Jeff’s sister has lived in Monterey, California for a few years now, but we were never able to make it out for a visit. Between school for him, work for me and work for her, it was tough to coordinate everyone’s schedules. So after we moved here and I started working from home, we knew we had to get a visit on the books, and this month we finally took a trip west. This was my first time in California and I felt truly awestruck by it all—the scenery, the wildlife, even the weather. It was an amazing trip.
We traveled to California in the afternoon, so by the time we arrived in San Jose and drove back to Monterey it was nighttime. We opted to stay in the first night and then hit the ground running the next day, and did we ever. That first full day we drove up to Big Sur. Even if you’ve never been to California, you’re familiar with Big Sur: It’s where all those car commercials are filmed where you see cars speeding along winding roads cut into the side of a mountain, with the Pacific Ocean crashing against the cliffs below. We drove those very same roads, and it was the first time I truly realized how different the landscape is there, at least in that part of California, than it is in any other part of the country. The mountains are so close to the ocean, and the juxtaposition of the peaks rising up on one side of the road and the cliffs falling so far down to the ocean on the other was wild. These are some photos from along the Pacific Coast Highway.
We actually started our adventure in Big Sur with the short trek to McWay Falls, a waterfall that spills out of the cliff down onto a sandy beach that abuts one of the most beautiful and idyllic coves I’ve ever seen.
The thing that struck me the most about this spot was the colors. I know it sounds kind of silly, but the best way I can think of to describe it was that I felt like I was looking at a photo to which someone had applied an Instagram filter. The blue-green of the water was so vibrant, the sand so white, and the way the sun shot rays of light over the whole scene was breathtaking.
On the way from McWay Falls to our next hike in Big Sur, we stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a bookstore and event space on the side of the highway. We were the first ones in when it opened at 11am, and I instantly loved it. The meandering path from the gate up to the bookstore, the strings of lights hung over the courtyard, the outdoor stage set up there and the eclectic mix of books and decorations made it feel like a very California type of place. And when I found a book that I knew I would enjoy, I was happy to support them!
Our last stop in Big Sur—all before lunch, mind you—was a hike up the Buzzards Roost Trail, which took us up one of the mountains on the other side of the highway. This was when I first realized that I was going to have some difficulty adjusting to the weather in California. To be fair, the weather was absolutely gorgeous, in the 60s and incredibly sunny every day. But I found that the temperature seemed to vary greatly when you were in the sun versus in the shade, so I did a lot of taking off sweatshirts and putting them back on over the course of the trip. But it was a small price to pay. The thing I loved most about this trail was that when we reached the top, we had a different view in every direction. We could see the ocean, the mountains, the valley, and it was all beautiful.
After the hike we had lunch in Big Sur before returning to Monterey and relaxing for a bit. In the evening we walked through town, giving us our first real taste of the city and sampled some local wines before calling it a day.
The second day of our trip was our day to explore Monterey, and it’s a fascinating city. One of the things I love about living on the East Coast is how much history there is everywhere (which I’ve discussed at length in my posts about Harper’s Ferry and Baltimore) and it is something I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of in Monterey. However, if you are looking for history in California, Monterey is the place to go! It’s where California’s first constitution after it joined the United States was signed, and it’s filled with buildings that were built while the Spanish still controlled the area in the early 1800s. As you stroll around the downtown area, you’ll see buildings like California’s first theater and its first brick house.
Virtually alongside these, though, was Fisherman’s Wharf, a street/dock that reminded me of Disney World with its bright colors, neon signs, candy stores and restaurants with sample dishes in the window. This juxtaposition, of the historical with the commercial, both touristy in their own rights, was rather fascinating to witness.
But I think my favorite part of Monterey was the seals. Where beaches have seagulls and New York City has pigeons Monterey Bay has seals. After breakfast on Saturday we strolled out to a pier where Jeff’s sister told us we would be able to see some seals. Truthfully, I was expecting to walk out to the end of the pier, peer around the end and see some dark figures out in the water. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when we looked over the fence lining the pier and there were seals sunbathing right there on the rocks!
I’m not sure how else to describe this besides that it was really cool. On this side of the country, seals are animals that you see in zoos, not on your walk home from grabbing coffee downtown. Monterey Bay is also filled with pelicans and sea otters, which are utterly delightful little creatures. I would love being able to leave my house every morning and see all these guys. Instant smiles.
The next stop on our Saturday tour was nearby Carmel. Carmel seemed more posh than Monterey, filled with expensive shops and adorable restaurants. We happened into—rather, we were going to walk by it and I made us go in—a store called Bittner The Pleasure of Writing, which sells expensive pens, stationery and journals, so naturally I had to buy a notebook. And it is beautiful.
While Ocean Ave in Carmel did have a lot of shops, it also had some adorable inns and buildings tucked into the rows of storefronts.
At the end of the main road, and down a hill whose grade I didn’t realize until we had to walk back up it, was Carmel Beach. The sand was lovely and soft and the water blue. The temperature was just touching 70 degrees, so there weren’t many people in bathing suits, but there were plenty of beachgoers enjoying the sun and the breeze.
Saturday was probably our longest day, because Saturday night was one of the parts of the trip I was most excited about going in. We had tickets to an event that night at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The event was only for people 21 and over, and there was a bar, small bites and desserts. So I got to walk around the aquarium sipping wine and ogling the jellyfish, sharks and sea turtles without any children crowding the exhibits or pressing their faces against the glass. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an incredible jellyfish exhibit, so those were very cool to see (also very difficult to take photos of). And there was free cotton candy topped with pop rocks in the jellyfish room—who knew that was so delicious? I also adored the mini octopus; they seem like fascinating creatures and I probably could have watched that guy move back and forth in his little tank all night.
The other thing that I really enjoyed about the fact that there weren’t any kids at the event was that the adults were able to enjoy the more interactive exhibits. There is a section of the aquarium all about kelp forests and the creatures that live in them, and I got to touch crabs, starfish and abalones. There was also a shallow pool with rays (sans stingers) swimming around in it that you could dip your hand in and rub their smooth and slimy backs as they swam beneath. They even did a feeding demonstration in which they had someone in a scuba suit go into the big tank, somehow rigged with a microphone so she could talk to us from inside the tank. The leopard sharks acted adorably like dogs, swimming up beside and nuzzling the woman until she gave them a treat. There was even a DJ, and by 10pm or so there were a surprising number of people on the dance floor. It was a really unique and fun way to experience an aquarium.
Okay! We’re on to day 3! Sunday we went to Salinas, which is a short drive from Monterey. The drive also takes you through miles of farmland, filled with rows and rows of lettuce, cauliflower and the like. (A fun aside: on the drive from Monterey to San Jose, you pass through a town that’s famous for farming garlic. I could actually smell garlic from the car on the highway when we drove through. Amazing.) In Salinas we went to the National Steinbeck Center, a museum dedicated to John Steinbeck, who grew up there and based much of his fiction on the people who lived there. Sure, I read Of Mice and Men in high school, but I never knew much about Steinbeck, so this museum was pretty fascinating. Turns out, he was an incredibly prolific writer (he wrote five of his highest selling books in a span of just five years or so) with a gentle, artistic soul and the exhibits really took us into his life and the experiences that inspired some of his most well-known works.
I saw this quote on the wall towards the end of the exhibit, and it really spoke to me as a writer and hopeful novelist.
After the museum we went out for Mexican food, which was one of my requirements for a trip to California. We went to La Casa del Sazón, where after ordering burritos I was informed that mine would be the size of a football and Jeff’s, because he ordered extra fillings, the size of a volleyball. And yes, they were pretty huge burritos.
They were also pretty damn delicious. I’m usually not a huge fan of the burritos covered in salsa on the outside, but this salsa roja was thick and almost creamy, more similar to what I would expect from a mole sauce than a salsa, so I really loved it.
Sunday afternoon we drove over to Pacific Grove, which borders Monterey, and walked along the beach for a bit. The views of the coastline when you are at sea level may not be quite as dramatic, but they are just as beautiful. And it was lovely to just walk and breath in the fresh air.
Monday. Our last day, and our only solo day. There were a couple different adventures we could have gone on, but we decided first to go to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. After driving in, there are a few small parking lots scattered throughout the park so we parked and did a trek around a couple of them. Again, we were right on the ocean, but the terrain provided still other views with different landscapes. In this case, there were more craggy cliffs, interspersed with soft beaches. And as I mentioned earlier, there wasn’t a ton of parking, so none of the trails felt overrun with people. It was really just us and nature. (okay, and the guys who took the below photo for us)
After exploring Point Lobos for a couple hours, we went to Carmel Valley for lunch and enjoyed a delightful meal and a beer outside. We also stopped at Folktale Winery and Vineyards, a relatively young winery that looks like something out of a fairytale. The building was French chalet style, the courtyard strung with lights. We walked in and were handed glasses of champagne before we even had a chance to tell them that we just wanted to buy a bottle, not stay for a tasting. But because of the complimentary bubbly we sat for a few minutes and marveled. I am incredibly excited about where we are getting married, but a wedding at this winery would be utterly gorgeous. And the wine wasn’t half bad either.
All in all, California lived up to my expectations and surpassed them. It definitely, in the most basic sense, felt different from the East Coast. The weather was beautiful and didn’t change and the landscape was vast and varied. But there were also things I didn’t expect. I knew that there was a lot of farming done in California, but I guess I never really had a vision in my head of what that would look like. I didn’t expect to see seals hanging out in the bay. I didn’t expect there to be so much history (and a huge shout out to Jeff’s sister for being such an incredibly knowledgeable host!). And I didn’t expect the land to be so thoroughly breathtaking. But now that I’ve been and have come home, I can’t wait to plan my next trip.