3 Days in Pacific Coast Highway

August 31, 2014

Part 2: Pacific Grove to Carmel (1 Day)

  • Red House Cafe

So the following morning, we headed back the same way on 17th street to the Red House Cafe, this time marveling at the charming and colorful wooden Victorian houses which all date far back in time. Pacific Grove is super cute! Sylvia sure speaks the truth and breakfast was marvelously delicious. We had the buttermilk pancakes and cinnamon brioche french toast ($10 on average), so fresh and prepared with great finishing touches. As in America, coffee is served with an endless bottom and before you know it, your cup is already full. Sylvia’s tips didn’t stop with breakfast options and she recommended a stop in Carmel Valley and a few other tips for food and wine in Carmel. We don’t usually go back to the same restaurant twice but this turned out to be a great move!   

17 Mile Drive

Pacific Grove CaliforniaDespite it still being foggy, as most summer mornings in this area are, we ventured out for another famous scenic road, the 17 Mile Drive. This private road connects Pacific Grove and Carmel along the Pacific Ocean, passing through the famous Pebble Beach and the Del Monte Forest along the Monterey Peninsula. Still in Pacific Grove, we drove along Ocean View Boulevard which turns into Sunset Drive towards the entrance gate of 17 Mile Drive. This stretch of oceanfront scenery is prime real estate property with simple yet inspiring houses with breathtaking views. People here have an excellent quality of life and certainly have a great view for their morning coffee.

Though not much happens in Pacific Grove on a Saturday night, we were happy to stay here for a couple of reasons. The first one is that Santa Cruz was not our cup of tea and would have pretty much been stuck there without enjoying the quieter southern side of the bay. The second reason is that 17 Mile Drive is a lovely scenic road, worth seeing in daylight so stopping at Pacific Grove for the night is a good option where you can then start the next day with the 17 Mile Drive (mind you it might be foggy).

Pebble Beach 17 Mile DriveWe entered the 17 Mile Drive via the Pacific Grove Gate paying the $10 per car toll to the Pebble Beach Corporation (as if they need it), which runs this place. The name is a bit tricky since quite a few roads are crisscrossing the wealthy gated community of Pebble Beach so staying on the 17 Mile Drive can be a bit tricky, look out for the signs. The first stop is Spanish Bay, a wide and rugged stretch of beach with good views to the adjacent Pebble Beach Golf Links and its surrounding enormous mansions. Spanish Bay is also home to a few shipwrecks who crashed along its waters many years ago.

There are quite a few places to stop along the road but everything is dwarfed by the mother of all stops, The Lone Cypress Tree, which is the icon of Pebble Beach. This Cypress tree has been perched on a seaside cliff for over 200 years and is by far the most visited place along this stretch of road. From here, we continued along the drive stopping at a few spots before heading out in Carmel Gate. You can appreciate the beauty of this road even on a cloudy day. It’s well worth the $10 toll.

Lone Cypress Tree 17 Mile Drive

Carmel Valley

Since it was still cloudy, we wanted to wait a little bit before entering Carmel and so, on a tip from Sylvia back from the Red House Cafe, we ventured out to Carmel Valley, a short 20-minute drive inland. The rule of thumb in this area is that the seaside is foggy and the valleys are sunny. Drive just a few minutes inland and the sky opens up to that famous California sunshine. The drive was lovely, with great views of the valley below, home to wineries, ranches and of course… golf courses. Carmel Valley itself is tiny and there a handful of dining and wine tasting options, however, on Sunday, most are either closed or open late. So after a short stroll in the sun and a drive through one of the side streets up to the hills for some fine views (and once again envious wooden cottages), we headed back to Carmel.

Carmel Valley California


Carmel-by-the-Sea, simply known as Carmel is the residential jewel of this area. An extremely affluent community, the residents of this small town will do everything to preserve their way of life and have been known to pass peculiar municipal laws for this reason (no neon signs are allowed and no high heels over 2 inches are allowed without a special permit). Houses are not street numbered and each has its unique name! With a great beach, a historic Spanish Mission and a lovely nearby national park – Carmel owes its modern-day notoriety for its countless number of art galleries, an extreme abundance of fancy cars, great wealth, and one famous former mayor… Mr. Clint Eastwood.

Where To Stay In Carmel?

Carmel is the perfect place to base yourself in for one or two nights while exploring the area. We spent one night at Carmel Lodge which was a great improvement from the previous night’s stay. The lodge is one of the most affordable options in Carmel but that doesn’t mean you need to compromise comfort and cleanliness. Rooms are usually large and comfortable with a simple breakfast delivered to your room.



Exploring Carmel & The Area

Parking is easy in Carmel and free for the most part. We parked our car near the beach and walked the rest of the way. By noon, the sun managed to fight through the fog and starting our visit with Carmel Beach made a lot of sense. Carmel Beach was one of the highlights of our trip and definitely our favorite spot in Carmel (mind you, it was sunny).

Carmel Beach CaliforniaThis soft white sand beach is wide and long giving you plenty of opportunities to find your own spot. We were treated to quite a spectacle of dozens of dolphins swimming nearby, super close to the beach. You could see that the water was full of nutrients and the dolphins were having a field day. To join the party, packs of Cormorants were hunting Kamikaze style, diving headfirst into the water to catch the fish. You could stay here for hours gazing at this! We strolled along the beach finally settling down on one of the sand dunes, which are much warmer than the beach below, to enjoy the sand and the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. We also enjoyed a nice stroll along the path just as you enter the beach, where you can catch a glimpse of the cypress trees and ocean-facing houses that will surely make you jealous.

Carmel Beach California

We ventured out to town via Ocean Avenue, Carmel’s main street. Our first stop was the Cottage of Sweets for some lovely chocolates and an assortment of candy by the pound. The staff is very friendly and you’ll find anything here, even my favorite- Dutch licorice. One block up the road was Carmel Bakery, where we had lunch. This nonpretentious place has an excellent selection of baked goods and delicious sandwiches.

  • Carmel California Pacific Coast Highway

From there, we headed right on Dolores, soaking in the obscene amount of Ferraris, Porsches, Rolls Royces, and even McLarens. If you like fancy cars, you’ll like Carmel. We stopped at Cantinetta Luca, which was recommended to us by Sylvia back in Pacific Grove, to make dinner reservations.

Carmel California

Back on Dolores, this time to the other side of Ocean Avenue, we stopped in one of Carmel’s many passages, the Secret Garden. These are small well-kept alleys, each with its own flavor. The Secret Garden was quite cool and led to a Tibetan shop with lots of relaxing sounds and incense burning in the air- super tranquil!

  • Carmel Passages California

In between these stops, we couldn’t miss the wonderful art that is on display (and of course, sold) in the dozens of fine art galleries that line Carmel’s streets. A particular one that we enjoyed was Renoir Art Galleries on 6th Avenue between Dolores and Lincoln. You’d imaging art galleries being quite a pretentious place, however, art advisor Jim Seregos welcomed us in and was a wonderful host with a wealth of knowledge about art and life itself. He showed us the different collections and introduced us to Mario Simic, whose fine work is on display. Mario, Serbian by origin, has been living and creating in the US since the ’70s. He’s famous for his magnificent artwork of iconic American landscapes and by staring at some of his paintings (ask Jim to show you the moonlight painting), you are whisked away on a great journey to nature’s finest spots. It was really interesting to have a conversation with Jim and Mario, and to get a sense of this line of business (not to mention the art is simply spectacular).

Renoir Art Galleries Carmel

It was around 4 pm at this time and before checking in at our hotel, we had one more stop to make. We made the 15-minute drive to Point Lobos Natural Reserve. It’s $10 to get in by car or a donation if you walk in on foot. This park is home to numerous small tidal coves with the towering cliffs of Big Sur visible to the south. There are a few good (and short) hiking trails with the main highlight being Sea Lion Cove (though there are other good options, including scuba diving). Carved by the ocean, Sea Lion Cove is home to hundreds of seals and sea lions. When we were there, they were catching some last rays out on the rocks so we couldn’t see them (rangers do offer binocular view) but we sure could hear them. They were so loud, it sounded like a bad orchestra trying to play Mozart. Overall, it was a really nice visit, with our first taste of the rugged nature to come. If you’re lucky, you might spot some Gray Whales.

  • Sea Lion Cove Point Lobos Pacific Coast Highway

For dinner, we headed to Cantinetta Luca, a lovely Italian restaurant. We had the Napolitana pizza and gnocchi. The pizza was pretty good but the gnocchi was quite small. Wine is also quite expensive, with $12 per glass for a 6 oz. glass (it’s pretty big though). The nighttime also gave us a great opportunity to really appreciate the art as the streets were empty and the galleries light up their front windows.

  • Carmel Art California

Any Regrets?

  1. 17 Mile Drive has some excellent scenery but it’s harder to appreciate the beauty when it’s cloudy. Not much you can do about that….
  2. Being out west, we wanted to enjoy the sunset with some great Pacific Ocean view at the Highlands Inn but once again, the weather dictates everything as there is a rare chance you’ll see a sunset here as the clouds move in late in the afternoon.


  1. “one of the most scenic drives in the entire world”.. Totally true. Just came back from this road trip 2 months ago and I’m always aching to go back.

    Photo journal covering 500 miles of California in 2 days – bit.ly/shelynPCH

    1. Avichai & Shelyn,
      We’re doing a 3-day 2 night trip end December, one-way SF to LA.
      – Where should we stay those two nights?
      – What weather conditions should we consider — and how should we plan accordingly?
      – Any other pointers?

      1. Hi Shelyn

        If that’s all the time you have, you could spend 1 night in Carmel By The Sea and one night in San Luis Obispo. Check the distances on Google map but I just checked and it looks OK. To save extra time, drive from SF on the 101 and not Highway 1 to Monterey and only then get on Highway 1. There are some nice sights but the good stuff starts after Monterey. As for other pointers, just be careful if roads are icy or foggy. Check this link: http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/display.php?page=sr1

        It isn’t much time to do the whole leg from SF to LA so you might be a bit in a rush. It’s still beautiful though and most sights are just off the road. Be sure to have 1/2 day in Carmel. It’s beautiful to stroll around, check out the beach and have lunch.


  2. Hello, Doing a July 7th-12th Flying into SF flying out of LA. Looking for a decent itinerary. Places to stay, where we should stop etcetc.. Any suggestions would be helpful

    1. Hi Chris
      The itinerary I published in this post has you covered from SFO to Big Sur. I would spend 2 nights in Carmel and you can have a look where I stayed which was a great place. From Big Sur (McWay Falls) to L.A, I would consider stopping in San Luis Obispo, San Simeon (visit Hearst Castle) and Santa Barbara as you really get close to Los Angeles. Hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!

  3. Hello,
    I am travelling next october with my girlfriend. We are thinking to spend 3 days with its nights in the route from SFO to LA.
    Also, we are thinking to split the lodge between Carmel, Cambria and Santa Barbara.
    What do you think about?

    1. Hi Joao

      I think that’s a very good plan with well spread out lodgings. Since there’s quite a bit to see in Carmel (and the vibe is good and chic), perhaps skip Santa Cruz and pickup HWY 1 just before Monterey (i.e. really start your PCH trip with the 17 Mile Drive). Have a great time and let me know if you have more questions, suggestions.

  4. This sounds like exactly what I am looking for. However, we were wanting to spend 1 night in Carmel and 1 night in San Simeon or Big Sur, what are your thoughts. We only have 2 nights and will be leaving form the SF area, with no need to tour the city as we live near and visit frequently. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Rhonda

      I think it really depends on what time of the day you land in SFO and whether there will be delays or not. Assuming you land in the early morning hours and pick up a car, Carmel is only 2 hours away. Add to that a few stops and it makes sense. Carmel to San Simeon via Highway 1 is currently closed so I suggest checking the HWY status on line.

  5. Hello

    We are a family of 4 from India and shall be travelling from SFO to LA and would be driving on pacific coast for which we have 2 days and nights , which towns you will recommend to stay a night each ? Both kids are under 14

    1. Hi. I would look at Santa Cruz (for the amusement park), Monterey (for the aquarium), San Luis Obispo (“major” town after Big Sur) and Santa Barbara. Hope this helps!

  6. My Girlfriend and I will be making a trip from San Diego to San Fran and I’m planning on leaving SD tuesday and staying in SF friday night to fly out saturday morning. 4 days to get up the coast. I’m concerened that LA will throw a hiccup in my drive time due to traffic. Any suggestions on how to plan around that? we plan on staying in Monterey area Thursday night and leaving Friday to travel to SF and spend the rest of the day there.

    1. Hi Matthew. I would suggest to really rely on the Waze traffic app for planning your legs. Perhaps there is a way to bypass the LA traffic but it might not be as bad you think, depending on what time you reach the metro.

  7. Hello,
    I just saw your very nice post online. Just a few comments, I owned the Cottage of Sweets for 38 years, just retired and loved my life. You may not know this but the Monterey Peninsula is only foggy during the summer months. To really see the beauty of the area, go in October. It is actually warmer then and it is totally clear and you get to see the spectacular views. The fog is nice in the summer ( we called it our local air conditioner) but to see the real beauty of the area, come in the fall, and the prices for hotel rooms are a bit cheaper as well. Glad you enjoyed your visit.

    1. Thanks for the helpful comment Lanny (and for the sweets over the years). I updated the guide with your advice on the fog.

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