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California's Monterey Coast
“The greatest meeting of land and water in the world” is how landscape artist Francis McComas described Point Lobos, just south of Carmel, Calif. Many would agree.
Granted, some other stretches of coastline around the world are worthy rivals. Put it to a vote, though, and the top spot would probably go to the Monterey Coast. Moreover, some of the world’s most intriguing five-star lodgings are perched upon and tucked away into seaside properties that take full advantage of this region’s spectacular views.
The area has many claims to fame, one of which is golf. Although Pebble Beach is well known, you may not be aware that several other courses are on the peninsula, making it possible to play a different one every day for more than a week, all within a few miles of the jet-capable Monterey Peninsula Airport. (This facility is a definite plus for business jet travelers, as the nearest commercial airport is an hour and a half north by car.)
But you don’t have to be a golfer to find ways to stay busy in Monterey. It’s a one-stop shop for deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, kayaking, whale watching, sailing and a variety of other excursions and active sea sports. The justly famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is here (montereybayaquarium.org). So is the Monterey Fairgrounds, site of one of the world’s longest-running jazz festivals (montereyjazzfestival.org), which takes place on the third full weekend in September. (The Monterey International Pop Festival, which famously helped to introduce Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin and others in 1967, occurred here as well.)
On the west side of town, near the aquarium, you can begin a great drive around the perimeter of the Monterey Peninsula and past the town of Pacific Grove. This is first-class leg-stretching, tide-pool-browsing and ocean-watching coastline. The trails are alive with visitors and locals, though not so many as to make them seem crowded. Bicycles are available for rent in both Monterey and Pacific Grove, and for some that’s the best way to tour the peninsula.
The drive leads to Carmel, that community of quaint storybook houses beside a white-sand beach that is flanked north and south by natural and architectural splendor. You could begin and end an enjoyable holiday without leaving the Monterey Peninsula–especially if you have a penchant for golf, sea sports, wine tasting or attending racing events at Laguna Seca.
From Carmel, consider heading south, toward Big Sur. Still quite small in terms of population, it offers charm and grandeur that have been trumpeted by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers; the writings of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson; and the photography of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
Nepenthe is a superb restaurant that got its name from a classical reference to an herbal antidepressant (nepenthebigsur.com). Nearby, on the land of the Post family cattle ranch, you’ll find the Post Ranch Inn (postranchinn.com), upon which the travel magazines have justifiably heaped accolades for its amenities, accommodations, atmosphere and spectacular vistas. Across the road, Ventana Inn & Spa (ventanainn.com) offers lofty sea views from a 1,200-foot elevation. Small electric vehicles shuttle guests from their lodging and spa area through a deep grove of redwoods to the restaurant.
To get away from it all from either of these resorts, you simply need to pull on hiking boots. Hiking trails and one road lead directly from both inns up into the Ventana Wilderness. This mountainous area between the California Highway One coast road and U.S. Highway 101 remained relatively unmapped much longer than other parts of the western U.S., due to its steep and rugged terrain, and it is still one of the West Coast’s most remote and road-free areas. The few roads that do exist lead to a wealth of hiking, mountain-biking and off-road-driving opportunities. (Keep in mind that the roads through the wilderness are best suited for four-wheel-drive vehicles.) One of the most scenic of these tracks is Coast Ridge Road, which meets Highway One in the vicinity of the Ventana and Post Ranch Inns and leads up into the Ventana Wilderness.
Going south about 25 miles from the inns you’ll find the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, the only route through the wilderness area from the coast road to U.S. 101. It passes through the Hunter-Liggett Military Reservation and can be traversed in an ordinary vehicle (depending on weather and road conditions). Turning off from it is Cone Peak Road, a winding dirt road that leads, as the name implies, to Cone Peak. At 5,155 feet elevation, it’s the highest coastal mountain in the lower 48 states. Only three miles from the sea as the crow flies yet almost a mile high, it’s a steep climb with sheer drop-offs to the side.
If you’d be nervous about traveling in an SUV on such terrain, you might have more fun elsewhere. Otherwise, it’s a great adventure that can fit within a tight time frame, a way to get well off the beaten path and yet remain within convenient reach of luxury accommodations and aircraft. Even if you aren’t bothered by rough, steep and twisty driving conditions, however, you’d do well to avoid these roads in the rainy season. The area is notorious for winter landslides.
Going south from Big Sur, you’ll come upon the Esalen Institute, granddaddy of New Age retreats. The founders named it for the Esselen tribe of Native Americans, who lived in the area for 6,000 years. The natural hot and freshwater springs make the spot ideal.
Since the Esalen Institute (esalen.org) began operating on the site a half century ago, residents and seminar leaders here have included architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, scientist and peace activist Linus Pauling, writer Aldous Huxley and many others. There are also performance events at Esalen, which over the years have featured Joan Baez, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Ravi Shankar and many other noteworthy artists.
Esalen today offers workshops, seminars, massage, yoga, tantra and a wide variety of other treatments, training, education and entertainment. There is lodging on the premises, but programs are equally available to those who choose to stay elsewhere.
Meander farther south and you’ll arrive at the place where a local resident named Patrick Cassidy milled fallen wood into salable lumber. Silvery, sun-bleached limb remnants were strewn around his property, leading locals to refer to the place as “Treebones.”
Today, the site is still called that, though it has been transformed into an unconventional place to stay, relax, wander and enjoy the views (treebonesresort.com).
At the core, Treebones is a collection of 16 yurts, five campsites and a “human nest” with its own campsite. To these are added a hot tub, a swimming pool with an ocean view, a gourmet restaurant and an outdoor sushi bar.
At around $300 per night, a stay in a yurt is a bit down market from the much-lauded and multi-starred inns mentioned above. But, hey, it’s a yurt! Then again, the views are so impressive, it might not matter much what it was. Perhaps it’s best to regard it as camping in a spacious and luxurious tent, since the shower and restroom facilities are a short stroll away.
If you’re staying elsewhere, you might still check out Treebones’ Wild Coast Restaurant and Sushi Bar. It features an international menu that uses fresh, organic farm-to-table ingredients and the only sushi for many miles in any direction.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS (A+): There’s a wide selection of five-star accommodations from suites in the heart of Monterey’s Cannery Row to hotels and inns on cliffs overlooking the sea in Big Sur.
FOOD AND WINE (A+): The area has a strong appeal for seafood aficionados. Locals flock to Fishwife (fishwife.com), on Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove, but virtually all the better restaurants offer excellent seafood. If you like artichokes, note that the area between Monterey and Santa Cruz is their principal growing region. During harvest season, it’s doubtful that better ’chokes can be found anywhere on Earth. Some local wines are quite good, though many people still consider the region an also-ran behind the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES (A+): Hiking, mountain biking, surfing, scuba and snorkel diving, wind surfing, golf, tennis, sailing (sailmontereybay.com), whale watching (montereywhalewatching.com), deep-sea fishing, kayaking (adventuresbythesea.com)–it’s all here.
NIGHTLIFE (B): This isn’t New York or San Francisco, but you will find jazz that is “cool” in the word’s original sense. In Carmel, check out Doris Day’s Cypress Inn (cypress-inn.com) and Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch (missionranchcarmel.com). In Monterey, try the Cibo Ristorante Italiano (cibo.com).
QUIETUDE (A+): Quietude at the Big Sur resorts, Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn & Spa, is about as good as it gets. Even the luxury hotels on Cannery Row are relatively quiet, especially those with bay views. Beaches are not crowded and hiking trails in the Santa Lucia Mountains are remote.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: A section of California’s Central Coast from Monterey south to below Big Sur, known for its beautiful seascapes and outstanding musical events, and for the authors, artists and photographers who have called the region home.
WHERE IT IS: On California Highway One, roughly 125 road miles south of San Francisco and 350 north of Los Angeles.
AMBIANCE: It varies dramatically, with posh and rugged places within walking distance of each other. Spectacular coastline views are omnipresent.
FLYING IN: The nearest commercial airport is San Jose International, 80 miles north by car. For private jets and the occasional feeder airline, Monterey Peninsula Airport (montereyairport.com) offers a 7,616-foot asphalt runway and a full range of services. As morning and evening fog can be a problem on the California coast in summer, note that it’s also possible to land a little farther inland on the Salinas Municipal Airport’s 6,000-foot asphalt runway.