Monterey Bay & Big Sur:
The real “laid-back” California

By Jill K. Robinson


SStretching south of one of the largest urban areas of the state—the San Francisco Bay Area—the coastal region from Santa Cruz through Big Sur is the ideal place to slow down and adopt a California-style appreciation of the great outdoors and a laid-back lifestyle. With views that rival the rest of the state all packed into one area, this is where many Californians vacation, ditch workday stress and relax within earshot of the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

The two biggest population centers of the region are Santa Cruz and the Monterey Peninsula. In historic Monterey, small-town Pacific Grove and fashionable artist retreat Carmel-by-the-Sea, there are beautiful beaches, ample performing and fine arts venues, outdoor pursuits, stylish shops, epicurean delights and an inland region known for wine and agriculture. Much of the same can be said of funky Santa Cruz, but away from the redwoods, the university town resembles a beachside playground, with its historic boardwalk and many surf spots.

The grand Big Sur coastline inspired artist Francis McComas to claim that the area was the “greatest meeting of land and sea,” and the wild coast perched on the edge of the continent has lured artists and fans of the great outdoors to enjoy its remoteness as well as its rich restaurant choices—from Nepenthe to the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. On the other side of the Santa Lucia Range lie the otherworldly spires and crags of Pinnacles National Park, an extinct volcano on a long voyage north on the edge of the San Andreas Fault. Both regions are havens for hikers, bikers, climbers, campers and birdwatchers.

Wine lovers won’t have much chance to miss Napa and Sonoma, with a wealth of quality vineyards in this region. From Carmel Valley to the Monterey River Road, there are more than enough award-winning wines to go around.

With such rich and varied geography, it’s a blessing that the wonders of Monterey Bay and Big Sur are laid wide open for residents and visitors to appreciate them. Whether your preference is a charming urban escape, camping under the stars, fresh regional cuisine, world-famous wines, getting active outdoors or a leisurely beachcombing stroll—all can be found here, and nobody’s rushing you.

City & Town

Downtown Santa Cruz is between the city’s vibrant beach attractions and the mountains, where redwood groves embrace the University of California at Santa Cruz. Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is just steps from the city’s historic buildings that date from the 18th and 19th centuries—before California was part of the United States. Made famous by John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, Cannery Row has morphed from a fishing center to a bustling street with shops and ocean-view restaurants. Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, is a working-class agricultural city, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Carmel, a freethinker’s retreat born as an artist village, is home to stylish shops, exquisite dining and top-notch art.

The Great Outdoors

While well-known urban areas dot this region, there’s more than enough wide-open space for fans of the outdoors. Take a whale watching boat tour in Monterey Bay, where you can spot migrating gray, humpback and blue whales. Seventeen-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach winds through forest and along the Pacific coastline as it skirts exclusive golf courses and resorts.

The eerie-looking spires and monoliths of Pinnacles National Park lure climbers as well as hikers interested in the explosion of colorful spring wildflowers and soaring California condors.

In Big Sur, where rocky cliffs drop into the Pacific Ocean and cypress trees twist in the wind, nature lovers can walk along the beach or hike deep into redwood forests, where waterfalls spring to life.

Heritage & Culture

The inland region is dominated by agriculture—from the Salinas salad bowl to Carmel Valley wines—while the coast is home to fishermen, artists, surfers and a booming tourism industry. Don’t think the model of the easy-going Californian only exists on Orange County beaches. Whether it’s a chef from Carmel, an artist from Santa Cruz or a farmer from Soledad—all take time to enjoy Monterey Bay and Big Sur.

Family Fun

No matter your age, you can’t go wrong at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with rides and entertainment for everyone. The Monterey Peninsula is a wonderland for families, with historic sites, accessible beaches, Dennis the Menace Park, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a wealth of outdoor activities. South through Big Sur, camping options abound along the wild coast, and the variety of hiking paths can lead you to a pink-sand beach or a seaside waterfall. Inland, get a look at California’s pre-statehood past and follow the California Missions Trail along Highway 101.

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