In the days when San Francisco was just a gold miners' shantytown, Monterey, then California's capital, was a thriving city of wealth. Now it's the place for newly rich dot-commers and San Franciscans to get away from the hassle of city life. Only three hours from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Monterey Peninsula area has a world-class aquarium in Monterey, stunning redwood forests in Big Sur, a historic boardwalk in Santa Cruz, and some spectacular drives in Carmel and Pacific Grove. So pack a pile jacket, get out the camera, and see the central California coast in all its splendor.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
If you're heading to the Monterey area from San Francisco, you can follow scenic Highway 1, which hugs the coast for much of the 3 1/2-hour drive. That may be the most direct route, but it takes longer than the commuter artery, Highway 101, which connects with Highway 68 West near Salinas. The Monterey Peninsula Airport (831/648-7000), just outside Monterey, is served by several major airlines. From Los Angeles, the drive takes seven-plus hours.
Though technically the peninsula consists only of Pacific Grove, residents of Monterey and Carmel would beg to differ. And you'd be missing out if you didn't also make side trips to Big Sur (26 miles south of Monterey) and the boardwalk at Santa Cruz (42 miles to the north).
WHERE TO EAT
Red House Café 662 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove; 831/643-1060; dinner for two $40. A longtime favorite for breakfast and lunch, the café recently added a dinner menu (served Thursday through Saturday) that revolves around what's fresh and whatever chef-owner Christopher D'Amelio feels inspired to cook. A typical night's offerings: Dijon-thymeÐencrusted prime rib with sweet-potato purée and sautéed zucchini, and baked Monterey salmon with braised leeks.
Tillie Gort's Café 111 Central Ave., Pacific Grove; 831/373-0335; lunch for two $20. Before an afternoon visit to the tourist-packed aquarium, grab a wholesome snack at this granola-crowd luncheonette. Veggie burgers, big salads, fresh juices, and flavorful vegan desserts (try the vanilla cake with mocha frosting) share menu space alongside such mainstream carnivorous fare as the "turkado" (a turkey sandwich with avocado).
Taste Café & Bistro 1199 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove; 831/655-0324; dinner for two $45. A great spot for bistro dishes with a California touch. The standouts are chicken-apple sausages with braised red cabbage, au gratin potatoes, and onion marmalade; and grilled entrecte.
Duck Club Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, 400 Cannery Row, Monterey; 831/646-1706; dinner for two $80. After a lengthy day of sightseeing, the hotel's formal grill and attentive staff are just the thing. Plus you get a bay view to accompany your savory butternut squash soup and perfectly grilled salmon.
Tarpy's Roadhouse 2999 Hwy. 68, Monterey; 831/647-1444; dinner for two $50. The renovated stone farmhouse was built in the early 1900's and has a lively courtyard. Try one of the wood-grilled steaks.
Montrio 414 Calle Principal, Monterey; 831/648-8880; dinner for two $60. This buzzing bistro is set in a 1910 converted firehouse—the pole is sadly gone, but the exposed brick and high ceilings remain. Sip a good local wine at the bar while waiting for rotisserie chicken with garlic mashed potatoes.
Stokes Adobe Restaurant 500 Hartnell St., Monterey; 831/373-1110; dinner for two $70. This may be the prettiest restaurant in town—it's in a pink adobe, circa 1833—but the real draw is chef Brandon Miller's seared ahi tuna with lentil-tomato salad and mustard aioli.
Hog's Breath Inn San Carlos and Fifth Sts., Carmel; 831/625-1044; lunch for two $20. Though Clint Eastwood is no longer the owner (only the landlord), this nouveau-rustic English pub and grill still pays homage to Carmel's former mayor and most famous resident—both in décor (lots of movie stills) and on the menu ("Dirty Harry burger," anyone?). Recently opened after a renovation, it's ideal for a drink and a nosh by one of the five outdoor fireplaces.
Nepenthe Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 831/667-2345; dinner for two $50. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth used to rent the private cabin here, built in 1944 by a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice, to steal away from their fans. Sitting on an 800-foot bluff, full of paths and steps that lead to stunning treetop coastal views, Nepenthe (Greek for "no sorrow") has been a restaurant/café and Big Sur landmark for more than 50 years. The food is a bit overpriced and pedestrian—but it's an agreeable place for lunch or a snack (the ambrosia burger is a good choice).
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn 48865 Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 831/667-2378; dinner for two $60. After the twisty drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, stop at Deetjen's for a glass of wine. Order the poached pear-and-blue cheese salad with candied walnuts, then the crisp roast free-range chicken with portobello mashed potatoes. On a brisk night, the crackling fireplace and doting service will warm the chill right out of you.
WHERE TO STAY
Green Gables Inn 104 Fifth St., Pacific Grove; 800/722-1774 or 831/375-2095, fax 831/375-5437; doubles from $150. This multigabled oceanfront ²ueen Anne is a white-and-green historic landmark with 11 rooms and panoramic ocean views.
Centrella Inn 612 Central Ave., Pacific Grove; 800/233-3372 or 831/372-3372, fax 831/372-2036; doubles from $119. Nine of the 26 rooms at the Centrella have claw-foot tubs. The five cottages in secluded gardens are especially lovely.
Seven Gables Inn 555 Ocean View Blvd., Pacific Grove; 831/372-4341; doubles from $165. You'll have perfect views of the sheltered beaches at Monterey Bay and Lover's Point. All 14 rooms are furnished with antiques.
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa 400 Cannery Row, Monterey; 800/334-3999 or 831/646-1700, fax 831/656-0439; doubles from $235. This Mediterranean villaÐstyle hotel is a world away from the honky-tonk kitsch of its Cannery Row location, and the place to stay if you're looking for a romantic splurge.
Best Western The Beach Resort 2600 Sand Dunes Dr., Monterey; 800/242-8627 or 831/394-3321, fax 831/393-1912; doubles from $169. Simple, yes, but it does have a great waterfront location.
Pine Inn Ocean and Lincoln Aves., Carmel; 831/624-3851 or 800/228-3851, fax 831/624- 3030; doubles from $105. Carmel's first inn opened in 1889 and remains a favorite for weekenders who relish the Victorian period details.
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 831/667-2377; doubles from $90. Deetjen's hits the perfect pitch of rustic comfort. The tiny cabins seem more like tree houses than part of an inn—some even have shared bathrooms—but they make for a funky resting spot.
WHAT TO DO
If there's one sight to see, it's the Seventeen-Mile Drive (off Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove or North San Antonio Road in Carmel, plus three additional entries; $7.75 per car, cyclists free). The road curves through the redwood forest and lets you view the fury of the Pacific crashing against the jagged coast.
Butterfly lovers should make a trip to the Monarch Grove Sanctuary (Lighthouse Ave. and Ridge Rd.; 831/375-0982; free) to catch November's prime viewing season.
Leave ample time to explore the 100-plus exhibits at Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row; 831/648-4800; admission $15.95 adults, $7.95 children). Highlights include the outdoor Great Tide Pool, the three-story Kelp Forest, and a "touch pool."
For a comprehensive history of John Steinbeck, the area's most famous native, spend a few hours at the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main St.; 831/796-3833) in nearby Salinas. The museum has an extensive library of the author's works.
After your dose of literary history, head to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (1700 Elkhorn Rd., Watsonville; 831/728-2822). The 1,400 acres of tidal flats and salt marshes, which are only 20 miles north of Monterey, form a delicate ecosystem for more than 200 species of birds. Rent a kayak at Monterey Bay Kayaks (2390 Hwy. 1; 800/649-5357; $35 per day).
The 1770 Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo (Rio Rd. and Lausen Dr.; 831/624-3600) combines mystical fervor, Catholic solemnity, and a sense of whimsy. Wander through the shady, fountained courtyard to visit the small gallery and museum.
The 1919 Gothic-style Tor House (26304 Ocean View Ave.; 831/624-1813; tours $7, on Friday and Saturday only), built by the poet Robinson Jeffers, is one of those curious structures you should definitely check out. Implanted into the stonework of the house are a piece of the Great Wall of China, a fragment from the Pyramids at Giza, and a porthole from one of Napoleon's ships, among other artifacts.
Get close to the ancient redwood forests that surround Big Sur by hiking through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (Hwy. 1; 831/667-2315). The rugged three-quarter-mile hike from the Big Sur Lodge (800/424-4787 or 831/667-3100) along the Falls Trail crosses above Pfeiffer Redwood Creek and curves through the redwoods up to 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls.
Tucked away in a shady redwood grove off the road is the Henry Miller Library (Hwy. 1; 831/667-2574; open ThursdayÐSunday, 11Ð6). The author of Tropic of Cancer lived in a nearby cabin (now a private residence) for nearly 20 years, completing many of his most influential works there. His presence (along with Robinson Jeffers's) cemented the area's reputation as a haven for artists.
The famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk teeters dangerously close to the hokey side of tourism, but it's been a spot of public amusement since it was erected in 1907, so it's laden with history. There you can act like a kid by riding the roller coaster or just indulging in nutrient-free carnival food, such as corn dogs, "ice cream of the future," and, of course, blue cotton candy.