My trip to California originated in San Francisco (coming in from Vancouver as mentioned previously).
Upon landing in a distinctly warmer San Francisco when compared to Vancouver, we immediately headed on a shuttle bus to the small, and relatively sleepy town of Monterey Bay (if you’re looking for transport from SF, the Monterey Airbus gets my recommendation).
Monterey itself is a delightful little tourist town. I had previously heard of it via a number of wildlife documentaries that have been filmed in and around the Bay (more on that below). Monterey prides itself on its aquarium, which I have to say is top notch. I find tranquility when surrounded by water, and the aquarium was laid out in a really informative way which made for a pleasant couple of hours.
We stayed at an Intercontinental Hotel which was right on the water and of surprisingly high quality (although did come at a cost of £200+ per night). The morning sunrise alone made it worthwhile.
Whilst Monterey was a nice place, its primary purpose was to act as a base for a drive down Highway 1 (south of Monterey).
Big Sur as it’s known is renowned for its stunning views of the coast which was my sole purpose for wanting to head down there. We rented a car from Enterprise and after a 35-40 minute drive out of Monterey, you hit Big Sur which has a number of road stops/trails off the main highway which offer ample opportunity to explore the area or, as we tended to do – sit and take in the beautiful views. There are some key spots I would recommend which I detail below.
Driving Tips for driving in America if from the UK: Take an International Driving Permit (just in case). Also, if at a red light and you want to turn right….You can! (counter intuitive but it’s the way it is).
We spent the majority of the day just driving the coast, and headed back to Monterey. This route is popular for people doing the ‘West Coast’ i.e driving from LA up to SF and vice versa.
I have made it a personal goal to go back here and hike some of the surrounding mountains and really explore more of this beautiful area.
Things to Do/See/Eat
- Monterey Aquarium and Whale Watching – two separate activities but linked in their nature (figuratively and literally). I enjoyed the 3 hour boat ride to go Whale watching. Its more an hour of watching, and hour each way to get to the prime ‘Whale spot’. The sea was a bit choppy so we did see a few ‘Vomit Comets’.
I booked through Princess Monterey and found the information they provided on the excursion to be really great. We saw a number of different type of Whale, Seals and Sea Otters. The only disappointment for me was not catching a better glimpse of the famous Black and White of the Orca.
I also really liked the fact that despite having a boat full of tourists, the crew did not hound the whales around and left them to act like they do naturally. It’s clear they only spend 5-10 minutes watching a certain Whale Pod before moving on. Wildlife conservation and appreciation is valued across all of the Bay I found.
- Pfeiffer Beach on Big Sur – my favourite spot. This place gets very windy in the afternoon, but the purple sand on the beach and perfectly placed Pfeiffer Rock made it a spot where I wanted to just sit and chill all day. Maybe next time.
To get to the beach is a bit of a challenge. Unlike other spots on Big Sur – it’s not very well signposted and needs research.
Tip: Google Maps research will get you close – to find the beach, you are looking for a small sign on side of the road reading ‘Narrow Road’ which you need to go down. This is a precursor to about a mile or so of driving down a incredibly bendy road, which is mostly single track. Being my first time driving out of the UK, I came perilously close to the edge of the road (which led to steep drop) on a few occassions – or so I’m told. I was driving a 6 seater SUV in my defence.
Once you get to the bottom of the road there is (limited) parking which costs $10-ish for a spot but its totally worth the time and effort. Get there early to avoid parking disappointment.
- McWay Falls – another beautiful and popular spot. Famed for a waterfall coming out of a cliff and landing the beach below (although I was told sometimes the water doesn’t flow). I should add, most “prime” spots along Big Sur are easily identifiable by the number of cars/people at the side of the road. If you see a mini-gathering whilst driving, it might be worth pulling over to check out what’s going on.
- Bixby Bridge – famous bridge on Highway 1. You probably don’t know the name but you will recognise the bridge. I loved the architecture of it.
- Eat – Nepenthe was recommended to me and I think most people who drive Big Sur stop here for a lunch refuel. Food wise, it was tasty American style grub but what really makes the place is the incredible view over the coast.