Photo courtesy Douglas Steakley.
Your guide to the Central Coast’s most memorable experiences, from deep-sea dives and nature treks to art walks and airborne adventures.
By Greg Archer
Photo courtesy gettyimages.com/tupungato
1. Point Lobos State Reserve
Landscape painter Francis McComas once referred to this coastal locale as the “greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” To be sure, few Central Coast spots compare to the stunning variety of sea creatures, hiking, diving, and whale and dolphin sightings that can be experienced here. Between the rich flora and fauna, intriguing geological formations, and free daily public walks, it makes perfect sense that the reserve has been dubbed “the crown jewel of the state park system.” pointlobos.org
This exhibition at the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium is the largest, most diverse living display of cephalopods (some of which are bona fide masters of disguise). The Caribbean reef octopus, striped pyjama squid, and red octopus are among the many creatures that make up this underwater posse. You’ll also spy the now-famous giant octopus, which is as ethereal as it is enigmatic thanks to its complex system of pigment cells, muscle fibers, and nerves. Fun fact: This extra-large octo hatches from an egg the size of a grain of rice. Just gazing into its knowing eyes sparks deep reflection about the mystery of the ocean — and life itself. montereybayaquarium.org
Photo courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium
Photo courtesy Visit California/Chris Leschinsky
3. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
John Pfeiffer and his family emigrated from France in the late 1800s and were among the first European settlers in the area. Pfeiffer sold the land to the state of California in the 1930s. Now, it remains one of the most visited destinations in the state, boasting tranquil shores, aqua-infused surfs, a slew of hiking trails, and a virtual fortress of oaks, maples, alders, cottonwoods, and majestic redwoods. parks.ca.gov
4. Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
Eighteen splendid and scenic miles of Central Coast beauty are yours to experience from a variety of vantage points — from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south. The über-popular paved path hugs the coastline and welcomes joggers, walkers, and cyclers. Consider renting bikes or surreys (canopied quadricycles that seat up to six people). Big perk: murals. Relish the vivid creations of local artists along some of the walls that border the trail at several points. seemonterey.org
Photo courtesy seemonterey.com
National Steinbeck Center.
Photo courtesy National Steinbeck Center.
5. Day Trips
There’s no shortage of eye candy and activities to experience in Monterey proper, but venture inland a bit, or even a few miles north of Carmel, for these memorable day trips.
This small coastal community is Monterey’s rural neighbor. While you’re in the area, head to the hip warehouse district known as the West End Artist Community (California Avenue), where local artists bring their creative works to life. Enjoy long stretches of beach and marine life at Marina State Beach (Reservation Road and Highway 1).
Beyond the hub of residential communities lies a bastion of coastal beauty. Seaside State Beach stands out; this northernmost spot of Monterey State Beach is considered an endangered species area (so no dogs allowed) and is great for kite flying. Golfers appreciate the bay views and challenging ninth hole at Bayonet and Black Golf Course.
Nobel Prize–winning author John Steinbeck was born here and wrote about his native Salinas Valley in East of Eden. Fittingly, the area is home to the National Steinbeck Center. Located in the historic Oldtown Salinas, this museum and cultural center showcases the mystique of the man and his impact on American literature and identity. Meanwhile, specialty shops, antiques, and thrift stores are perched on Main Street.
Just north of Monterey along the coast rests this historic seaport with vintage antique shops and a bevy of seafood restaurants. The surreal Elkhorn Slough is great for canoeing and kayaking, or you can venture to the beach for horseback riding.
6. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Explore the largest protected ocean area in the continental United States with the aid of Aquarius Dive Shop, Breakwater Scuba, and Monterey Blue Diving. Tip: Book five or more days in advance. Each offers some of the best scuba diving excursions and tours of the underwater sanctuary — one of the most productive ocean ecosystems on the planet. Some animals travel thousands of miles just to feed here. aquariusdivers.com, breakwaterscuba.com
Photo courtesy gettyimages.com/planctonvideo
Photo courtesy Carmel Food Tours.
7. Fabulous Food Tours
Carmel Food Tours and Monterey Bay Food Tours marry exceptional cuisine with camaraderie. The former is Carmel’s only food tour and includes three delicious hours of food, drink, and history at locally owned culinary shops and eateries (tour guides share fun and interesting educational tidbits on the area in between stops). Meanwhile, Monterey Bay Food Tours takes you through five to six marvelous foodie favorites located in Old Monterey, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the historic downtown, with a focus on the culinary influences that have shaped the town’s identity. Tours are typically held on Thursdays and Saturdays and run up to three-and-a-half hours. carmelfoodtour.com, montereybayfoodtours.com
8. Rightful Air
Monterey Bay ocean views are already mesmerizing — but in midair, they are simply sublime. Sky Dive Monterey’s skydiving experience surpasses most tandem dives by beginning at 18,000 feet — approximately 125 percent higher than any other Bay Area dives. Beyond that, its free-fall lasts a whopping 45 seconds. Other air adventures, like Specialized Aviation’s helicopter rides, offer exclusive views of seals, dolphins, or whales as their seasoned pilots hug the ocean, and their wine-tasting tour ventures over the region’s lush agriculture fields and the Santa Lucia Highlands before landing at a pristine winery. Monterey Sky Sports has emerged as one of the premier outposts for paragliding, parasailing, and hang gliding adventures. Twenty- to 30-minute tandem glides are offered as well as a bona fide certification course. What a breeze! specializedheli.com, montereyskysports.com
Photo courtesy Sky Dive Monterey.
Photo courtesy Carmel Food Tours.
9. Carmel Mission
Iconic and revered, this mission remains one of the biggest attractions in Carmel. Tip: Schedule a tour. Choose from a self-guided stroll or a one-hour circuit led by a skilled docent who guides up to 20 people around the beloved grounds, the museums, the exhibit rooms that feature historic artifacts, and the tranquil and stunning basilica. The present stone church was planned by St. Junipero Serra in the late 1700s but was built years after his death. Three good things to know: 1) Daily and weekly mass is held here. 2) You’ll walk out with some valuable history on California missions. 3) There are several galleries and exhibitions to explore, as well as colorful gardens and grounds; the Jo Mora Chapel Gallery stands out, featuring a series of uniformly framed oil paintings of the missions of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Heavenly. carmelmission.org
10. Art: Seen
In Carmel, myriad galleries beautify the streets and invite you into chambers featuring a passionate array of fine art ranging from watercolor and abstract to plein-air. Consider Carmel Art Gallery Walking Tour, which offers guests informative 90-minute excursions that include visits to painting, photography, sculpture, and art glass studios. Typically, artists are on-hand and delve deeper into what inspires their work and how they actually create it. Other walking tours, like the Photo Focus Tour, showcase a specific genre. But why stop there? Learn from a pro and create your own art at Titus Contemporary Gallery; well-known mixed-media painter and artist Mary Titus offers painting workshops specializing in a variety of techniques for beginners and professionals. carmelarttours.com, marytitusart.com
Photo courtesy carmelcalifornia.com