Friday, November 26, 2010

Central California coast: Once will not be enough

Monterey Bay.
California’s central coast may be, mile for mile, the most scenic place accessible by car in North America.

Golfers worship at the altar of Pebble Beach, considered one of the top five golf courses in the world. But you don’t have to know a two iron from a pitching wedge to appreciate the spectacular region from Monterey to Santa Barbara, a stretch of coastline that includes Big Sur and a cliff-hugging section of the Pacific Coast Highway.

As a bonus, the region just north and east of Monterey is some of the most fertile in the country, home to strawberry and artichoke fields stretching for miles, while wineries dot other areas just inland from the Pacific.

The former fishing village of Monterey (setting for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row) anchors the northern neck of the Monterey Peninsula. Just up the road is the charming and more than a little snooty Carmel. In between the two on the Pacific Ocean side of the peninsula is 17-mile drive, which winds through multi-million-dollar mansions, world class golf courses and picture-postcard views of the Pacific.

Big Sur begins just south of Carmel on the Pacific Coast Highway, where the ocean meets thousand-foot cliffs. The road eventually flattens south of Big Sur near the village of Cambria and its most famous landmark, Hearst Castle. Morro Bay is next, followed by the college town of San Luis Obispo. The southern section of the central coast boasts some of California’s finest beaches.

A visit to this stretch of the California coast is fine anytime, but consider an off-season trip in early or late winter, when the crowds and room prices are down. The weather can be iffy, but a little rain and fog just add a little mystical ambience to the scenery.

The list of things to see and do on the central coast is, pardon the cliché, nearly endless. Here are a few: hiking, whale watching, wine tasting, dining, picture taking, shopping, fishing, golfing, gallery hopping, camping, or anything you can do outside. The weather is mild year-round, but can be cool and foggy in the winter and occasionally very warm just a few miles inland in the summer.

Big Sur.
Navigating around the central coast can be a little tricky. Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH) hugs the coastline most of the way but is not built for speed. U.S. 101 parallels the coast inland but misses most of the scenery. Connections between the two are few and far between, particularly north of San Luis Obispo.

Some highlights of the central coast:

Monterey: Home to a world-class saltwater aquarium in the middle of Cannery Row, Monterey also has many fine restaurants, shops and inns as well as a small fisherman’s wharf and marina with the customary tourist traps and clam chowder restaurants. Lodging and dining range from pedestrian to spectacular, with prices to match.

Pebble Beach.
17-Mile Drive: A private road for which a fee is charged to visitors, this drive winds along the peninsula’s Pacific Coast and through several of the area’s world famous golf courses, including Pebble Beach. A drive along this road at sunset is unforgettable. Speaking of Pebble Beach, the links are almost certainly the world’s most spectacular public golf course, but you’ll pay a little more than for 18 holes at Pinecrest – rates are now $350 per round if you’re staying in lodging on site, or $375 if you’re not. If you’re looking for a bargain, Spyglass Hill down the road runs $250 and up, while the nearby Links at Spanish Bay are a mere $210 and up. Want to stay at the world famous Lodge at Pebble Beach? Rooms start at $475 (if you don’t want an ocean view) and go for as much as $2,300 for a suite. That’s per night, not for a week. Despite the prices, the lodging and golf courses are typically fully booked, requiring reservations as much as a year in advance.

One way to enjoy the golf courses without playing them and get in a little people watching at the same time is to attend the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am in late January or early February. Played on all three courses, the tournament teams pros with amateurs, including the likes of Kevin Costner, Bill Murray and former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. During practice rounds early in the week spectators are allowed to take cameras onto the course.

Carmel: There are no bargains in Carmel, either – you’ll pay handsomely for rooms and food, and anything else for that matter. Its downtown has a nice selection of trendy shops and trendier restaurants, interspersed with motels and bed and breakfast inns. During the AT&T it’s not unusual to dine next to Andy Garcia or Joe Pesci. It’s cheaper to stay in Monterey and pay Carmel a daytime visit, but a couple of nights in Carmel are a nice treat if you can afford it.

Big Sur: Beginning just south of Carmel, this stretch of the PCH is impossible to adequately describe. There are a number of state parks and beaches along the way, the most prominent of which is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with camping and lodging. 

San Simeon, Hearst Castle and Cambria: Coming out of the Big Sur highlands, PCH runs through the village of San Simeon. Perched on a bluff east of town is the former home of William Randolph Hearst, now owned by the state. Tours go through the various buildings, gardens and fountains enjoyed by Hearst’s wealthy friends in the late forties. If you want to go, make reservations beforehand  (1-800-444-4445 or www.hearstcastle.org) as the tours are often sold out. There are four tours to choose from or a special evening tour.

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