Big Sur Coast: Drive Along the Central Coast of California

After 14 years of backbreaking construction, this stretch of Rte. 1 was opened to traffic in 1934, eventually gaining fame as one of the world’s outstanding scenic highways. As the drive snakes down the Big Sur coast—an area defined, more or less, as lying between Monterey and San Luis Obispo—it passes pristine beaches, wave-battered cliffs, shadowy forests that fill the valleys of the Santa Lucia Range, and offshore waters that are filled with life.

1. Monterey
Once under the crown of Spain, whose ships landed here in 1602, Monterey was claimed for America in 1846, when the Stars and Stripes was run up the flagpole at the Custom House. The area was a lonely outpost then, a haven for smugglers and a few farmers and ranchers. The abundance and grandeur of the peninsula, though, would in time attract many, and today tourists flock to Monterey to share in the riches.

To learn about the town’s colorful past, sample the well-marked walking tour that leads through Monterey’s historic district. On the shore of the bay lies Cannery Row, once a factory-filled hub for fish processing. The canneries —as well as the odd lot that worked and lived in the area—were immortalized by novelist John Steinbeck.

No longer a rough-and-tumble, foul-smelling industrial center, Cannery Row has been spruced up and nowadays offers a wax museum, restaurants, shops, and the top-notch Monterey Bay Aquarium. The seaside marine park is full of surprises, with creative displays that allow close-up viewing of many marine denizens, including wolf eels, sea otters, sharks, bat rays, and jellyfish.

2. Pacific Grove
Although it was settled just up the peninsula from Monterey in 1875, Pacific Grove was in many ways light-years away. Its Methodist founders, seeking a seaside retreat for religious contemplation, shunned their rowdy, often bawdy neighbors. Today, however, the boundaries between the two towns have blurred, as parks, stores, offices, museums, and homes have spread across the peninsula.

For spectacular vistas follow Ocean View Boulevard along the shores of Monterey Bay, stopping off at Lovers Point Park and Point Pinos Lighthouse. Sunset Drive, another road with fine views, parallels the Pacific side of the peninsula and leads to Asilomar State Beach, where the wide swath of sand is perfect for strolling, beachcombing, or—reminiscent of the town’s early inhabitants—soul-searching reflection.

True to its nickname, Butterfly Town USA, Pacific Grove enjoys another distinction. It is the winter home to hordes of monarch butterflies. Lured by mild weather, the insects fly in from as far away as Canada and congregate in dense clusters on eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees. They are usually best observed in George Washington Park and in a grove on Lighthouse Avenue. (Don’t disturb them, though: the town imposes penalties on anyone who does.)

3. 17-Mile Drive
Sunset Drive swings inland after Asilomar State Beach, passes the well-landscaped grounds of a conference center, then intersects with 17-Mile Drive. Monterey cypresses, gnarled by the wind and ocean spray, are among the highlights along the toll road, which loops through part of the Monterey Peninsula. Other roadside delights include 1920s mansions, world-class golf courses, rocky headlands, and—of course—the Pacific Ocean. Tour maps are provided at all five of the entrance tollgates.

4. Carmel-by-the-Sea
After touring 17-Mile Drive, exit at the Carmel gate, avoiding the traffic bottlenecks that sometimes occur on Rte. 1, and head into charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once in the upscale community, you’ll find a patchwork of cottages, shops, galleries, sandy beaches, and a restored 18th-century Spanish mission. Long a haven for artists, the town has counted renowned poets, novelists, and painters among its inhabitants. But no matter what one’s line of work, it’s easy to be inspired by the area’s scenic beauty.

Follow Scenic Road, which skirts the Pacific, to its end at Carmel River State Beach, one of the less-crowded spots to enjoy the seashore. Although the ocean is quite chilly and the currents are strong, the sandy beach is a quiet escape.

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