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.
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.
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."
When you're ready to hit the hay, Casa Munras (rooms from $147 a night), is a hacienda-style hotel about two miles from Fisherman's Wharf with friendly staff who are always happy to make recommendations and aquarium and restaurant reservations for you.
As you head south toward Big Sur, make sure to set aside a few hours for the iconic Pebble Beach 17-Mile Drive ($10 per car) before departing the Monterey peninsula. Sure, you’ve seen these sights on postcards for forever, and it’s a $10 toll road through a gated community, including the toney Pebble Beach Resort. But you’ll get a kick out of seeing how the other 1 percent live, and I promise you’ll soon quit your bellyaching (I always do) as you meander through fog-shrouded pine forests, along the rocky shore, and get to ogle the world-famous Lone Cypress. There are five entry points to the drive, one along Highway 1, and you’ll be given a map upon entry. You can easily spend a few hours stopping along the drive, but be sure to exit near Carmel, where you’ll continue south on the 1 toward Big Sur.
Where exactly is Big Sur? Appropriately enough for an area that has inspired poets, philosophers, and dreamers for decades (including, most famously, writer Henry Miller), there is no official definition of Big Sur (translated from Spanish as “the Big South”). Very broadly, it can refer to the coastal region of California between Carmel and San Simeon and west of the Santa Lucia mountains. When I’m in a particularly woo-woo mood, I say, “The Big Sur you trace on a map is less important than the Big Sur you take home in your heart.”
The best advice I can give you for exploring Big Sur is to keep your eyes open as you head down the 1, cross the Carmel River, and navigate the twists and turns as the highway hugs the Pacific shore. The ocean looms to your right, impossibly big and bright on a sunny day and a moody, misty gray at other times. There are ample places to pull off for a scenic overlook, but when you pull off, please don’t obsess too much about capturing the cliff-side panoramas with a camera—even professionals have a tough time doing the scene justice! It’s more important to capture the faces of the people you love as they see this place for the first time.
Amid your meandering, you must stop at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park ($10 per car), right off the highway 26 miles south of Carmel. Here, trails through redwood groves, pines, and hardwoods like sycamores and cottonwoods take you up into the mountains at an easy, family-friendly grade, with views of the Big Sur River as it winds down the mountains to the ocean.
My favorite is the Valley View Trail (turn left at the stop sign after the entry booth, then head to the right, uphill, to the trailhead and parking lot), which crosses two bridges and leads you to a viewing platform where you can savor the dramatic Pfeiffer Falls. After your hike, you can hit the highway again in search of more dramatic ocean views, or you can collapse into a comfy bed at the Big Sur Lodge (rooms from $189 a night), right inside the state park. Book several months or more in advance, as demand is high, especially in summer, and rooms here are a worth-it (slight) splurge—especially if you are able to nab one with a fireplace. After a day of exploring the cliffs along the ocean and the trails in the mountains, there’s nothing like warming your bones in front of a fire when the evening fog creeps in.
Dining at the Big Sur Lodge is excellent and the staff always makes you feel welcome. (Menu items include favorites like Wild Salmon with Ravioli, and the wine list is everything you’d expect from a first-rate California cellar.) But if you’re in the mood for something new, try out New Orleans chef Matt Glazer’s Big Sur Roadhouse (poached local catch, topped with Dungeness crab, $28), just a five-minute drive up Highway 1 from Pfeiffer State Park, at Glen Oaks resort, where you can explore Glazer’s imaginative Cajun-style riffs on classic California cuisine, like the Poached Local Catch, topped with lump Dungeness crab.
The town of San Simeon is less than 70 miles south of Big Sur Lodge on the 1, but reserve at least two hours for the drive—there will be plenty of scenic overlooks, and sometimes traffic can slow down as newbies navigate the switchbacks along the way.
Hearst Castle (Grand Rooms Tour from $25 for adults, $12 for kids ages 5-12) is the knockout estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst himself called the joint La Cuesta Encantada (“Enchanted Hill”), and it’s an excellent example of what can be accomplished when rampaging egomania is harnessed to great art and design. Working with renowned architect Julia Morgan, Hearst created 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens and pools to showcase his amazing art collection (including Roman sculptures, Tiffany lamps, and much more). You’ll start with a film, “Building the Dream,” on a five-story screen at the visitor center, then head to the castle, where several guided tours are available. If you don’t have all the time—or the money—in the world, opt for the magnificent Grand Rooms Tour.