Set at water's edge on the north side of the Monterey Peninsula, the little harbor city, Monterey, has come far from its reign as the world's Sardine Capital. Though there are reminders of this grittier past in the buildings of Cannery Row (a spot which in a dirtier day inspired John Steinbeck to pen the novel of the same name) the city's less savory history has been more or less subsumed by restaurants and tourist shops, which now fill old warehouse spaces an easy walk away from the wharves to one side - which front in turn Monterey's historic downtown - and the area's top attraction, Monterey Bay Aquarium, to the other.
Though most visitors put a trip to the aforementioned marine facility at the top of their to-do list, Monterey has more to offer the discerning visitor than just big sharks, sting rays and touch-tanks. The heart of Old Monterey is punctuated with an assortment of historic buildings that predate the sardine days, many of which are counted part of Monterey State Historic Park. Take a two-mile long self-guided tour around to see some of the most important buildings once you've enjoyed an area introduction at the Pacific House Museum, stopping then to see the one-time home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the old Custom House, California's oldest church in service (Royal Presidio Chapel), the Cooper-Molera Adobe (good for a glimpse of how sea captains lived) and an old Spanish Fort (now the Presidio of Monterey Museum), amongst other things. There's also a nice little fine art museum that's local (separated between two locations), the Monterey Museum of Art, which showcases works by significant talents from California (Pacific Street facility) and at its Via Mirada location, East Asian art. Before moving on to see some of Monterey's well-known neighbors, enjoy a shot at fresh perspective on this popular tourist destination with a whale-watching excursion or an afternoon of sea kayaking.
Far removed from the sometimes mayhem of Monterey is the former retreat of artists and authors, quaint little Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once home to the likes of Ansel Adams, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sinclair Lewis, modern Carmel-by-the-Sea is cute, a little too cute for a long-term stay but cute. Did I mention that Carmel-by-the-Sea is cute? Thatched-roof cottages, an abundance of wildflowers, a picture-perfect old Spanish mission and street-performers all in proximity to dramatic Pacific seascapes lend this spot its appeal; even if you don't do cute this still merits at least a half-day's must-see. There's a decent range of high-end shopping here, to boot, a good way to keep the non-golfers occupied while the golfers put in a hard day at the world-renowned greens of Pebble Beach.
The latter, occupying a well-groomed stretch of particularly pretty coastline, is home to seven golf courses, including the daunting Pebble Beach Golf Links, as well as luxury resorts and dramatic cliffs. The general rule of thumb in Pebble Beach: if you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it. If you've decided not to stay over or golf in Pebble Beach, you can still see what all the fuss is about on a scenic cruise along 17-Mile Drive, which despite the fee per vehicle involved is an entirely agreeable way to enjoy an introduction to local landscape drama.
Monterey is located along California's west coast and is best reached via California Highway 1. Monterey is approximately 70 miles south of San Jose.