Pros:Heaven on Earth!
Cons:Traffic! The unbearable line of cars that stretches along Highway One just South of Carmel Village, past the Carmel Valley Road turn off, and down through the Highlands in Summer months and on holidays.
I believe to this day that the Monterey Peninsula is one of the most magical and stunning sites on Earth. It offers a total sensory experience like no other place I have found. It's been four years since I had the good fortune of living in Monterey, CA, just above the Bay and Cannery Row, in what is called New Monterey. I loved it so much that I lived there briefly in the 80s, and returned again in the early 90s for another 4 year stay. Yes, I could return again if "forced" to.
I can hardly believe that my morning walks would cover ground along Cannery Row, Lover's Point Park in Pacific Grove, the burgeoning seal population along the Coast Guard Pier, Fisherman's Wharf, and stretches of beach along both sides of the Bay within walking distance from my front door.
Most folks who visit the Peninsula prioritize a visit to the Aquarium. I always thought it was probably very interesting and educational for kids, but a tad too much reading and looking at different fish behind glass for me (I bore easily).
In addition, it seems everyone wants to pay the fee and pass through the guarded gates to travel the Seventeen Mile Drive yellow brick road. Of course it is impressive and lovely: million dollar homes, the links at Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach, lots of trees and water! Honestly, though, I think that the the most beautiful stretch of coastline to drive in that same area is the free route that winds from the Aquarium on Cannery Row around through Pacific Grove and over to Asilomar State Beach. Park the car for free along the Asilomar dunes and walk a bit. The tide pools, rock formations, and hypnotic lull of the waves nearly guarantee an inspired moment of sanity and serenity. If you happen to coordinate your visit with sunset, I promise you will remember it for life.
I worked in Carmel by the Sea for a few years, and I still feel it is crowded, overrated, and overpriced. Lots of art galleries, bakeries, clothing and jewelry stores, and yes, a few great restaurants. I'd save the dining and wining for another place that I was lucky enough to be employed by in the 80s - the Highlands Inn. Head south from Carmel Village on Highway One and climb up the hill to the Highlands, if just for a cocktail in the Pacific's Edge Dining Room bar. You will not believe the views and the heady feeling you'll get from being above the ocean, suspended in the trees and elegance of this very lovely Inn. Patio dining is also available downstairs in the California Market, with a more casual bistro-like air. But if you really want to splurge, have a meal in the Pacific's Edge, or better yet, Sunday Brunch!
And since you're headed South already, take that drive down to Big Sur, if for no other reason than to travel the narrow coastline with the killer views. You'll feel like you are the star of your own automobile commercial. If you do stop in Big Sur, take a minute to visit Nepenthe - a wonderful casual restaurant perched on a steep coastal cliff with a fun gift shop to browse through.
Yes, there is a ton to do on the Monterey Peninsula, and a gazillion places thrilled to take your cash and congratulate you on your good taste and refined sensibilities. But the most elegant attributes of the Monterey Peninsula are free and not hard to find at all: the ever-present beauty of the Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the lush pine forests that all of the roads and highways weave through, and the free-roaming seals, sea lions, and otters that are not behind glass or in contained pools.
Stay wherever you want, eat wherever you want. Just go to witness the awe-inspiring handiwork of Mother Nature in all Her glory!
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