeon. But if you’re approaching from the San Francisco Bay Area on Highway 1, leave a little time to pull off at the 115-foot-high Pigeon Point Lighthouse, about 50 miles south of S.F., for a hint of the jaw- dropping coastal scenery to come. Then, drop by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (free admission, separate tickets sold for amusement park rides) at the top of Monterey Bay. Admission is free, you can get your picture taken at the apex of a thrilling roller coaster, and check out world-class surfing and sea-kayaking before heading down “the 1” into Monterey.

Once in Monterey, Fisherman’s Wharf is a win-win. It’s an authentic, working wharf with serious historical cred (this town was once the sardine capital of America). It also happens to be a blast for visitors in search of the best clam chowder ever; whale watch tours that deliver flukes, fins, and fun; and classy souvenir shops and galleries—not to mention sea lions! Grab a “bread bowl” of transcendent chowder at Old Fisherman’s Grotto (bread bowl of clam chowder $13, cup of clam chowder $7) while you watch the boats bobbing on the bay. (Note: the food is so good here, I choose to overlook its grouchy “children’s policy,” which forbids strollers, high chairs, and booster seats.) If you’re up for an open-sea adventure, add an extra day to your stay for a four-to-five hour tour with Monterey Bay Whale Watch (from $41 for adults, $29 for kids ages 4-12).

Most visitors to Monterey unfortunately overlook the Old Town Historic District, a State Park that includes a number of restored adobe structures and other historic buildings that trace California’s development from Spanish colonial days to American statehood. Here, you can also visit the California home of Scottish-born writer Robert Louis Stevenson, most famous for Treasure Island and perhaps the Monterey Bay’s best-ever press agent—he called the area “the most felicitous meetings of land and sea in creation.”

But Stevenson isn’t even Monterey’s most famous writer. John Steinbeck immortalized the place in novels like Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flat, and in 1958 the city changed the name of Ocean View Avenue to Cannery Row in homage to Steinbeck. The sardine fishing and canning business that was the backdrop for Steinbeck’s novel is long gone, but the row still pulses with honky-tonk energy, a tinkling carousel, and great locally sourced, sustainable food (some local wags refer to the street as "restaurant row"). Here, you should embark on a portion of the 19-mile Coastal Recreational Trail, where you can walk or bike along the rocky coast of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (keep your eyes peeled for cute sea otters feasting on shellfish among the kelp beds just offshore).

For serious immersion in the bay's aquatic life, you can't beat the Monterey Bay Aquarium (from $39.95 for adults, $24.95 for kids ages 4-12), housed in—what else?—a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row and devoted to the marine life of the bay itself. Marvel at some of the biggest aquarium tanks on earth, and this summer you can check out the exhibit "Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squide, and Cuttlefishes."

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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