|Monterey poppies in bloom (Corbis)|
Monterey is one of the jewels of California's rocky, cypress-edged central coastline, only a couple of hours south of San Francisco. You don't have to be a serious hiker to enjoy Monterey's many coastal trails, and plenty of well-appointed hotels and wonderful restaurants are ready to cosset you after a day of outdoor enjoyment.
Following the gentle curves of the coastline, the Monterey Bay Coast Trail (Reservation Rd., 831.372.3196) winds from windswept Asilomar Beach to the commercial bustle of Monterey's historic Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharf. As the trail crosses through the charming Victorian-styled village of Pacific Grove, you'll find restaurants, beach access, and kayaks for rent at Lover's Point, with plenty of benches along the way for absorbing the view. You won't walk the whole 29 miles in one day, but this is the kind of trail where the surroundings mean the pace you set is a distant concern.
The beginning of Monterey's famed 17-Mile Drive lies at the end of the coastal trail. It's a meandering private road that is open to the public and offers striking vistas of the Pacific Ocean and a close-up of the celebrated Pebble Beach golf links. Special attractions include: Seal Rock, where harbor seals flock to rest and socialize near the shore; Shepherd's Knoll, which offers a sweeping view of the bay; and the Lone Cypress, a 200-year-old-native Monterey cypress clinging to a rocky point overlooking the waves. Note that at weekends and peak season the two-lane roadway can get clogged with traffic.
Monterey Bay also offers splendid whale-watching as grays and humpbacks cruise by on their migrations between Alaska and Baja. If you're lucky, you'll spot the frisky mammals cavorting just off the beach; otherwise, bundle up and take a boat trip offered by Monterey Bay Whale Watch (84 Fisherman's Wharf, 831.375.4658, www.montereybaywhalewatch.com). May through mid December is when you'll find humpbacks and blues in the krill-rich waters of the bay; the gray whale migration glides past town winter through spring.
Downtown Monterey is dominated by the tourist crush around Cannery Row and Fisherman's Wharffine if you're looking for a T-shirt or some fried calamari, but not exactly romantic. Skip the chain hotels along the Row and head instead for the Old Monterey Inn (500 Martin St.), a handsome, ivy-covered Tudor house-cum-luxury bed-and-breakfast. Or check into one of the suites at the Spanish Colonial-styled Hotel Pacific (300 Pacific St.), many of which feature fireplaces and private patios or balconies.
Additionally, if you really wish to sequester yourself in the romantic wrap of central California's upscale vibe, drive the short 15 miles to neighboring Carmel-on-the-Sea. Here you'll find the mostly rich and occasionally bohemian living in seeming perfection. Ocean Avenue, a strip of galleries, Euro-style cafes, and eateries can resemble a tourist parking lot in the daylight hours, but let dusk start to set, watch the tour buses chug home, and enjoy the spectacle of sunset from the dunes of Carmel Beach. Then stroll idly back up Ocean Avenue for dinner on the restaurant veranda and rest at the Victorian-style Pine Inn (Lincoln and Ocean Avenue), with smallish rooms, reasonable prices, and big, comfy beds.
Meanwhile, Monterey too proffers fine California cuisine (and wonderful local seafood), and you can find it at a table overlooking Heritage Harbor at Fresh Cream (100C Heritage Harbor, 99 Pacific St., 831.375.9798, www.freshcream.com). Other top choices include Montrio (414 Calle Principal, 831.648.8880, www.montrio.com), which serves an eclectic, California-creative menu in a renovated firehouse, and the Mission-styled Stokes (500 Hartnell St., 831-373-1110, www.stokesrestaurant.com), where celebrated chef Brandon Miller coaxes rich Mediterranean flavors out of the local produce in an historic 1833 adobe building.
Finally, for a true only-in-California experience, take a 25-mile jaunt down the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) to the Esalen Institute (55000 Highway 1, Big Sur, 831.667.3000, www.esalen.com), a spa and wellness retreat in Big Sur (note that advance reservations are required). Soak in one of the natural hot-spring pools perched on the coast overlooking the Pacific at sunset, and know you're in the one of the most beautifuland romanticspots on Earth.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication