The coastline of the Monterey Peninsula will delight you, with its beaches and rugged stands of rocks. The bay offers sand and lawn for sunning and picnics. The deep blue waters of Monterey and neighboring Pacific Grove can be treacherous, so the point is where you’ll find one of the oldest continuously operating lighthouses in the U.S. A research-oriented aquarium gives you a close-up look at otters. In the spring and fall, Monarch butterflies migrate here to live in the pines and eucalyptus trees. A classic 1932 Neville golf course, Pebble Beach, is world famous. Add to those attractions restaurants that serve fresh seafood with spectacular views of the water. Monterey offers so much to explore.
You can drive to Monterey from San Francisco in about two hours. Monterey is a perfect stop after a drive north on scenic Highway 1. And I’ve visited Monterey as a long way home from Lake Tahoe to San Diego. Whenever you go, you will enjoy it! Here are some of my Monterey favorites.
The Spectacular Coastline
This is the prime reason to visit Monterey for me. I could spend a day here, mesmerized by the waves, watching the sea gulls in flight, and listening to the crash of waves against the craggy rocks.We stayed in Pacific Grove, located on the point of Monterey Peninsula, and walked to the coast and the lighthouse. And we escaped the tourist-heavy Cannery Row area here, too. Being so close to the shoreline allowed us to be in a prime place for sunrise.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
The Point Pinos Lighthouse sits on the rocky shoreline at the point of the Monterey peninsula. Built in 1855, the lighthouse has been home to many keepers and their families. Guests came, including Robert Louis Stevenson. A fun fact is that this lighthouse used the same architectural plan as the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego, and they do have a similar look.A tour of the lighthouse allows you to climb up the spiral staircase to see the upstairs room. The lighthouse was an observation point during WWII. Some of it is fixed up to show what it looked like during those years when someone would sit and scan the sea for signs of enemy attack.
The light no longer requires someone to light the lantern with oil or kerosene. All is automated now. The light is on all the time at 3 seconds on, one second off as its identifying signal. The lighthouse keeper in The Light Between Oceans writes this to his girl back home about the light he tends:
“The stars had been around since before there were people. They just kept shining, no matter what was going on. I think of the light here like that, like a splinter of a star that’s fallen to earth: it just shines, no matter what is happening. Summer, winter, storm, fine weather. People can rely on it.”
The light at Point Pinos shines day in, day out, along this rocky coast — lighting a path to safety for all those at sea.
Historic Downtown of Pacific Grove
You will think you’ve traveled back in time when you amble along the historic downtown, with its shops and art galleries housed in buildings that date to the early 1900s. Grab an ice cream cone and explore stores that offer everything from vinyl records to colorful planter boxes.
You can enter this beautiful drive from any of five gates along the drive. Pay a small toll, then go for as long as you wish. If you’re short on time, you can cover only a few coastal miles of the drive for a dose of spectacular sights. You can also stay on the drive to visit the Del Monte Forest. I was surprised to learn that this drive existed before the invention of automobiles. In 1881, this windy road first opened and welcomed horse-drawn carriages.
Somehow, on the edge of this rocky land, a tree took root more than 200 years ago. It grew, seemingly out of stone, and survives in spite of great odds. People come from all over to view this testament to tenacity. When I first saw the Lone Cypress, you could walk up to it and touch it. But now it’s stabilized with cables and you have to be content to look from a ways away. It’s news when this fragile tree loses even one limb in a storm, but the Lone Cypress lives on. It’s truly inspiring.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean. Some exhibits are open into the ocean, and research about sea life is ongoing.
The aquarium is built at the south end of Cannery Row in what once was a sardine cannery. The modern buildings feature sea creatures of all kinds. Most popular is the otter tank, where you can watch these adorable mammals swim, eat, and play.
Monterey is almost synonymous with Cannery Row, made famous by novelist John Steinbeck. The sardine industry based here ran strong into the 1970s. Now the buildings are filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotels. We picked up some novelty socks for family gifts and then headed for Ghirardelli and a hot fudge sundae. It’s touristy, but you should spend at least a short time here to get a feel for the history of Monterey.
Staying in Pacific Grove
While Cannery Row is famous and fun, I recommend staying in Pacific Grove for a quieter visit. I was pleased with our choice of the Sunset Inn. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from the ocean and near the tip of the Monterey Peninsula. The cottage rooms are updated and comfortable, a light breakfast is included, and the friendly front desk people gave us great advice. That’s how we discovered the nearby Beach House Restaurant. It sits on a cliff over Lovers Point Bay.
Here you can take in the panoramic view of Monterey Bay, looking across the water to Cannery Row and the homes of Monterey. Savor fresh seafood in a relaxed dining room. And after dinner, stroll down to the sand and sit on the rocks at the water’s edge. It’s the perfect evening in Monterey.
A visit to the Monterey Peninsula is a relaxing getaway any time of year. Whether you love the ocean, a gentle bay, green forest, or lighthouses, you will find something that intrigues you in Monterey!
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