California’s Monterey-Carmel-Big Sur

Monterey Canning Company Building at Monterey Cannery Row, California

Monterey Carmel Big Sur – Images by Lee Foster

Author’s Note: This article “California’s Monterey-Carmel-Big Sur” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook  with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

The Monterey Bay Aquarium epitomizes the pleasures of travel to the Monterey-Carmel-Big Sur region, south of San Francisco. The aquarium, one of the world’s largest and most advanced, interprets superbly the seaward face of California, enhancing the nature-and-history attractions of the Monterey area.

Two qualities of this special Aquarium should be lauded. First, the Aquarium presents the wonder of the sea, such as fish in a huge kelp forest, as a diver would experience it. This wonder, so thoroughly scientific and precise, does not need augmentation with theme park attractions. San Diego’s Sea World, moving from emphasis on performing whales to its purely scientific penguin exhibit, suggests a detour that the Monterey Aquarium happily bypassed. The Monterey Aquarium omitted the amusement park phase.

Secondly, the Monterey Aquarium had the genius to portray the local California coastal flora and fauna. Other aquariums create a fish warehouse of unrelated exotic species from all over the world. The California coastal environment is one of the richest and most varied in the world. Monterey’s Aquarium nurtures a justifiable pride in the area and a deepening awareness of the local ocean terrain. All considered, the Aquarium is now one of the most important travel destinations in the west. Each year millions of visitors vote it accolades with their tickets.

The Monterey-Carmel-Big Sur region also includes a rugged coast framed by contorted cypress and pine trees, fog-shrouded mountains, broad beaches, and some of the finest agricultural land in America. Along this spectacular stretch of coast, south of San Francisco, you can explore the marine environment of the Point Lobos State Reserve, the redwood forests of Big Sur, the butterfly town of Pacific Grove, and the 17-Mile Drive through the Del Monte Forest.

In Monterey and Carmel you can witness California’s early Spanish-Mexican history at the secular pueblo and at the mission where Father Junipero Serra, founder of the Spanish mission system, lies buried. You can wander through the streets of novelist John Steinbeck’s Monterey waterfront and imagine his Cannery Row characters, depicted in his famous novel Cannery Row. Not far away, the galleries of Carmel show the creations of local artists.

In the Salinas Valley, tour a prominent California wine region, with over 35,000 acres of the choicest varietal grapes, and visit John Steinbeck’s house. You can also sample produce in the artichoke capital of the world, Castroville.

Getting to Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur

The Monterey Peninsula can be reached from the north or south via Highway 101 or the scenic Highway 1, which hugs the coast, offering spectacular views along the way. Driving time is 2-1/2 hours via Highway 101 from San Francisco, with an added hour for Highway 1. Commuter air flights service the Monterey Airport from San Francisco International.

Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur History

Monterey was the Spanish-Mexican capital on the Pacific coast, settled in 1770. The town flourished as the Capital of California in American control after 1846. Eventually the Gold Rush shifted population growth slightly north, to San Francisco and Sacramento, the logical waystop to the gold mines. Sacramento then became the permanent capital of the new state.

Spanish and Mexican influences are felt strongly in downtown Monterey, both in the historic buildings and in the continuing architectural legacy that they nourish. You can trace the Path of History during a walking tour past 46 historic buildings constructed before the 1848 Gold Rush. Visit the Chamber of Commerce at 380 Alvarado Street in Monterey for a map of the 2.7-mile self-guided tour. In April, Monterey hosts a special open-house Adobe Tour of many of these structures.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered Monterey Bay in 1542 and claimed it for Spain. Sebastian Vizcaino visited the bay in 1602. However, no settlements occurred until Gaspar de Portola established, on the south shore of the bay, the first of Spain’s four presidios or forts in California. The main gate of the presidio is at Pacific and Artillery streets, near where Vizcaino landed. Today the presidio remains in military hands, with language studies as its current strength.

To sample the early architecture of Monterey, return to Fisherman’s Wharf along the waterfront and look for the Custom House, 1 Custom House Plaza. Custom House is an 1830 adobe, the oldest government building on the Pacific coast. Here Commodore John Drake Sloat raised the U.S. flag for the first time in California, in 1846. The Custom House functioned as a collector of revenue from shipping. Today, it is a museum, exhibiting cargo items of the 19th century trade. The plaza around the Custom House echoes the spatial arrangements in early California settlements.

At 8 Custom House Plaza, stop in at Pacific House. Built in 1847, it was used as a storehouse for military supplies, a tavern, a courtroom, a newspaper office, and a church. Nowadays, Pacific House interprets early California life, including the Native American culture.

On Pacific Street, visit Colton Hall, built 1847-49, the site where the famous constitutional convention of 1849 decided to align California with the free North rather than with the slave South. A museum displays early government documents.

The Larkin House, near Colton Hall, dates to 1835 and is a good example of “Monterey architecture,” a style that combined adobe walls with second-floor balconies, wedding the architectural preferences of the Spanish to those of New England sea captains, some of whom settled here after their visits. The Larkin House contains much of its original furnishings and can be toured.

If you have time to concentrate on only one of the historic buildings in the Path of History, the Larkin House would be a good choice. The house was the residence in the 1830s of Thomas Larkin, the American consul, and remained in family use until a descendant willed it to the state of California with all its furnishings intact. Take a guided tour if you want to enter the house. Otherwise, you can observe the exterior and the gardens, ornamented with camellia flowers. Inside the house you’ll see the locked tea set that Larkin owned. So precious was tea in the 1830s that it was kept under lock and key. Another object known to have been used by Larkin is a delicate ginger jar from China. Larkin’s descendant, Alice Larkin Toulman, was the last resident of the house.

On the corner of Pacific and Scott streets, visit California’s first theatre, built in 1846-47.

Several other buildings are interesting to visit, including the Stevenson House, where Robert Louis Stevenson stayed during his short sojourn here in 1879. The house, at 530 Houston Street, displays some Stevenson memorabilia.

At the same time Gaspar Portola established the presidio and adjoining town, the pueblo, Father Junipero Serra founded the second of what eventually became 21 California missions. He called it Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. The mission started out near the pueblo, but was moved to a better water source and a more secure environment, away from presidio influence, and near the mouth of the Carmel River.

Fully restored, the mission is in Carmel at 3080 Rio Road. Partly because of the church’s historical significance, Rome raised the Carmel Mission to basilica status in 1960. Momentum has been created to elevate Serra to sainthood, which will probably occur, but Rome proceeds at a byzantine pace on these matters. The mission offers many interesting insights for the traveler. Serra’s bedroom/writing room was spartan in the extreme. His library was quite amply stocked. From missions in Baja he brought silver chalices and adornments of great beauty. To be a mission father in the late 18th century required many skills, ranging from linguistic expertise to animal husbandry.

Spanish mission history can be further explored in the region at Mission San Juan Bautista, northeast of Monterey. Indians at this mission exhibited a high degree of musical skill in a choir and orchestra. In the Salinas Valley, the Soledad Mission is now a mere adobe ruin, suggesting the solitude of its name. For the traveler who seeks out Mission San Antonio de Padua, further south along Highway 101 and west on Highway G14, both the setting in an oak-filled grasslands and the isolation of the restored mission are appealing.

The final period of historical interest in the region is the heyday of John Steinbeck, whose novel, Cannery Row, happened to be published in the boom year of 1944. Sardine fishing and packing here reached its peak, then quickly declined as the fish disappeared from these waters. A short walk from the new Aquarium, Cannery Row now flourishes as an area packing tourists, rather than sardines, into restaurants and shops. The marine biology lab of Steinbeck’s pal, Ed “Doc” Ricketts, still stands at 800 Cannery Row.

Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur Main Attractions

Along with the Aquarium and the historic structures, the main experiences in this region are Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, the cypress-lined 17-Mile Drive, the butterfly town of Pacific Grove, the artsy town of Carmel, major annual events (such as the Jazz Festival in September and the AT&T Pro-Am golf tournament in late January), inviting beaches such as the one at Carmel River, and the “crown jewel of the state park system,” Point Lobos.

The Aquarium (886 Cannery Row) honors the spectacular marine life that flourishes in the upwelling currents of the deep sea canyons off Monterey. The unique currents and topography cause an abundance of mineral material to rise from the ocean floor, resulting in a bloom of small sea plants and animals that are the basis of the food chain.

The Aquarium’s goal is to promote a greater knowledge and awareness of the dynamic and fragile world of the oceans. Opened in 1984 and funded by a $40 million grant from industrialist David Packard, the Aquarium is situated in the building occupied by the Hovden Cannery, the largest of the now defunct canneries located here. It was a stroke of architectural genius that the aquarium directors chose to rehabilitate this existing building rather than create a monstrosity foreign to the site.

Twenty-three major indoor and outdoor exhibits await the visitor, the most spectacular being the Kelp Forest, a 66-foot high tank with 335,000 gallons of sea water and numerous plants, fishes, and sea animals in residence. The forest of kelp, which grows as much as 10 inches per day, is the center of attention.

Later additions to the Aquarium include the Outer Bay exhibit. The Outer Bay wing allows the Aquarium to proceed with its mandate to focus attention first on the nearby ocean environment and next on the offshore reaches. The Outer Bay wing has a Plexiglas window that is said to be the largest such window on earth (90 x 54 feet) holding back a huge mass of water (35 feet from front to back). Advances in Plexiglas technology make this possible. Within this tank, viewable at eye level, one sees schools of tuna, giant turtles, and an occasional mammoth ocean sunfish. Particularly frenzied is the Outer Bay tank at the thrice-weekly feeding periods when the barracudas and other fish show how efficiently they can find food in the open ocean environment. As you walk into the Outer Bay area, you notice that the rooms are curved and round, rather than rectilinear, a design motif to suggest that you are transported to a different world, where spatial relationships will be novel. You see exhibits of anchovy fish swimming, and jellyfish drifting, indicating the two main types of locomotion in the open ocean.

Monterey Canning Company Building at Monterey Cannery Row, California
Monterey Canning Company Building at Monterey Cannery Row, California

Among longtime exhibits, the playful Sea Otters exhibit is extremely interesting to visitors. High metabolism rates require the otters to eat a quarter of their weight every day just to maintain their 100-degree temperature in the frigid ocean water. They are constantly in motion, cracking abalone shells or scooping up fish for their sustenance. A drop of petroleum oil on a sea otter’s coat can lead to excessive heat loss and hypothermia, which is one reason why conservationists in this area are so concerned about offshore oil drilling.

It is estimated that there are now about 1,500 wild sea otters along the California coast, with Point Lobos being one of the most opportune viewing site. The market for beautiful sea otter furs is what first brought the Russians to California. It could be argued that the Spanish presence was largely a reflex to counter this Russian expansion. Consequently, the sea otter might be seen as one of the most critical players in the development of California history.

Among the lesser, but still stunning, exhibits are displays of sharks and rays from the ocean floor or salmon and trout in the freshwater streams. Bubble-shaped viewing windows give, appropriately, a fish-eye view of some exhibits. Hands-on tanks afford visitors a tactile encounter with starfish and other tide pool creatures. The experience of the Aquarium approximates moving from habitat to habitat, rather than just tank to tank. Sea water is pumped directly through the exhibits, carrying the natural nutrients and life-forms that the plants and animals would encounter. As a consideration to the daytime visitors, the water is filtered during the day, but is pumped through in its natural cloudy state at night.

The old Cannery and Wharf area along the Monterey waterfront is pleasant to stroll for its shops, restaurants, sea air, views of occasional sea otters, and its fishing fleet. In winter you can take a whale-watching boat out to see the gray whales making their way from Alaska to Baja. In the summer the fishing charter boats prosper here. All through the year, an excursion boat with a tour of the harbor is a popular outing.

At A Taste of Monterey (700 Cannery Row) you can enjoy a striking view of the waves crashing onto rocks in the bay, with otters at play, while tasting the wines and produce of the region for a modest price. The wine bar attendant will pour varietals of local wineries. Your wine pourer can supply a map of the region with some suggested winery stops, perhaps Chateau Julien in Carmel Valley, close in, for a look, then Smith & Hook or Paradiso Springs in the Salinas Valley, for the views, and possibly Chalone, on the east side of the valley, for a barrel tasting. A Taste of Monterey is your one-stop source for wine touring information and a bottle or two of the product to raise your enthusiasm level. Some wineries have walk-in opportunities; others require an appointment. The produce bar can prepare for you some Castroville artichokes or Watsonville strawberries, with any of the sautéed items laced with Gilroy garlic. It’s a taste treat from this region with a cornucopia of specialty foods, which is part of the reason why area chefs create such gastronomic works of art. Regional specialties, from flavored cheese to hot salsa, can also be savored at A Taste of Monterey. If local produce, flowers, and crafts intrigue you, you might want to wander over to the weekly Monterey Farmers Market on Alvarado Street on Tuesday.

The 17-Mile Drive through the Del Monte Forest presents an appealing view of trees, coastline, and lavish private homes. Trees include prime stands of Monterey pine and cypress. The coastline presents ample places to walk or picnic, such as Spanish Bay, and good sites for observing sea life, especially at Seal Rock and Bird Rock. The Lone Cypress stop salutes a singular tree whose gnarled appearance, growing out of the rocks, struggling constantly in the face of salt-water winds, stands as a symbol of tenacity and perseverance. Hundreds of sumptuous homes lend a fairytale aura to the woodsy 17-Mile Drive ambiance.

Pacific Grove, a town at the northwestern tip of the Peninsula, began as a Methodist camp in 1875. The celebrated natural phenomenon here is the gathering each year of monarch butterflies, who journey sometimes thousands of miles to overwinter in the eucalyptus and pine trees of Pacific Grove. The town celebrates with a Monarch Parade each October and a Victorian House Tour in April. The monarchs can be seen at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary on Ridge Road.

Carmel is an appealing small village to stroll if you like to browse art galleries and shops. Look for the Gallery Tour brochure in the shops here. Ask for directions to poet Robinson Jeffers’ house. Jeffers made his reputation celebrating the natural environment, but without seeing man as an improvement on the natural scene. Carmel goes to great lengths to maintain its high-tone village exclusivity through zoning rules designed to keep out the hoi polloi. At the south end of Carmel you’ll find one of the loveliest beaches in California, little-used Carmel River Beach, which includes a parking lot, ample sand, and crashing surf, excellent ingredients for a beach walk.

The setting is enhanced by the view of Point Lobos offshore. Carmel River is safe for wading while the water flows in spring and early summer. Eventually, the summer waves pile up a sand dam that traps the water, spreading it into a marsh that amounts to a major bird habitat.

A few blocks upriver from Carmel River Beach lies an appealing bed-and-breakfast, Mission Ranch Inn, owned by celebrity Clint Eastwood. Here you can take a room in the old Martin family ranch house from the 1870s or choose a more recent rustic cabin. The Mission Ranch Restaurant is an excellent place to sample the area’s seafood, such as fried calamari, and listen to music.

Across Highway 1 from the Mission Ranch is the Carmel Valley, a sunny resort area.

Point Lobos, immediately south of Carmel, is a noted 1,325-acre nature reserve. A nominal fee is collected for each car. The presence of gnarled, green Monterey cypress and Gowan cypress trees was the original impulse for creating the reserve. Point Lobos is a naturalist’s delight. More than 270 species of birds have been observed here. The tide pools teem with marine life and are easily explored at low tide. The name Point Lobos, Point of the Wolves in Spanish, emphasizes the barking of sea lions and harbor seals, present in great numbers. California gray whales pass close to land in their southward migration and can be spotted easily from the cliffs. Divers can  explore the ample underwater state park immediately offshore, surfacing to exclaim about the sights (diving permits are required). However, divers may also confide in you that an afternoon at the Monterey Aquarium can synopsize the best moments in a decade of diving.

Nearby Trips from the Monterey Peninsula

Excursions near the Monterey Peninsula include trips to Big Sur, Pinnacles National Park, and the Salinas Valley.

The Big Sur coastline is one of the most dramatic coastal areas in California, winding 30 miles between Monterey and Big Sur. The road twists between cliffs, trees, and the ocean, with occasional scenic turnouts at select view points. At Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park you’ll find redwood forests, miles of trails, camping, and a two-mile beach. Pfeiffer offers access to 300,000 acres of backcountry in Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness, appreciated by the hiker and backpacker. The campgrounds fill quickly, especially in summer and on weekends. The other major park here is the Andrew Molera State Park, whose boundaries encompass the Big Sur River. This is a walker’s and camper’s park.

Nepenthe is the restaurant to visit here, built of redwood and perched on a cliff 800 feet above the sea. Nepenthe serves as the gathering place for locals, among them many artists and writers, drawn to the beauty of Big Sur. In the 1940s, Orson Welles commissioned a student of Frank Lloyd Wright to build this structure as a honeymoon “cottage” for Rita Hayworth.

For a list of the small lodgings, restaurants, and shops along the rustic Big Sur route, view the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce site at http://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/. Those who eschew the predictable comforts of chain hotels in favor of rustic and romantic getaways might consider the artsy cottages at Deetjens or the crashing surf at the Lucia Lodge.


One major tourism destination, if you are traveling south, is William Randolph Hearst’s fantasy castle, San Simeon, now a State Historic Park, 96 miles south of Monterey. San Simeon occupies 123 acres on a crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains above the sea. Allow a half day to a day, depending on your tastes, to tour La Casa Grande, the opulent edifice that Hearst financed and architect Julia Morgan built. Hearst’s agents, with a fiscal carte blanche, scoured Europe for any available trappings of historicity and brought back every Greek vase and monk’s pew that was for sale. Hearst’s Castle is a monument to the era when culture meant European trappings.

Inland, Pinnacles National Park, east of Soledad, makes a fascinating day or weekend trip from Monterey. The spires and crags tower 1,200 feet above the valley floor. They are a legacy of geologic shift over eons, slowly traveling north from the parent stone several hundred miles to the south. All this activity shows the vitality of the San Andreas Fault. Trails take you to the top of these immense boulders, down into caves, and through the distinctive chaparral vegetation of the area. The monument offers a somewhat cramped park-service camp on the west side and a more spacious private camp on the east side, accessible from Hollister. Spring, when the wildflowers are bountiful, and fall, after the heat and dryness of summer have passed, are the best seasons for a visit.

The Salinas Valley is one of the most productive agricultural areas in America. Fertile fields yield an abundant harvest of fruits and vegetables year around. The annual California Rodeo takes place here in July and amounts to a week-long celebration.

In Salinas, you can visit John Steinbeck’s birthplace at 132 Central Avenue. The restored Victorian now houses a restaurant, the Steinbeck House, open for lunch by reservation. The Steinbeck Library, at 350 Lincoln Avenue, exhibits first editions and letters of the author. The Boronda Adobe at West Laurel and Boronda Road can be toured, giving you a glimpse of early California rancho life.

Nearby, you can travel to the artichoke capital of the world, Castroville. These large thistle plants stretch over 10,000 acres around the small town. Stop in at The Giant Artichoke restaurant where you can eat an entire meal of artichokes. Artichoke soup, artichoke salad, and artichoke bread can accompany an entre of either fried artichokes or artichoke hearts. The annual Artichoke Festival occurs here each September.

Several wineries, large and small, are open for tasting in the region. Try the Monterey Vineyards (800 S. Alta Street, Gonzales), known for their Riesling. Conveniently situated on the road into Monterey is the Monterey Peninsula Winery (2999 Monterey-Salinas Highway). Try their Zinfandel. Among the select small producers to visit is Jekel (40155 Walnut Avenue, Greenfield). Their Chardonnay is worth a try.

For this cornucopia of delights, Monterey-Carmel-Big Sur ranks as one of the favorite travel destinations in Northern California.


Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur: If You Go

For more information, contact the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.seemonterey.com/.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page