Monterrey, Carmel and Big Sur
We woke to rain (sigh). Turns out, California was in the middle of a long drought and the downpour brought welcomed relief. Coastal fog—especially on the northwest side, as we learned from a local—is part of the charm of the Pacific Coast Highway experience. We decided to embrace the elements. We were eager to show our friends from Japan the drive of their lifetime (even without a convertible).
Rain and traffic, no worries
Heading south out of San Francisco you can take the more direct Highway 101, or add an hour to experience the more scenic Route 1 as we did. We found ourselves in awe of the plunging cliff views that hug the coastline all along the Pacific Ocean—that extra hour really paid off in spectacular photo ops.
As travelers and guides will tell you, this fabulous coast road is about the journey in itself. It’s easy to forget you have a destination amid such a dramatic landscape. But by the time we reached the Monterey peninsula, we were ready to stretch our legs.
Meet Monterey, and the little shops of Cannery Row
This waterfront street, made famous by American novelist John Steinbeck as depicted in the novel Cannery Row, is lined with charming shops, vibrant restaurants and boutique hotels. We couldn’t resist. We stopped into a wine store, which graciously offered us a tasting of some of the local reds, along with a cheese plate to complement. We felt obliged to partake given our close proximity to California’s famous Wine Country. But that’s another trip. (Helpful note: Monterey and Santa Barbara counties hold their own, offering fantastic local wine labels, outside of what’s known as the traditional wine country here.)
The elegance of Pebble Beach
Next we cruised the 17-Mile Drive. This stunning and curvy drive by the famous Pebble Beach is home to championship golf tournaments, impressive mansions and the occasional antique car show. Pebble Beach is a definite for car and golf enthusiasts and left us wishing we had more time!
Must see: the Mission San Borromeo del Rio Carmelo
A scene change came as the sun appeared, and we entered Carmel. Our first stop: the fully restored Mission San Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. It was awe inspiring to witness original, 18th century splendor. One of 21 missions established by the Spanish missionaries in the 1700, and 1800s, this Spanish colonial-style basilica is surrounded by lush gardens and offers many insights and inspirations for the traveler. We learned that much of California—its architecture, names of places and general vibe—is owed to this early Spanish colonial influence. Appreciating its heritage made for a more rich experience as we continued on.
Next, a good hike
We experienced culture. It was time to explore the great outdoors. We set our compass due south to Point Lobos, a 1,325 acre nature reserve. The friendly guides pointed the way to panoramic coastline views and majestic cypress trees, where more than 270 species of birds have been observed (did you see any? We spotted a Snowy Egret, Killdeer, and Red-tailed Hawk!). Down below, we discovered pinecones—something our friends from Japan had never seen before! Best of all, we had the park practically all to ourselves.
Unforgettable day, unforgettable inn
Tired, hungry and exhilarated, we headed 30 miles south to the Big Sur River Inn. This is no ordinary inn. It’s a destination all its own: a rustic little hideaway, nestled among California’s lush redwood trees. It’s a place that invites you to connect with your surroundings, literally. There were no TVs or phones in our rooms—and with this incredible setting we didn’t even mind. We settled in and headed to the deck restaurant, with a cozy outdoor backyard feel. We feasted on the sumptuous brisket (another first for our Japanese friends) and beer-battered onion rings (their new favorite snack), which paired perfectly with the local wines, all against the scenic backdrop of plush greenery. It was the perfect way to unwind and recharge.
Tomorrow we explore more of what was known as “The Big South” to the Spanish. Do you know what it’s called today? Check back to see if you’re right!
Have your camera ready—catch the sunset as it sets in the west on this idyllic coast.