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The Ultimate American Road Trip: Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, and the Amazing Yosemite

The Ultimate American Road Trip: Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, and the Amazing Yosemite

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I was afraid this would happen.

I’ve longed to visit the Monterey Bay area for what seems like forever.

You know how sometimes you read about a place and just know you’ll fall in love with it before you even get there? Well, that’s Monterey and Carmel for me. And yes…I did fall in love! Monterey offers the ultimately iconic California experience, and it’s easy to see why the drive to Big Sur has been voted the top road trip in the United States.

The coastline is just breathtaking.

There are an endless number of things to do here. The drive is a must, of course. But there are also the shops and attractions of Cannery Row, the art galleries of Carmel sipping handcrafted wines at tucked-away tasting rooms where the winemaker might just be the person pouring, surfing or paddleboard lessons, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or playing 18 holes at legendary golf courses. It just doesn’t end. Plus, the incredible Esalen Institute is based in Big Sur, where you can take fascinating courses on consciousness studies. I might end the trip now and stay here!

We checked into the beautiful Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey, located steps away from unique shopping, dining, Fisherman’s Wharf, and a great running/biking trail right along the water where you can see harbor seals and sea lions lounging on rocks. Our room was nautically themed and spacious with a patio and cabana, a luxuriously comfortable king-size bed, and of course, Green from Natura room amenity products and packages made from rapidly renewable material and biodegradable. Monterey is extremely pet friendly, and we noticed many guests with their dogs in the hotel—you can even have a dog bed, bowl, and bone for Fido!


Top and Middle: Our accommodations at Portola Hotel and Spa, Monterey.
Bottom: Cannery Row.

The Portola Hotel & Spa is Silver LEED® Certified, becoming the first “Green” Hotel in central California, the third in California, and the sixth in the U.S. to attain this high level in the “Existing Building” category. Their list of eco-friendly initiatives is long, but some of the more unique things they implemented are:

  • The carpet at their onsite restaurant, Jacks, is made from sheep wool and the backing is natural jute and latex, all of which are rapidly renewable materials—and it’s 100% compostable at the end of its useful life.
  • Landscaping featuring native and drought-tolerant vegetation and drip irrigation controlled by weather conditions.
  • Actively participate in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch® Program, designed to raise awareness about the importance of ocean-friendly seafood choices.
  • Peter B’s Brewpub changed operations to save over 41,000 gallons of water a year and recycles mash from brewing the brewing process to local farmers and growers.
  • The Hotel produces hot water with cogeneration which simultaneously generates electricity on site.

We set out that day to explore Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Through the boom and bust of the whaling and sardine industries to structural and economic despair followed by restoration and redevelopment, the tale of Cannery Row continues to fascinate people. You can find almost anything here, from touristy shops to wine-tasting rooms to brewpubs and more. The Aquarium is a great way to spend a few hours, especially with the kids, as they have feeding times for sharks, sea otters, and fish, which was exciting to watch.

Cannery Row

Left: Sea lions are abundant in this region; here, a lone sea lion basks on a rock.
Right: Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey.

Pacific Grove
Seagull That night we headed into Pacific Grove, a cute little seaside town. We ate at Passionfish, one of the best meals of the trip so far. Ted Walter, a Classic French-trained chef, worked in restaurants across the country before perfecting his unique style and opening Pacific Grove’s Passionfish with his wife Cindy in 1997. Since then, Ted has earned a national reputation for his simple, inspired cuisine, incorporating fresh, organic produce and sustainable seafood. He is also an active advocate for the sustainable seafood movement, using his talent and his restaurant as platforms for delivering sustainable seafood education. Passionfish was the first in Monterey County to be certified as a Green Restaurant. The halibut with tangerine-tamarind coulis and Provençal yellow squash was exquisite, and the Wild King salmon with a bacon-onion-corn braise, roasted tomato and lemon jam was the best we’ve had yet.

Sea Lion Rock

Pacific Ocean

Sunset The next day we ventured into Carmel, which I fell in love with immediately. If you don’t think you’ll ever get to the Amalfi coast in Italy, then you have to come to Carmel, as it’s about the closest thing to it I’ve seen. All Italian style architecture—the shops, galleries, tasting rooms, and restaurants are beautifully designed, with many tucked away in cozy little courtyards. Just a short walk from town down to the beach, you can see one of the most amazing sunsets you’ll probably see in your lifetime. We dined at Basil in their outdoor patio area – when it got a little chilly, they had lovely fleece blankets and gas fireplaces to keep you warm. The menu is based on seasonal and locally grown organic ingredients, fresh, wild, sustainable seafood, and creative local California cuisine. Chef Peters’ passion for Farm to Table food and being sustainably responsible made Basil the first Certified Green Restaurant in Monterey County. Don’t miss the shaved Brussels sprout salad with hazelnuts and the local burrata—some of the best I’ve had.


Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, Half Dome is a quartz monzonite batholith in Yosemite National Park. It is a Yosemite icon and a great challenge to many hikers.

Yosemite and Tenaya Lodge…Words Just Can’t Express
Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite sits on a cozy and secluded expanse of the Sierra National Forest just a few minutes from the south gate of Yosemite National Park. From here, it’s easy to access Mariposa Grove to see the incredible giant sequoia trees, and it’s also close to Glacier Point if you want to explore that area. If you’re looking to hike during the day and be pampered at night, Tenaya Lodge is the place for you. With luxurious rooms, an amazing spa, five seasonal dining options, indoor/outdoor pools, a fitness center, and loads of activities that your concierge can plan for you, you will be hard-pressed to find better lodging than Tenaya near the park. The words to describe Tenaya and Yosemite… escape, play, feel, learn, and wonder.

And you can feel good about staying there as their list of eco-friendly initiatives goes on and on, from water-saving fixtures to biodegradable laundry detergents to sustainable food products and reducing the use of disposable products. Their awards include double Silver LEED certification, TripAdvisor® GreenLeaders™ Program, Gold Level, and Environmentalist Level in the California Green Lodging Program.

When you first walk through the entryway to the lobby, you’ll notice the smell of their roaring, rock-hewn fireplace and the soaring, open-beam ceilings with classic lodge furniture—so cozy you could stay in the lobby all day. We stayed in one of their spa suites with 550 square feet of living space that included a luxurious king-size bed, private balcony overlooking the forest, full wet bar and refrigerator, extra-large bath, and large whirlpool tub separate from the shower.

If you can bear to leave your room, you’ll find poolside cabanas and the Bearfoot bar that provide the perfect place to relax after the day’s adventures, or you can unwind in one of the four spa hot tubs situated throughout the mountain resort property. There is also an arcade on the property to keep the kids entertained.

Need some pampering after those day-long hikes? The Ascent Spa features twelve treatment rooms and offers signature organic treatments, men’s and women’s steam rooms and saunas, relaxation rooms, a fitness center, and a spa boutique with local and organic product lines. A Silver LEED-certified spa, Ascent Spa is recognized for its green building design and sustainable operations.

In addition to hiking, biking, climbing, and sightseeing in Yosemite National Park, the resort features plenty of on-site seasonal activities like archery, rock wall climbing, swimming, a kids’ camp, sledding, ice skating, and guided hikes. You’ll also find world-class golf, horseback riding, fishing, rafting, skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Don’t miss the flashlight hike, which they do every night and will give you a completely different experience of being in the Sierra forest. We saw awe-inspiring constellations, bats that flew effortlessly around our group all night, and even a couple of tarantulas!


A beautiful destination throughout the year, Tenaya at Yosemite is the gateway to Yosemite National Park.

With only a few days in Yosemite, our time to explore the park was limited, as it can take close to two hours to get to certain trails. We were lucky enough to hike the Panorama trail, which had unbelievable views of Half Dome. We traveled into Yosemite Valley and hiked the Inspiration Point trail – 1.3 miles pretty much straight uphill, but you’re rewarded with breathtaking views of El Capitan and Half Dome, among others. On the last day, we explored Mariposa Grove and the beauty of the Giant Sequoias.

There is so much to do and see at Yosemite, from relaxing activities such as their summer outdoor music concerts and speaker series, art galleries, spas, wine and beer tasting, and shopping, to guided tours and programs, to even more adventurous activities, including whitewater rafting, camping, and rock climbing.

Another great thing about Yosemite are the dining options. Mealtimes can be whatever you want them to be, whether you’re enjoying a picnic in the park, grabbing a bite from a taco truck, enjoying simple American fare at one of Mariposa County’s many bar and grills, dinner with the family at Timberloft Pizzeria at Tenaya, and plenty of upscale dining, available in various locations across the Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite has something for everyone, whether you’re looking for an exciting family vacation, an unforgettable trip with friends, or an intimate couple’s getaway. For more information, visit yosemite.com and www.tenayalodge.com.

Lori Hubbard, MA is Editor-in-Chief of Natural Nutmeg and Essential Naples magazines, and is also a freelance editor, writer, and graphic designer.