From my perch on the outdoor patio at Nepenthe restaurant on California’s famed Pacific Coast Highway, I stared off into the distance at the rugged cliffside which drops very sharply off into the inky sea dotted with turquoise pools.. and I could have sworn I was in Hawaii. I texted a photo to my mother and said “isn’t this pretty?” Her reply: “looks like Hawaii.”
But we were in Northern California! I was so excited to be able to spend a recent long anniversary weekend here with my husband. Big Sur and Carmel have been on my bucket list for years, and they did not disappoint. I could wax poetic all day about Big Sur, but let’s just say- we had fantastic, sunny weather in the 70s, where I hiked all day and felt nice without breaking into a hot panting sweat (like I do just walking from my car into the store in Texas in the summer). The views are to die for, and the hotels, super cozy. Just right for curling up in front of a fireplace with someone special after dinner! Contrast this gorgeous natural setting with Carmel-by-the-Sea, the cutest little town just south of Monterey, with 15 (currently!) wine tasting rooms and shops that look like little Hansel & Gretel houses. Buildings do not have physical addresses- they are known by their intersection locations. Just 20 minutes east of Carmel-by-the-Sea is the Carmel Valley, where several more resorts are located and many vineyards. The town itself has many tasting rooms you may walk among.
California ticks off so many perfect boxes for me- wine, sea, nature, great properties, decent airlift from Dallas.. I could go on. This was my third trip to the Golden State in the past year and it is not hard to see why! Below please see my best way to enjoy Big Sur and Carmel in just 72 hours+.
Arrive at San Jose International airport. Get a local hotel and stay for one night. So when I say that this is a 72 hour+ guide.. here is why. I like to cheat and arrive Wednesday night. This is perfect for several reasons:
- Allows you NOT to take a full Wednesday off of work (which would defeat the purpose of a weekend getaway) yet still take advantage of flying west to gain hours
- You really don’t want to drive down into Big Sur late at night.. Highway 1 is dark and winding and you may be tired from the flight
Up and at em! Wake up and grab a cup of coffee for your drive down into Big Sur, which will take you approximately 1.5-2 hours. Once in Big Sur, stop at the Big Sur Bakery for a yummy scone and another cup of coffee. Now you are just around the corner from the area’s two 5* Virtuoso properties- Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn. The main difference is their situation on Highway 1- Post Ranch is on the ocean side, Ventana is on the other side. Both are outstanding, generally for adults, and amazing places to spend a few nights. We checked into the Ventana Inn and left our bags til the room was ready to so we could go explore!
The perfect way to spend an afternoon is just about 10 miles south of here, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Here, we parked and took a short (just over a half mile walking) trail under Hwy 1 to the very photogenic McWay Falls, an iconic image of Big Sur. From there, you can easily backtrack to the parking lot to the Ewoldsen trailhead for a 4.5 mile moderate hike through the state park. We were not disappointed as for 2.5-3 hours, we made our way past beautiful redwood trees, deeper into the forest and gained elevation until we were rewarded at the top of the mountain with beautiful vistas over the sea and even of tiny Hwy 1 below.
After hiking to McWay Falls and then the Ewoldsen Trail, it was time to get our room at Ventana Inn! We stayed in a gorgeous Vista Hot Tub Suite with jacuzzi on the patio.. so after enjoying the beautiful property for a bit, we headed over to Post Ranch Inn’s acclaimed Sierra Mar restaurant for dinner. For a very special occasion, you cannot beat this thoughtful cuisine in a stunning dining room with floor to ceiling windows for unmatched views of the sea and sunset.
Sleep in, enjoy a late leisurely breakfast and check out of Ventana Inn. Then drive a few miles north to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (not to be confused with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park!) for some more hiking. I suggest the hike to Pfeiffer Falls/Valley View Trails for an easy to moderate couple hours hike past the great redwoods into the woods for some more great Cali scenery.
By now, you have surely worked up an appetite for lunch!! The perfect stop in Big Sur is Nepenthe. It is the iconic spot, with a huge outdoor patio and colorful umbrellas shading long wooden bars where every seat faces north and views the dramatic Big Sur coastline. It was here that I decided that the jagged cliffs dropping off into turquoise sea reminded me of another favorite place of mine- Hawaii. After a light lunch and maybe a glass of wine, time to head up north to Carmel!
Before heading into Carmel-by-the-Sea to our hotel, we decided to veer right off the highway into the Carmel Valley, home to a small town, several resorts like Bernardus and Carmel Valley Ranch, and many wine tasting rooms. The areas surrounding the valley include the Santa Lucia Highlands, which happens to grow lots of great pinot noir- my favorite!! My personal favorite pinot tasting rooms in the Carmel Valley were Talbott and Boekenoogen. Bottles from there may have made their way into a shipment back to Texas the next week…. 🙂
After sampling a couple tasting rooms in the valley, make your way over to charming little Carmel-by-the-Sea and check into one of adorable boutique properties right in the center of town, allowing you perfect walking access to the beach, shops, and restaurants. We choose L’Auberge Carmel for its cozy atmosphere and quiet courtyard which oozes charm with its wrought iron patio tables and beautiful potted flowers. It is also a member of Relais & Chateaux. We settled in quickly and headed off to dinner at Casanova, a cute little restaurant just a 10-minute walk from L’Auberge. It is made up of multiple cozy little dining rooms, one with a large tree growing right through it!
Take this entire day to walk around quaint little Carmel-by-the-Sea. Browse the charming boutiques, enjoy lunch on a sun-drenched patio, or maybe even stroll along the beach. I shopped at Coast Carmel, a breezy clothing boutique featuring California-cool fashions for men & women, and we enjoyed lunch at the Tuck Box. If you like wine, the Carmel Wine Walk Passport is just $65 and allows for tastings at 9 of the town’s 15 tasting rooms. Since we were only here for one full day, we bought one and shared it. We started at Wrath, which makes a wonderful un-oaked Chardonnay, made our way to Caraccioli for sparkling wine, and a couple more before ending at Windy Oaks for some lovely pinot noir. End your evening with dinner at a charming spot such as Dametra or La Bicyclette.
Check out of hotel and make your way back to San Jose Airport for your flight home.. we also decided to do the Pebble Beach 17-mile drive, as the entrance to it is right at Carmel-by-the-Sea. Access inside the gate is $10 and there are many stops along the way to pull over and see, including the iconic lone cypress tree.
Cheers to a great weekend in Northern California! If you would love for me to help you plan a great getaway here, too, or take advantage of my preferred relationship perks on hotels, please feel free to contact me via this website’s contact form.