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Travels without Charlie: The Monterey Peninsula and Highway 1

I love road trips.

I hadn’t been on one with my friend Paul since our Gold Country trip and so I asked him if he’d like to be my road trip buddy somewhere.  He said yes – and how about Monterey and Carmel?


Paul called me a few days later and told me he found a Monterey area KOA with cabins that had rates way lower than local hotels. I said I’d go online and make a reservation.  So I did.

We headed out early on a Friday morning. The day started a little rough and a little late since Paul got lost coming to my house.  He said that his GPS was having a hard time finding my house and he was at that moment idling his car in some far point in Sebastopol.

Paul was not happy by the time he arrived.

Curious as to how this had happened, we examined the GPS and it erroneously indicated that I lived on “Squeaky Lane”.

Strangely enough, at no point did Paul ever think that this might be ridiculous.

That said, one might argue that Squeaky Lane is where I live emotionally, however I pay my rent, park my car, cook my dinners, and lay me down to sleep someplace else altogether.

Once resolved, we wasted no time getting out of town.  I threw my bags in the back of the car and we headed down south. The ride was nice, calm, devoid of traffic.  We took a lunch stop at Whole Foods in Newark and then continued to our destination, which was the KOA.

However, there was a complication. We had diligently followed the paper map and yet found ourselves several miles away from our destination before we realized we had missed the KOA turnoff. How could  that have been? KOA signs are big and yellow and sit squarely on the side of the road by the entrance. They are impossible to miss.

Well, almost impossible to miss.  When we backtracked, I realized what had happened. At the very moment the big yellow KOA sign had appeared on the left hand side of the road, I had gotten distracted by some cute little tiny houses on the right hand side of the road.  I remember pointing them out excitedly and saying to Paul “Did you see those cute little tiny houses?” as we whizzed by the entrance to KOA

With great relief we pulled into the KOA entrance, ready to unpack and start touring around. All was right with the world until we discovered that they did not have our reservations.  Even though I had made reservations.

A period of confusion ensued. Fortunatelely, I found the confirming email on my smartphone.

As it turns out, there are two Montery-area KOA’s.  I had made reservations in the Prunedale – Monterey KOA and Paul had printed up directions to the Watsonville – Monterey KOA.


Back in the car and about 20 minutes later we arrived at the Prunedale KOA with the correct reservations. We unloaded our luggage and headed out for our first foray – to downtown Monterey and Fisherman’s Wharf.

boats in the harbor in the monterey bay

Dusk at the harbor

Originally constructed before the turn of the century, Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf was originally set up for cargo ships, but was later converted to uses that were compatible with the area’s sardine fishing industry. When the sardine industry collapsed in the 1950’s, Fisherman’s Wharf became a tourist destination. We walked to the Wharf via Custom House Plaza, the historical center of Monterey. Evidently the Custom House was the first government building in California and the place where the United States took Monterey from Mexico in 1846.

Today Fisherman’s Wharf is a lineup of mainly fish restaurants with a few other retail uses thrown in for good measure. They do something here that I have never seen anywhere else – entree displays by the front doors to entice the diners.

Statue and Restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf

Waiting for eager diners on Fisherman’s Wharf

Since Paul and I are vegans, we enjoyed the atmosphere on Old Fisherman’s Wharf but headed out to eat a vegan dinner at the Full Moon Chinese Restaurant on Alvarado  Street.  Soon after, we were in the car and headed back to the KOA.

Paul was a little bit of a stickler about leaving early in the morning to see the sights.  I was not such a stickler. However, both on Saturday and Sunday morning we left early and I was glad because we missed so much traffic and the early summer tourists.

After a Starbucks stop, and a cruise through Pacific Grove, we hit the iconic 17 mile drive. Because Paul had insisted on leaving early there was almost no one there and we were able to park comfortably at the different outlooks.

Lone Cypress

Pebble Beach passed through several hands until it ended up being purchased in 1880 by the Pacific Improvement Company which was owned by four railroad barons: Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford. Seeing the potential of this location, the Pacific Improvement Company laid out a 17 mile drive in 1892.  With the construction of the Del Monte Hotel, Pebble Beach and the 17 mile drive became – and remains – a popular tourist destination.  In 1919, a company named  Del Monte Properties (formed and owned by Samuel Finley Brown Morse) purchased 7,000 acres on the Monterey Coast which included the Hotel Del Monte, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and the 1,100-acre Rancho Laureles, now known as Carmel Valley, and the Monterey County Water Works. He developed 8 golf courses, the Del Monte Hotel and the Lodge at Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach Resorts

The Pebble Beach Resorts Shopping Arcade on the 17 Mile Drive

Sam Morse was not only a developer but a conservationist.  According to Wikipedia:

Sam banned needless land clearing and speculating on this forest land and set aside greenbelts to be reserved for the preservation of wildlife, prioritizing preservation of the forest, coastline and oceanfront. Samuel Finley Brown Morse, Wikipedia

We have Sam Morse to thank for the beauty that we can still enjoy today, a century later.

Samuel Finley Brown Morse

Samuel Finley Brown Morse

It costs $10 per car to go on the 17 mile drive.  Pebble Beach residents pay an annual fee for the same privilege. Luxury homes abound along the 17 mile drive, but the coastline and much of Pebble Beach remains pristine and untouched.

House and tree on 17 mile drive

Luxurious homes and beautiful scenery on the 17 mile drive

We finished at around 10:30 am and headed briefly to Carmel.  It was already crowded, and although we found a spot to park by the beach, downtown was already filling up.  I have developed a late-in-life aversion to retail cuteness and Paul hates it too, so we just drove up Ocean Drive and headed towards Saturday’s main event – Big Sur and Highway 1.

What a beautiful drive this is!  Meandering along the coast, there were scarcely any cars.

The only downside on this southward trip on Highway 1 is “what was going to happen next?”  We had been thinking about getting some lunch, but it was hard to tell on the map where the next town was or how accessible anything was.

Not to worry. We took a corner and ended up at The Big Sur River Inn for lunch.  It was the first place we saw after our drive. In addition to the Inn dining room, there was also a grocery store with a build your own burrito bar, and we later found out that there were several other small restaurants and eateries nearby farther south.  So if you find yourself hungry on 1, there is hope.

The Big Sur River Inn

The next stop was the McWay waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on Highway 1.  Paul had heard of them and we decided that it would be our main destination.  Quite a few other people also thought it would be their main destination and there was a bit of a wait for a parking place – about 20 minutes – and then we were able to get in.  By the time we left later in the afternoon, the line was about 15 cars deep, which I imagine translated into a 40-60 minute wait.  Moral of the story, get there early.

The 1/4 mile walk from our car to the falls was beautiful.  We walked through a tunnel that took us to the trail overlooking the water.

Tunnel to McWay Falls

The waterfall appears without warning below the trail and it is a spectacular sight.  The beautiful weather made the ocean sparkle. It felt like we had stumbled upon a magical secret.

McWay Waterfall

Paul had been taking some photos with his tripod and had set up alongside the trail, so I walked ahead. I took a corner and saw that the other hikers had stopped.  A couple was getting engaged at that very moment. She was sitting on the low wooden fence alongside the edge of the trail and he was kneeling before her with a turquoise Tiffany box in his hands.  I grabbed my camera and took some photos of the beautiful moment.  After the proposal had been made and accepted, I exchanged emails with the bride-to-be and have since mailed her the photos.

They were so excited and happy! It put me in a very good mood.

Happy Couple

She said “yes” to the dress

On the drive back we stopped at the spectacular Bixby Bridge and I got out and took a photo.

The Bixby Bridge

My only regret about the ride back is that we didn’t stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.  Not that I am a big fan of Henry Miller but it looked cool, woodsy and unique and now that I’ve read about the library I think we missed an opportunity to see an interesting place.  On the other hand, we had had a long drive there and back and it was really time to head back to the KOA.

Our evening dinner was at a Prunedale Chinese restaurant that was named Jim’s Place.  It was also named Annie’s Place.  It served Chinese food. It also served not-Chinese food and they had monthly wine and food pairing evenings with menus that sounded Italian. The important thing is that we were able to get a vegan meal there.

Our last day was spent on Cannery Row, which was less about Steinbeck and the cannery industry and more about souvenirs.

Cannery Worker Shacks on Cannery Row

Cannery Worker Shacks on Cannery Row

When the sardine industry collapsed (due to over-fishing mainly), Monterey had to reinvent itself and it did so as a tourist destination.

Monterey Cannery Company

I find souvenir stores disturbing so we just wandered a little bit and looked at the water.  It was getting jammed with tourists, so with great relief we left and headed towards Salinas.

Cannery Row Mural

Mural along the beach on Cannery Row

I was surprised to find out that Salinas is the county seat of Monterey County.  I don’t know why I was surprised, I guess I always envisioned it to be a hick town.  However, once we got there I  found the town itself to be 1000 times more hip than I would have ever imagined in my wildest dreams.  Salinas? Who knew? Yaay for Salinas!

The best part was the National Steinbeck Center, which Paul had recommended, having been there several years before. I had read some Steinbeck years before (who hasn’t read some Steinbeck?) But I hadn’t realized the extent of his scholarship, or of his prolific output. The museum is interactive and wonderful.  I vowed to start reading Steinbeck again, starting with Travels with Charlie – John Steinbeck’s road trip chronicles.

When this will be accomplished, I don’t know.

Nothing was wrong. However, at one point on Saturday as we were driving down to Big Sur on Highway 1, I was thinking to myself that this would probably be the last road trip that Paul and I would take together.  I don’t know why this thought suddenly came into my head. Almost simultaneously with my own thoughts,  Paul turned to me and said “Do you think this is our last road trip?”

I said “Yes”.

beach with seagulls


2 Responses to “Travels without Charlie: The Monterey Peninsula and Highway 1”

  1. Karina says:

    Would love to know where you spotted that beautiful Tuscan-style home on the 17 mile drive! It looks like it might be to the right of the Lone Cypress Tree but I didn’t see it.


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