With the top down, the cool wind plays with my hair and sunshine illuminates my face. My husband happily sits behind the wheel ready for our adventure. We both breathe in the gorgeous scents that permeate the airsalt, eucalyptus, pine, and an elusive fragrance of pepper and cinnamon that we can’t identify. We later learn this heavenly aroma comes from the bay laurel tree. California, almost a country of its own, never ceases to surprise me with its vast beauty, diverse landscape, flora, and fauna.
As our convertible cruises south from the San José airport toward Route 1, glamorously referred to as the PCH or the Pacific Coast Highway, I manage my expectations as we travel closer towards the highly regarded and much-anticipated destination of Big Sur. A bucket list item for some time, we look forward to taking in Carmel (the wine country), Pebble Beach, 17-Mile Drive, and the remote landscapes of Big Sur. Our trip reveals this and so much more.
As we drive south, the mosaic topography slowly unfolds with deep canyons, xeric foothills, massive mountains, thick conifer forests, and copious fields of artichokes. The vistas remind us of the Scottish Isles with their dramatic cliffs, the Spanish Rioja with the golden mountain landscapes, and Tuscany with conifers like cypress, the occasional palm, and of course, vineyards. Looking up provides another nice view with the vast blue sky, golden sunshine, and the occasional endangered condor, North America’s largest land bird.
Our four-day, three-night trip was purposefully planned for late October to avoid the crowds that traditionally flock to Monterey County and majestic Big Sur in the summer months. We base ourselves in the small charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, known for its artist and writer inhabitants. It sits snugly between Monterey and Big Sur, enabling us easy access to our points of interest.
Our bespoke itinerary plans for us to be outdoors walking among the giant redwoods, the tallest measured tree species on Earth, hiking in coastal state parks, strolling on the beach admiring the natural sculptures of driftwood, and taking in a sunset or two. Aside from seeking the natural eye candy, we find art gallery hopping is almost a sport in these parts. And the same can be said for visiting vineyards in Carmel Valley or their tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Of course, dining on the freshest of local seafood and witnessing the allure of the quaint towns are on our checklist.
We had imagined the drive to Big Sur, but nothing can compare you for the journey. We marvel at how the PCH tightly hugs the coastline (thank goodness for the guardrails) as enthusiastic waves pound the enormous jagged cliffs below. Big Sur’s remote landscapes take our breath away with photo ops at every turn. How did they cut a road through here in the 1960s?
By day four, we are rewarded with beautiful memories and adventures to share. Our souls are fed, expectations exceeded and a future trip is planned already to venture further south past Big Sur to Santa Barbara.
Take a Delta Airlines flight out of Atlanta to San Jose International Airport, and 4.25 hours later you arrive! Drive the scenic Route 17 through beautiful Scott’s Valley and Patchen’s Pass.
1st Stop: Walk among giant redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (access via CA-17 S, 45 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes north of Santa Cruz).
2nd Stop: Drive the picturesque 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach off of Route 1. Experience the Del Monte Forest, Spanish Bay, the Lone Cypress, Spyglass Golf Course, and the most famous of all sites, Pebble Beach. If time allows, have a snack on The Lodge’s terrace overlooking the Pebble Beach course.
3rd Stop: Carmel-by-the-Sea, where you can check in at L’Auberge Carmel, a Relais & Chateaux property with rates starting at $269, or the beautiful pup-friendly Cypress Inn with rates starting at $229.
Stroll the town taking in the quirky houses, gorgeous gardens, and shops. With the Carmel Valley Appellation nearby, you’ll find numerous wine tasting rooms all within walking distance. Pick up a bottle at Caracciolo Cellars and drop down to the beach to catch the sunset.
Enjoy a sumptuous Italian dinner at Cassanova just a few minute walk off Main Street.
1st Stop: After a morning walk on the beach or shopping in town, drive East into Carmel Valley to experience the wine country. Favorite wine stops include Cowgirl Winery, Georis, and Bernardus. Find lunch in the garden at Corkscrew Restaurant with its mission-style architecture. Try their famous Lemon Pizza!
2nd Stop: On the way out of The Valley, stop at Folktale Winery for a lively game of giant Jenga or bocce ball while sipping wine and listening to live music.
3rd Stop: Uber to Passionfish in Pacific Grove for dinner, which is known for their sustainable seafood and modern menus. Feast on super fresh Dungeness crab and wild-caught tuna. You will love the super low markup they put on their hard-to-find wines.
Off to see the much anticipated Big Sur!
1st Stop: Experience Point Lobos State Natural Reserve with gently sloped paths through forests of Monterey cypress and viewing points along rocky cliffs to spot sea lions, otters, seals, gray whales (December-May), cormorants, and pelicans.
2nd Stop: If time allows, visit Garrapata State Park with two miles of beachfront and coastal hiking.
3rd Stop: Enjoy the slow curvy drive along coastal cliffs to the famous Bixby Bridge—one of the most photographed bridges in the world. Pull off at the turnout just before the bridge to admire this 1930s massive feat of architecture.
4th Stop: Lunch!
Option one: Sit outside on the terrace and enjoy the long-range views of mountains and sea at The Sur House at Ventana Inn & Spa. You may spot the stunning condor, North America’s largest land bird with a 10-foot wingspan. Almost extinct, it was reintroduced into the wild in 1997 by the Ventana Wildlife Society.
Option two: Pick up a picnic lunch at Big Sur Deli and head to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
5th Stop: On the return trip back to Carmel, step back in time at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a cozy literary retreat where one can sit by the fire, read and listen to music.
6th Stop: A quick stop just south of Carmel is Mission Ranch, an 1880s ranch beautifully restored and renovated by longtime resident Clint Eastwood. There are plenty of photo ops of sheep in the meadow, Point Lobos, and Carmel River Beach.
7th Stop: Dinner at the snug European bistro La Bicyclette just off Main Street in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Try the charcuterie board (enough to feed a party of four).
Departure: Drive the 1.5 hours north via Route 1 to the 101 back to the San Jose airport.