Monterey and Carmel
After crashing for the night at Half Moon Bay’s dodgy marina car park (seaside views included), we woke early for a stroll along the beach to check out the surfers and a sea lion wrestling with a poor sting ray.
Our next destination was Monterey. Monterey, a few hours south of SF, is a lively, ‘well to do’ town which is renowned for its upmarket shops and restaurants. However Grace and I were a little more interested in one of Monterey’s other attractions – the resident sea otters.
We drove to Moss Landing State Beach as we had heard there was often otter sightings here. We had been wanting to see these furry critters for a long time now so had our fingers and toes crossed for a sighting. However it turns out the combination of sheltered waters and ample amounts of kelp makes Moss Landing an otter haven – there were loads! They were so much bigger than we expected and from a far, had initially mistaken them for sea lions. We watched them playing, grooming and relaxing for an hour, one even waddled out of the water- it was great!
After we headed into town for a massive re-supply at the best super market ever (Trader Joes), and a burrito diner courtesy of Chipotle. Full of Mexican goodness we headed back to our beachside campsite and hit the hay early, ready for the big day ahead…
Bright and early we picked up some rental bikes and headed off on a 26 mile ride, covering all the major highlights Monterey has to offer. We stopped off at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf and watched the playful sea lions before heading to Cannery Row, the shopping centre of Monterey. After a quick bite to eat we carried along the coast towards Lovers Point – a small protected cove where we picked up some kayaks and hit the water in search of yet more otters.
This is without doubt the best way to get up close and personal with these amazing animals. We ‘parked’ the kayak on some kelp beds and watched as otters started appearing from everywhere. We even saw a mum and her fluff ball of a pup swim by, squeaking as it went. It was an unforgettable experience.
After a rather tasty picnic lunch on the beach we jumped back on the bikes and continued our scenic cycle, hugging the rugged coastline south towards Carmel. We passed by a number of elite golf courses, sea lion look out points and outrageous cliff top houses – finishing at the world renowned Pebble Beach Golf Course. After seeing countless golf tournaments being played on TV here, it was great to finally see it in the flesh.
With our bum’s numb we turned around and headed back, and, after nearly passing out in the heat we finally made it back to Monterey. Exhausted, we returned the bikes, and crashed back at camp.
The following day, we stopped by the quaint picturesque town of Carmel. With numerous high end shops and restaurants way outside of our budget we settled for a campervan special of ours – turkey and avocado sandwich which we ate on the beach- yummy!
The Big Sur
Just south of Carmel is the official start point of the Big Sur (part of Highway 1). This world famous scenic road was constructed in the late 1930’s, is just over 90 miles long and remains one of the best driving roads to date. This single lane byway winds its way along the cliff edge, where the mountains meet the sea, offering uninterrupted views of the strikingly beautiful California Coastline. With hard to reach white sandy beaches, blue lagoons and rocky outcrops it is without doubt one of our favourite drives.
The numerous vista points and beaches are separated by only a handful of privately owned ‘resorts’ which offer up pretty much anything you could ask for – Lodging, shops, restaurants, fuel and more. With time on our hands we ended up sampling most of the cafes/restaurants over the course of our time here and enjoyed every single one.
Out personal favourites had to be:
Fernwood Lodge – for it’s hippy vibe and great bagels.
River Inn – for its great cafe/shop with outdoor seating knee deep in the Big Sur river.
Nepenthe – for its amazing restaurant topped only by its unbeatable views and staff.
Big Sur Bakery – for its epic takeaway pizza and a very friendly French owner who gave us free ham and cheese croissants – yum!
Whale Watchers Cafe – which was not the best food-wise but it does serve some rather great pecan pie and as the name suggests epic sea views.
Ragged Point Inn – which is one of the largest ‘resort thingies’ and serves up one of the best Espresso Chip Shakes ever, with views to match as well.
In terms of camping, the options were endless, if you had booked 3 months in advance that is. It was the weekend and nearly everywhere was fully booked. However we lucked out again, a nice lady working at Pfeiffer State Park managed to squeeze us in for 2 nights – result! It was a great woody campsite with spacious spots and nearby beach access. We went for a walk along the river only to be serenaded by two mysterious flute players who, for reasons unknown, had found themselves in the middle of the flowing river playing their instruments…how bizzare!
After visiting the nearby Pfeiffer Beach to watch sunset we returned to camp and were greeted by our rather friendly neighbours who treated us to some ‘spare’ ribs and homemade, fire toasted, cinabuns – amazing!
Our other campsites along the Big Sur included the awesome
Kirk Creek Campground and the not so awesome San Simeon State Beach
Kirk Creek is the dogs bits when it comes to bluff camping. The majority of the outrageously spacious and secluded spots are dotted along the cliff top offering some of the best views along Highway 1. With both bbq and fire pits along with beach access – It’s without doubt our favourite camp site in the whole of North America.
We were extremely lucky to get a space on the first night, we luckily managed to grab the last spot with grace practically running to secure it. Over the next few days, upon realising just how great the location was, we slowly but surely edged our way to the cliff edge, one campsite at a time, until we secured the very best spot in the house – the coveted number 8 plot.
Enjoying the 30+ degree weather, we set up the cushions from the car into a make shift chaise longue and spent our time sunbathing and relaxing. It’s was like a mini holiday from a holiday. Days were spent playing bat and ball, washing in the cool waters of the camp’s creek and whale/dolphin watching from our private beach and ‘penthouse’ camping spot. Our evenings were spent basking in the setting sunlight, toasting sausages and s’mores on the roaring campfire and chasing cheeky raccoons out of camp. Taking the time to do nothing had never been more worthwhile – we loved every minute here.
Spoilt from our time at Kirk Creek, our next spot, the rather crowded San Simeon State Park, left us feeling quite glum. In hindsight it’s actually a fairly decent spot with good beach access which we utilised by taking a long stroll one morning up and down the beach.
During our Big Sur adventure we took many strolls, the most notable of which had to be in Point Lobos State Park. This picturesque outcrop is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life as well as a number of great easy walking trails that sprawl across the park. We spent half a day exploring, walking through the Cyprus grooves and along the shoreline – checking for the occasional crab amongst the rock pools and crashing waves.
We also checked out the nearby Lime Kiln State Park, notable for its huge, decaying brick and steel Kilns used in the production of lime. The freely available fire wood and water (as well as limestone) made this area perfect for producing this important ingredient used to make concrete, which at the time was in high demand. The huge furnaces are now covered in weeds and with small trees beginning to take route, they are beginning to crumble and fall apart but it was great to see..
One of the highlights and probably the most famous of stops along the Big Sur has to be Pfeiffer Burns State Beach. This postcard perfect lagoon is almost completely enclosed by the ragged headlands and is inaccessible by foot, making the paradise cove even more desirable. To top it off, the beautiful Macay Falls cascade directly into the turquoise blue waters below. To catch a glimpse of this natural gem we walked along a small gravel path on an adjacent headland for the best views possible.
These hard to reach beaches are plentiful along the Big Sur, rarely can you simply just drive up to a beach here. However the rugged nature of the coast and this inaccessibility is what makes them special.
Arguably, one of the best beaches is Sand Dollar. We spent a couple of afternoons here chilling and sunbathing in the protected bay. The wide golden beach is also perfect for some 2 man baseball, although the post game dip in the sea is freezing!! It’s also where we saw a pod of playful dolphins and 2 migrating Gray Whales – incredible!
Andrew Molera State Beach was however a little less protected, the vicious winds whipped up the fine sand making sunbathing completely out of the question. It blew so hard at one point I thought grace was going to fly away. We did manage to take refuge for a while in a make shift driftwood shelter, but nature got the better of us and we left soon after.
One beach we didn’t dare even tread foot on was Piedras Blancas, home to an Elephant Seal Rookery. The sand was dotted with thousands of female and juvenile male elephant seals as far as the eye could see. Unlike Patagonia, these guys were a lot more active. We saw the females swimming and fishing whilst the young males practiced their iconic chest crushing fights, preparing for the upcoming breeding season. Unfortunately the adult males were out to sea again but the adolescents definitely had the give-a-way nose of an Elephant seal so we were happy. We got pretty close to these massive beasts allowing for some great photos….albeit too many…
Towards the southern most point of the Big Sur you find Hearst Castle. Words literally fail me when it comes to describing this place; grand, outrageous, extravagant and over the top would be a start. The 200 Million Dollar and 56 bedroom castle/mansion was built high in the hills by William R. Hearst (media tycoon) back in 1919 (when construction started) and when he passed away was donated to the California Park System. We hopped on a tour of the castle and visited the elaborate, and expansive grounds and recreational facilities as well as the upstairs suites and many bedrooms. It was designed and built with European architecture in mind, with many hints of Parisian, Roman and Venetian style thrown in. However the main building is without doubt built in classic colonial Spanish style and reminded us of the South American cities we had visited earlier in our trip, particularly Quito and Cuenca.
For me the library and ‘study’ were among the nicest and most grand of all the upstairs rooms, however the Neptune and Roman Pools were something else entirely. Unfortunately the Neptune pool was undergoing maintenance when we visited, however you can begin to imagine just how luxurious it must be from the photos below.
Hearst had initially set out to build a small retreat on top of the hill, however his plans and the budget soon grew and grew after consulting with architect Julia Morgan. We reckon she was working on a commission basis. The place ended up with its own landing strip and world class zoo!!
After the tour we also checked out the small fishing village of San Simeon opposite the castle. This village dates back to the mid 1700’s (Pretty old by Americans standard) and served as a fishing village, ranch and port during the later days. It’s now a quaint town with a good village cafe, pier and beach. It’s where Grace and I spent the last of our time on the Big Sur, planning the next leg of our adventure.
This drive is definitely one of our trip highlights, we really enjoyed our slow travelling pace, the campsites and of course all the great food to name just a few things. It was sad to say goodbye, but leaving San Simeon we continued South towards the end of the Big Sur towards Morro Bay and the ‘City of Angels’!!!