seaside towns in California

Part 4 - American Roadtrip, exploring Monterey + Carmel


I sort of feel our official American adventure started once we got ourselves a set of wheels, left San Francisco behind and headed for the infamous Highway One (check out my previous blog HERE for advice about renting cars in the States). Now, I’m not the best passenger on motorways and certainly not on motorways that have 6 lanes of traffic but as soon as we’d passed San Jose most of the traffic had cleared and it was just us and the open road. 

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Our first stop was Seaside, a small town just outside of Monterey. We rented a kitsch ‘an artist’s cottage’ via Air Bnb and our host Murray gave a really welcoming and friendly service. He lives in his studio next door which has an amazing view of the Pacific Coast, which he paints daily ! His incredible landscape art is displayed all over the house and also in some of the local galleries in Carmel. 

It’s worth noting that Air BnB is actually banned in Monterary and Carmel which is why we chose to stay in Seaside. Hotels and guesthouses in those areas are very expensive and we personally found them a bit formal and stuffy. Another handy tip was that it was free to park our car at Murray’s home. 

On our first evening we ventured in Monterey which is about a 15 minute drive from Seaside. I’m going to be completely honest and say we were disappointed for the first time on our trip with lack of good quality restaurants and amenities. After watching episode of Rick Stein’s Road To Mexico, we took on board his recommendation and booked The Sardine Factory, the oldest and supposedly most well-regarded restaurant in Monterey. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually end up eating there as we felt the location and aesthetic didn’t warrant the price. 

Monterey by the day was definitely more appealing. This was our first taste of coastal California, which is nothing like any other coast I’ve ever seen before. We spent the morning watching surfers at Lovers Point Park, a stunning cliff edge at Pacific Grove, sitting peacefully drinking coffee and eating croissants in gorgeous mid-twenty degree heat (in January!). 

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After a short walk on the beach, we headed to Monterey’s most famous attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and spent a good few hours discovering what weird and wonderful things live in our oceans. This ended up being one of our best highlights from the whole trip, there are so many unique and unusual sea creatures to learn about and who knew that starting at fish for hours could be so therapeutic ? 

Next we headed to Carmel and chose to take the longer 17 mile scenic drive which costs around $10. Driving through huge pined woodlands, you’ll see modernist architectural houses nestled amongst the trees but the best view is when you get your first glimpse of the white sands and turquoise waves as you head down towards the seafront. There are designated points of interest where you can pull over and take photographs of the breath-taking peninsula. We had one part of the coast completely to ourselves, so just sat alongside washed up driftwood and took it all in, both us thinking I never knew America could look like this. Further along you’ll see very impressive houses of the Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach residents. Well, I say houses but these structures are more like chateaus and mansions, each one appearing more lavish and elaborate than it’s neighbour. 

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Eventually we pulled into Carmel, an incredibly pretty little seaside town which looks like it belongs in an Enid Blyton book. Shops, bars and cafes are housed in fairytale cottages with wooden swing-signs detailing their business name hand-drawn in calligraphy. Residents lawns look like they have been trimmed to absolute perfection (I can only imagine with nail scissors) and you will be fined by the mayor for wearing heels on the preserved cobbled streets. Over all, as sweet looking as Carmel was, we weren’t overly keen on the overall vibe, it felt very touristy, too polished and a little snooty for our taste. 

carmel by the sea

That evening, following a recommendation from our Air BnB host we drove out to what felt like the middle of nowhere to his favourite Mexican, Baja Catina located in Carmel Valley. The restaurant occupies an old gasoline garage which still has the original pumps outside ! Inside, there isn’t an inch of wall that isn’t covered in sporting memorabilia that the owner has been collecting since Baja Catina opened 40 years ago. Just like Murray said the food was authentic and really delicious, as you might have guessed everything is supersize (even the Margaritas) so it’s definitely worth sharing some plates. 

When we started planning and marking out our route from San Francisco to Los Angeles, our research encouraged us to spend some time in Monterey and Carmel. I am glad we got to see both of these places but because they are so small, the two can definitely be explored in the same day with maybe an overnight stay. Personally, it was the first time on our trip that we became a bit twiddly-fingered and felt many of places in each town were over-priced and touristy. In hindsight, I wish we would have spent one of our two nights in the Big Sur and embarked on more amazing nature hikes but that’s just our opinion.

Up Next: Part 4 - The Big Sur