Monterey Peninsula: California’s rugged beauty at its best

The main attraction at the Carmel Mission is the tomb of Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who founded California’s chain of missions.
The main attraction at the Carmel Mission is the tomb of Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who founded California’s chain of missions. California Travel and Tourism Commission

It’s been called the American Riviera — a marriage of jagged rocks and pounding surf, where sheltered coves hug the coastline and wildflowers and vineyards carpet the valley floor. Its attractions are both natural (rainforests of rare pine, cypress and sequoia) and manmade (Pebble Beach is just the most famous of a group of golf courses unmatched in the continental United States).

It is the Monterey Peninsula, between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the central coast, and it is California’s geography in microcosm — spectacular mountains, lush valleys, scenic rivers, charming hamlets — dominated always by the Pacific Ocean.

The area provides a study in contrasts. On any given day, Carmel Valley can be awash in sunshine, while a 10-minute drive away, the coastline is obscured by dense fog. At the same moment that a gentle mist dissolves over one end of the peninsula, a chilly cloud descends on the other.

A good place to begin any visit to the area is the impossibly picturesque community of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The town’s center is six blocks from the sea, but you won’t mind the walk down Ocean Avenue, with its upscale art galleries and artists’ studios, boutiques, and restaurants.

Many visitors stop in for a beer or a bite at the Western-themed Hog’s Breath Inn. Although no longer owned by Clint Eastwood, who served a two-year stint as town mayor from 1986 to 1988, it contains plenty of Eastwood memorabilia.

One has to hope that Clint, with or without his .357 Magnum, had an easier time enforcing the law than some of his earlier counterparts. At one point, statutes on the books made it illegal in Carmel to — among other things — wear high heels or eat ice cream cones.

As far as historic sites go, the one not to be missed is Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, or more simply, Carmel Mission. The chapel and gardens are lovely, but the real attraction is the tomb of Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who founded California’s chain of missions.

The reclining bas-relief of Father Serra above his tomb has at its foot a figure of a playful bear cub, symbol of the California republic.

You might find yourself loath to leave Carmel, but awaiting you at the opposite end of the peninsula is Monterey, onetime state capital during the Spanish and Mexican rule of California, immortalized in the pages of John Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats.

In Steinbeck’s day, the Row was booming with sardine canneries, but in the 1950s, something happened that was more reminiscent of the plot of a Stephen King opus than a Steinbeck novel. The sardines, as if hoping to escape their tin-can coffins, vanished from Monterey Bay.

After a four-decade absence, they are back — both on restaurant menus and at an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where thousands shimmer in a silvery spectacle. The aquarium, one of the nation’s best, is home to indigenous species living in the bay — from the shy octopus and leopard shark to the delicately beautiful jellyfish and the playful sea otter.

The aquarium’s Outer Bay exhibit offers a million-gallon indoor ocean viewed through an enormous window, and the kelp forest, towers of living kelp as tall as a building.

Other Monterey attractions include its distinctive Victorian architecture, and one of the longest-running outdoor jazz festivals in the country.

Traveling the peninsula from Monterey in the north to Carmel in the south, the visitor encounters one staggering vista after another.

There’s Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast (1855). Its golden light penetrates the ever-present fog like a Cyclops eye.

There’s Carmel Point, where Jack London and other early Carmel literati caught abalone and held their infamous drinking parties.

But the most often photographed spot on the peninsula is the Lone Cypress, which, buffeted by relentless winds, clings precariously to its perch on a stretch of 17 Mile Drive just west of the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Course.

South of Carmel is Point Lobos State Reserve. Ansel Adams, who photographed many of America’s most iconic landmarks, called Point Lobos “a Place with a capital P,” and viewing its craggy rock formations pummeled by wild waves of salty spray, it’s easy to see why.

This is a spot made for hiking. Starting at Whaler’s Cove, a dramatic trail twists upward through Monterey pines to level out on the cliffs overlooking Carmel Bay.

Here, hikers can spot California brown pelicans diving for fish, and comical sea otters swimming on their backs near the shore, their furry faces within binocular range. Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who enjoyed hiking in this area, reportedly used the hidden coves as settings for Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

From Point Lobos, take California 1 south to Big Sur. This rugged stretch of coastline has been called America’s most beautiful, and anyone who has ever watched the play of light on the water, transforming it from emerald to turquoise to sapphire, would find it hard to disagree.

The dramatic ribbon of road — writhing snakelike between mountain and sea — demands a designated driver, one person willing to concentrate on navigating the tortuous twists, while everyone else gapes at the scenery. Not to worry — there are plenty of places to pull over so even the driver can enjoy that scenery.

One of the best of those places is Nepenthe, a mountainside aerie built in 1947 by actor-director Orson Welles for his actress wife, Rita Hayworth, and now a popular restaurant. Grab a table on the terrace, order the signature ambrosia burger and a glass of California wine, and take in the vista.

Big Sur is aptly named. Everything is immense: big green, brown and gold mountains; big blue sky and sea. It’s like watching an epic production on a giant screen in flaming Technicolor.

Epic grandeur is what the Monterey Peninsula is all about. Still, it has a heart. You have to love a place where so many literary ghosts roam, from Steinbeck and Stevenson to Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but where for years the most popular feature of the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper was a pet column written by Carmel resident, actress and animal-rights activist Doris Day.


Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at