If summer by the sea is the California dream, there’s nowhere better to be in August than the Monterey Peninsula.
Few places in the world offer so many different ways to be by the ocean. While it may be best known for marquee tourist attractions like Monterey’s world-class aquarium or Pebble Beach’s famed golf, the common denominator luring visitors to this patchwork of Central Coast cities is its spectacular, eclectic waterfront.
And here’s a paradox: Access to Monterey County’s 99-mile shoreline is so vast and varied that even at the height of summer vacation, you can be watching pelicans dive-bomb for dinner, or walking a seaside path as waves hurl themselves against the rocks below and realize, with some amazement, you’ve got the place to yourself.
That’s not to say it can’t get packed, as anyone who’s driven down Highway 101 on a Friday or trudged along Cannery Row knows. And you may face some tough choices. Want to get nose to nose with a sea otter? Sure, but from a kayak, or at the aquarium? Construct a killer sand castle? Yes, but on which beach? Simply gaze out at the ever-changing water? Would you like that with big waves, rocks or both?
If you want to golf, shop for cheap trinkets or fine art, taste some of the state’s best wines and eat like a 1 percent-er, you can do that, too.
But it’s August, and we’ve come for the water, so let’s start from the top. Driving down from the Bay Area, the beauty begins the minute the blue Pacific first peeks out from behind the sand dunes.
Keep going past Marina, then Seaside and Monterey comes into view. If you’re ready for a stop, check out the four-story Monterey Tides, one of the few hotels in all of Northern California that’s actually on the beach. Recently renovated, the lobby and popular bar offer dramatic views of surprisingly large waves that seem close enough to crash through the floor-to-ceiling windows. If the ocean experience you seek requires falling asleep to the noise of thunderous surf, look no further.
But other ocean adventures beckon, so head into Monterey, where one of the many adventure companies will be happy to whisk you out onto the water. If you prefer sightseeing from the trail, bicycles and family-friendly surreys can be rented.
For a vintage California summer vacation experience, stroll along Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll find the expected mix of candy and T-shirt stores and barkers offering sips of chowder to lure you into restaurants with crab- and lobster-based menus. From there, it’s a 15-minute scenic walk to Cannery Row for more of the same, along with many odes to cherished local son John Steinbeck. This is also where you’ll find the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers an entertaining and interactive crash course on ocean creatures, eco-systems and kelp forests.
From there continue south via the road or on the 23-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail toward Pacific Grove, where old-school B&Bs in Victorian mansions with names like Seven Gables Inn overlook Lovers Point, with its sheltered cove, pool and volleyball courts. Big Sur officially begins south of Carmel, but a shorter, more accessible version takes shape here. Walk the trail or, if you’ve got wheels, cruise the road south and take advantage of the many turnouts to scramble down steps or rocks and explore the tide pools.
After a few miles you’ll hit Asilomar Beach, whose huge rolling banks of waves are emerald green on a clear day. Here you’ll have another decision to make — whether to cut through the peninsula down to Carmel, or pay the $10.25 to take the 17-Mile Drive through the gated community of Pebble Beach and ogle the real estate as well as the $10 million-dollar ocean views. No matter how you get there, no trip is complete without spending time in Carmel. Ready for a glass of wine? Again, hard choices — which of the 15 tasting rooms to try? Maybe try a few. There are 72 art galleries to check out, too. And when you’re weary of shopping, look west and head down the hill — all streets lead to the water. This is one of the best and most beloved beaches, distinctive for its white sand. Take off your shoes, go for a walk. After all, it’s summer.
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