Because the California Coast is so vast and geographically varied—from misty redwood forests to gold-sand beaches and rugged mountain ranges—it would take weeks to see all its major attractions. I’m guessing your summer vacation days are limited, so I’ve put together this recommended itinerary to help you make the most of your time.
This 8-Day Dream Getaway begins with a scenic coastal drive to Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Cruz, then continues south to Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel before ending in beautiful Big Sur. And on this getaway the journey is half the fun: The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the nation’s most thrilling drives, twisting and turning, climbing and descending along Highway 1 as it takes you past coastal redwood forests, ocean cliffs, and secluded coves battered by the dazzling Pacific Ocean.
Cruise along Highway 1 south of San Francisco and follow the signs to Pacifica. Check into the beachside Lighthouse Hotel and soak in the clean ocean air while watching the surfers from your balcony. Splurge on a steak-and-seafood dinner at Nick’s Restaurant overlooking the ocean (live music and dancing on the weekends too).
In the morning, return to Nick’s for breakfast (great waffles and eggs Benedict), then continue south along Highway 1 for a leisurely scenic drive to Half Moon Bay and check into the Oceano Hotel & Spa Half Moon Bay Harbor. Rent some beach cruisers at Bike Works in downtown Half Moon Bay and peddle along the wonderful paved Coastal Trail, which winds five miles from Pillar Point Harbor to Half Moon Bay; be sure to keep a lookout for dolphins and whales. Have dinner at Pasta Moon, then head over to the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company for fireside cocktails at their romantic outdoor patio.
In the morning take the scenic drive to Santa Cruz and spend some time strolling the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (be sure to ride the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster and the old-school carousel). The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is also worth a visit, especially for kids, as is a stroll down Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
Hop back into the car for about an hour’s drive to Monterey (stopping at a roadside stand for fresh fruit and artichokes). Check into the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, Sanctuary Beach Resort, or Lone Oak Lodge for 2 nights, and make a dinner reservation at Fandango restaurant for this evening. Afterward, stroll along Old Fisherman’s Wharf and snack on all those small cups of fresh seafood sold at one of many faux fish markets. Drive or walk to Fandango for dinner.
After breakfast at Rosine’s, and head over to Adventures by the Sea to rent sea kayaks from Frank and Michelle (tell ‘em Matthew Poole from LocalGetaways says hello). Watching sea otters and sea lions play near your kayak is an unforgettable experience. Afterward, head over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and plan on spending at least a few hours here, and then stroll Cannery Row. Return to the car for an afternoon/sunset drive along the 17-Mile Drive. Dine at Tarpy’s Roadhouse and return to your hotel.
Check out, have breakfast at Toasties Cafe (831/373-7543)in nearby Pacific Grove, and take the short drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Check into the Carmel Mission Inn for two nights, and make a reservation at Flying Fish Grill (831/625-1962) for tonight. Head to downtown Carmel for some serious window-shopping—a beloved Carmel pastime—followed by a burger and beer at the Hog’s Breath Inn. Also consider taking a 2-hour guided walking tour with Carmel Walks; either way, be sure to visit the Carmel Mission and Tor House. Have dinner at the Flying Fish Grill, and then stroll along the coastal road to the Mission Ranch bar for an Irish Coffee and piano tunes.
Take the day off. Sleep in, have breakfast at the Little Swiss Cafe (831/624-5007), stock up on picnic stuff at Neilsen Brothers Market, and devote the day to Carmel Beach—a welcoming stretch of pristine white sand. Head back to your hotel room in the late afternoon, freshen up, and treat yourself to a special dining experience at Bernardus Lodge’s Marinus restaurant in Carmel Valley or Aubergine in Carmel. Either way, be sure to make a reservation as far in advance as possible.
Check out, load up on pastries and coffee at the Carmel Bakery (831/626-8885), and top off the fuel tank. Drive south on Highway 1 deep into Big Sur, making various stops along the way to photograph the spectacular coastline. Have lunch at Cafe Kevah, then check into either Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn if you like extra-rustic lodgings, the Treebones Resort if you’re on a budget, or the breathtaking Post Ranch Inn for the ultimate Big Sur lodging experience. All three inns have their own restaurants, so you can stay put.
Check out, then drive to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and hit the trail from the parking area to McWay Waterfall (it’s an easy trek). If you have time, return to home via Highway 1, though taking Highway 101 is a much faster route.
If you have your own tips and recommendations about this 8-Day Dream Getaway that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.