Jan. 5, 2014 -- Monterey County represents one of the most diverse coastal stretches anywhere in the western United States. This breathtaking peninsula encompasses 13 towns peppered along 99 miles of shoreline, and a bevy of one-of-a-kind traveler experiences. Here are a few reasons why Monterey remains one of our favorite California destinations.
Skip the Drive, Do the TourWant a unique introduction to the Monterey Peninsula? Before you set off on your own private adventure, hop on the Monterey Movie Tours bus. This three-hour guided tour takes you through some of the area's most beautiful spots – Bird Rock, Pebble Beach and the famed 17-Mile Drive along the coast. During your cushy ride, check out clips from the many memorable movies that have used Monterey as the ultimate set, including "Turner & Hooch," "Clash by Night" and "Play Misty for Me." Look for ticket discounts for kids under 15 and grown-ups 65 and up.
Skip Pebble, Find a Secret BeachThe beaches here have a draw all their own. Carmel River State Beach draws birders the same way Lovers Points Beach attracts surfers, and the greens of Pebble Beach are legendary. But Monterey is also home to the Seven Secret Beaches – seven coastal havens where the pristine waters, thin crowds and sweeping views make the trouble to get there well worth it. Pfeiffer Beach, for example, is at the end of Sycamore Canyon Road, which is unmarked; your reward, though, are breathtaking sunsets and some of the most photo-friendly vantage points in the state. McAbee Beach, in the heart of Cannery Row, is a great spot for seal spotting and for tide pooling at low tide. And the rocky formations along Partington Cove help create a sanctuary for divers. Zmudowski State Beach, Fort Ort Dunes State Park Beach, Garrapata State Park Beach and Salinas River State Beach round out the secret seven.
Skip the Store, Shop the MarketplaceFresh food thrives in Monterey, which is what earned this region the nickname Salad Bowl of the World. You'll find a farmers' market here pretty much any day of the week; some days, you can visit two. One of our favorites is the Wharf Marketplace, open seven days a week. This special food hall in the heart of downtown Monterey smacks of Pikes Place Market in Seattle or the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. Here, you're in fresh food heaven, with direct-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables, cheeses, meats, baked goods, flowers, seafood and wine – all local. There's also a café featuring regionally exclusive items, as well as a bevy of seasonally-driven offerings.
Skip the Hotel, Stay PrivateWe love the hotels, inns and B&B's throughout Monterey County. But luxury private rentals abound here, too, which can offer a special place to stay for couples seeking solitude or multigenerational travel groups looking for a little extra elbow room. Monterey Bay Property Management rents homes that run the gamut in specs and price, from one-bedroom Victorian cottages in Pacific Grove to four-bedroom L'Ermitage houses in Pebble Beach. Want fireplaces in each room? Hardwood floors? Private putting greens? Options abound. And while prices fluctuate seasonally (winter offers some of the year's best rates), they always include housekeeping fees and accidental insurance coverage.
Don't Stop at Steinbeck, Visit MillerNo doubt, John Steinbeck is one of Monterey County's most famous native sons; his hometown of Salinas comes to life in many of the works that earned him a Nobel Prize in 1962, and it behooves any buff of American literature to include Cannery Row, the National Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House (where the author grew up) on a travel itinerary. But other wordsmiths flocked here for inspiration, too, such as Robinson Jeffers, Ed Ricketts and Robert Louis Stevenson. And Henry Miller, the pen behind Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, lived in Big Sur for almost two decades, and here's where you'll find the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Established in 1980, the year Miller died, this nonprofit library includes exhibits, books and a comprehensive archive of newspapers, magazines and digests. Say hello to the resident cat – Theo – and sign up for a writing workshop. Open 365 days a year.
Visit the Zoo, Sleep at the ZooVision Quest in Salinas is not your ordinary bed-and-breakfast. It's a pretty wild place to stay, actually. It's run by Wild Things, a group that rescues exotic animals and offers sanctuary to wild creatures that were once used in TV and film productions. And many of those wild creatures – more than 100 species of animals and birds – become your hosts, of sorts, at Vision Quest Ranch. The 51-acre estate features African tent-style bungalows decked out with everything from fridges to bathrooms, and overnight stays include an hour-long guided tour of the animals, which include camels, lions and zebras. And a continental breakfast is delivered to your by an African elephant - a pretty cool way to start the day.
Skip the Seafood Shop, Catch Your OwnThe waters off Monterey County are teeming with fresh seafood, and catching your own is a great way to both nab a delicious meal and enjoy genuine camaraderie. Randy's Fishing Trips & Whale Watching, which has been around since 1949, offers crabbing and fishing adventures that last six to seven hours. Your catch will depend on the season – Dungeness crab and rock cod in November and December, for example, and mackerel, sand dabs and Dungeness crab January through March. As the company name implies, Randy's also offers whale watching tours inside what is one of the largest protected marine sanctuaries in the country. The team at Blue Ocean Whale Watching, which runs the deluxe High Spirits vessel, also comes highly recommended.
Leave the Car, Giddy UpWith a population of 18, it might be easy to drive right past Parkfield. But for a genuine Wild West experience, be sure to pay the V6 Ranch here a visit. This 20,000-acre working cattle ranch is home to more than 50 miles of backcountry trails; guided horseback trail rides, for guests as young as 8, can last as little as two hours and trail riders get access to everything from meals to log cabanas to fishing holes. Cattle drives and dude ranch getaways are schedules throughout the year.
Gabe Saglie is senior editor at Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals throughout Monterey County at www.travelzoo.com/destinations/monterey/.