Here begins the California coast that movies and literature have made legendary. Soaring cliffs drop straight down into the sea in some areas, making the white sand beaches that occasionally appear beneath and beyond them all the more inviting.
From north to south, the Pacific Ocean changes from slate gray to a gentler blue. Scents of salt and kelp waft up the beaches, and the endless crash of the breakers against the shore is a constant lullaby in the coastal towns.
The seacoast city of Santa Cruz, with its ultra-liberal culture, redwood-clad university, and general sense of funky fun, prides itself on keeping things weird. The beach and Boardwalk are prime attractions for surfing and enjoying the sun.
Gorgeous Monterey Bay is famous for its sealife. Sea otters dive and play at the world-renowned aquarium while sea lions beach themselves for sunning pleasure on offshore rocks. The historic Cannery Row was immortalized by Steinbeck in his novel of the same name, but the now touristy wharf area bears only a superficial resemblance to its fishing past.
One of the most exclusive enclaves of the wealthy in all of California, nearby Carmel rivals Malibu for its charming ocean views, well-traveled beaches and parks, and, most of all, for its unbelievably expensive real estate. (Clint Eastwood was once mayor here.) The legendary Pebble Beach golf course and resort sits just north of downtown.
South of Carmel, Highway 1 begins its scenic tour down Big Sur. The Big Sur coast might be the single most beautiful part of California. The rugged cliffs and protected forests have little development to mar their natural charms. Travelers called to the wilderness will feel right at home in Big Sur. It’s a sin to remain in your car, however, when an such an embarrassment of natural riches await. Waterfalls and redwoods beckon hikers and campers while cliffside resorts pamper guests.
Seaside Cambria makes a good base from which to visit much of the Central Coast, including Paso Robles and San Simeon, home to the grand Hearst Castle, an homage to excess. The coast becomes less rugged here, though no less beautiful.
Beach lovers will flock to temperate Santa Barbara farther south, where the relaxed yet cultured pace reflects its mission and university influences, as well as its affluence. Wine is a growth industry here as well—look for the Central Coast to become the next great California wine region.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition