Pack a bag, and head for any of these five spectacular seaside escapes.
As summer draws to a close and schools start back up, these last few long days present the perfect opportunity to soak in some fresh air and rays with a seaside escape. Whether you prefer luxe spas, fine dining, or family-friendly activities, we’ve rounded up five beach destinations beckoning you to relax, eat, and play—in style. So before fall hits, grab the family, hop in the car, and get a little lost on a coastal getaway.
Start: Walnut Creek
Distance: 120 miles
Carmel’s mile-long white sand beach and big breaking surf set it apart as one of the most stunning spots in Northern California. I like to slip off my shoes and take a nice long walk along the water’s edge, while dogs race after tennis balls and children brave the chilly Pacific waves. But I also save plenty of time for charming Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is full of boutiques, art galleries, and ice-cream shops. I recommend cruising the 17-Mile Drive: You can’t call yourself a Californian if you don’t have a photo with the iconic Lone Cypress in the background. For the full-on California experience, don’t leave town without looking for Clint. Mr. Eastwood occasionally hangs in the bar at the Mission Ranch. But let’s keep that bit of insider info to ourselves, OK? —Susan Safipour
Only a handful of Northern California beaches allow bonfires. Pick up firewood, and then head to Carmel Beach: Just keep the blaze less than three feet in diameter. carmelcalifornia.com/carmel-beach.htm
This recently renovated eatery in the Cypress Inn is a fun spot for carefully crafted drinks and live music. You can’t beat the Cypress burger smothered in caramelized onion, Gruyère cheese, and bacon aioli. carmelterrys.com.
The setting for this spa is lovely, nestled against a hillside covered in oaks dripping with moss. As relaxing as it is to just soak in the hot tubs and sit in the steam room and sauna, don’t skip the quick cold plunge: It’s part of the exhilarating and rejuvenating experience. Repeat as needed. refuge-px.rtrk.com.
Bernardus Lodge and Spa
Head inland 15 minutes to this luxe resort, which got a major face-lift this spring and opened up its once-cozy lodge for a livelier contemporary vibe. Rooms are large and plush, the spa is first rate, and chef Cal Stamenov is still doing his pristine California country cuisine, which draws locals as well as world travelers. bernarduslodge.com.
Wine Walk by-the-Sea
Get the $65 passport to taste at nine of the 14 tasting rooms on the trail. The passport doesn’t expire, so if you don’t get to all nine, you’ll have one more reason to hurry back to Carmel. Our favorite sip is the incredible Santa Lucia Highlands sparkling at Caraccioli Cellars. carmelcalifornia.org, caracciolicellars.com.
Poke in and out of more than 80 art galleries in Carmel. The curator at Wyland Galleries delighted us with stories about the famed sea-life artist Robert Wyland and his special art pieces. Or book a $25 walking tour of the six to eight art galleries with the most interesting exhibits that season. wylandgalleries.com, carmelarttours.com.
3X Sweet Treats
Cottage of Sweets
—Look for the mossy roof of this candy house on Ocean Avenue for fudge and licorice candies. cottageofsweets.com.
—Also on Ocean Avenue, this bakery is easy to spot: Look for the line out the door. The house-made pastries are worth the wait. chefpepe.com/bakeries/carmel-bakery.
—Order a few of the incredible dark chocolate caramels with sea salt from this shop on Mission Street. lulas.com.
Start: Walnut Creek
Distance: 71 miles
Long before their name became shorthand for the proponents of snout-to-tail and locavore eating, the Greek Epicureans preached the philosophy of ataraxia—the tranquil state of nirvana one achieves when totally unperturbed by mental stress. The term enters my mind each year as my wife and I make the short drive up toward Tomales Bay, where both the ancient and the modern epicurean spirit manage to coexist in beautiful harmony. Such, I suppose, is the powerful effect of a great view, a cold beer, and a dozen of the West Coast’s freshest oysters. But venture beyond the familiar roadside oyster joints, and you’ll discover even more opportunities to clear your mind and fill your belly. And man, did I mention the views? —Ian A. Stewart
Sign up in advance for a Friday tour at Point Reyes Station’s Cowgirl Creamery, where you can also sample cheeses: Start with the Mt Tam triple cream, and you can’t go wrong. cowgirlcreamery.com.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Head out over Inverness Ridge to the otherworldy Point Reyes Headlands, one of foggiest (and windiest) places on the continent. Then, hike the half-mile or so from the parking lot to the observation deck, and finally, descend the 308 steps—that’s 30 stories—down to the iconic lighthouse. Then, thank your lucky stars you aren’t a 19th century lighthouse operator. nps.gov/pore.
Toby’s feed Barn
Only in West Marin could you find yoga mats, organic coffee, and animal feed sold side by side. Toby’s general store combines the area’s old- and new-school vibes under one big barn roof. tobysfeedbarn.com.
Sir and Star at the olema
Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong, formerly of the beloved Manka’s Inverness Lodge, offer an intensely local-focused menu, including a weekly changing five-course Saturday supper highlighting seasonal ingredients. sirandstar.com.
Blue Waters Kayaking
On a clear day, it’s a piece of cake to kayak across the narrow bay. On a windy one, well, it’s more like a year-old fruitcake. Pack yourself a lunch, take off from the rental shop in Marshall, and spend the day skipping from one beautiful sandy beach to another. bluewaterskayaking.com.
Whether you’re renting out one of the charming little waterside cabins or just stopping in for a bite, the highlight at this local stalwart is the boat shack at the end of the dock, where you can settle in with a restorative drink from the restaurant bar and really feel that all is right in the world. nickscove.com.
3X Shuck Spots
Hog Island Oyster Co.
—Pick up a dozen fresh oysters, or plop down at a picnic bench and have a few fresh off the grill and slathered with garlic chipotle butter. hogislandoysters.com.
Tomales Bay Oyster Company
—With public grills and picnic benches galore, this is one of the most popular and beloved places to spend a Sunday shucking and sucking. tomalesbayoystercompany.com.
The Marshall Store
—This local institution serves up some of the best-dressed oysters in town. Grab a half-dozen on ice, a bottle of Tapatío, and a cold brew to enjoy outside. themarshallstore.com.
Start: Walnut Creek
Distance: 165 miles
I hadn’t visited Mendocino since I was a kid, but driving into town, the salty smell of the Pacific Ocean and the towering redwoods invoked that same sense of childlike wonder and excitement. The city’s downtown, where the windswept storefronts remain unchanged, also felt like a return to the past. As I wandered down Main Street alongside the ocean, the locals were friendly and quick to give recommendations for just about anything: where to find the best breakfast, who makes the deepest martini. That’s how I ended up snagging the last seat at the Little River Inn bar. From my stool, I could see right out over the Pacific. Sipping my martini, I promised myself I wouldn’t let decades pass before I made it back to this quaint seaside escape. —Rachelle Cihonski
The Mendocino Café’s Thai burrito is one of the town’s best bites. Choose from chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu, and enjoy it out on the café’s flowering patio. mendocinocafe.com.
MacCallum House Restaurant and Café
The wraparound sun porch overlooking the ocean at this Victorian home is an ideal spot for a “Mac Bloody Mary” and house-made toast and jam—a deliciously indulgent way to start a vacation. maccallumhouse.com.
Stanford Inn by the Sea
Pull onto the sprawling grounds, and you won’t ever want to leave: In fact, you really won’t have to. Take a couple’s vegan cooking class with the on-site instructor, and you’ll use many ingredients harvested from the inn’s garden. stanfordinn.com.
Mendocino Jams and Preserves
For more than 40 years, fun jam flavors have come from this little gray house at the end of Main Street, including olallieberry—made from a youngberry-loganberry hybrid that thrives along the coast—and the sweet-tart sour cherry. (707) 937-1037.
Catch A Canoe and Bicycles, Too
Paddle down Big River in a handcrafted redwood vessel, which launches from the dock of the Stanford Inn across from Big River Beach. Watch for baby harbor seals, adorable river otters, and other wildlife as you ride the tides. catchacanoe.com.
Honey and Ro
Step inside this chic, industrial boutique, which opened last March, and browse beautiful fabrics and home furnishings, including hand-woven ponchos from Peru, colorful baskets from Africa, and geometric metal jewelry from Bay Area designer Molly M Designs. honeyandro.com.
3X Highway Stops
—Pet goats on a private tour, which includes an overview of the farm’s cheese-making process and a tasting. Expect a fully functional wine and cheese bar by the end of the year. pennyroyalfarm.com.
—Double up on scoops of organic ice cream (try mocha with sea salt caramel) to enjoy out on the shaded back patio. sweetpaysanne.com.
—The Anderson Valley wine region along Highway 128 has exploded over the last decade, with big-name growers such as Goldeneye producing award-winning Pinot Noirs. goldeneyewinery.com.
Start: Walnut Creek
Distance: 78 miles
A few years ago, I sat next to two women at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. I was in awe of the hallowed ballpark, but my two new friends seemed to think I was the most interesting thing at Wrigley that day—an actual Californian! They peppered me with questions: Do you go to the beach every day? Is every woman blonde? Do you play volleyball and surf? I think of them every time I drive toward Santa Cruz. This expanse of coastal gorgeousness is exactly how much of the rest of the world envisions California:
an endless stretch of white sand kissed by frothy waves and decorated by the occasional suntanned beach party. It’s the quintessential California surf town, with great food, amazing live music, and an abundance of quirky locals. —Peter Crooks
The Penny Ice Creamery’s made-from-scratch, small-batch ice cream highlights seasonal ingredients from local farms in innovative flavors, such as mascarpone kumquat, black tea peach, and whiskey custard. thepennyicecreamery.com.
Covewater Stand Up Paddle SURF
Offering equipment rentals and sales, and lots of classes, Covewater can help everyone from the first-time paddler to the hard-core enthusiast. In fact, it’s the only shop fully dedicated to stand-up paddle boarding in Northern California. covewatersup.com.
Santa Cruz’s best-known pizzeria is Pizza My Heart, but the up-and-coming hot spot is Bantam, which serves thin-crust wood-fired pizzas with a range of fresh, local, and organic ingredients. Feel free to add Calabrian chile, a farm egg, house-made sausage, or anchovies to any order. bantam1010.com.
Grateful Dead Archive
Did you miss out on the sold-out final Grateful Dead concerts? Not to worry: You can catch up on decades of Deadhead history at UC Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library. The library is home to the band’s massive archives: recordings, photos, posters, fan art, and more. gdao.org.
This trendy hotel recently received a major renovation, and the results are impressive. The decor is eco-chic (“urban forest”), with light-colored rooms featuring driftwood headboards on the high-end beds. The family-friendly property within walking distance of downtown also includes a large pool with private cabanas and an impressive on-site restaurant. thehotelparadox.com.
This hip gastropub, started by a former Manresa pastry chef and a high-tech guru, has stirred up Santa Cruz’s dining scene with its warm atmosphere and rustic California cuisine. Look for seasonal ingredients, house-baked bread, and a menu of small snacks available between mealtimes. assembleforfood.com.
3X Live Music
—Featuring blues, reggae, rumba, and salsa, this club and bar invites world-class musicians to perform. moesalley.com.
Kuumbwa Jazz Center
—This outstanding jazz venue celebrating its 40th anniversary this year also has a terrific restaurant, making it a perfect dinner and entertainment destination. kuumbwajazz.org.
—This summer’s lineup of classic rock and pop acts includes Wang Chung (July 31), Blue Öyster Cult (August 21), and more. beachboardwalk.com/concerts.
Start: Walnut Creek
Distance: 117 miles
I’ve been to Monterey so many times, I’ve lost count. My family goes to bike the trail along the shore, kayak on the bay, whale watch, and visit the aquarium. We always get a room with a view, dine at the oceanfront for all three meals, and catch the end of the day at Spanish Bay, where a bagpiper serenades the setting sun. I even love the kitschy flair of the tourist shops along historic Cannery Row, named for John Steinbeck’s 1945 book about the hard life there during the Depression. The cannery’s flophouses of Steinbeck’s era are long gone—replaced by family-friendly attractions and seaside dining. But the uniqueness of this area, its proximity to gentle waters, and the abundance of aquatic life still call to all who love being by the bay. —Susan Safipour
Whales travel along the coast from late spring to late autumn, and seeing the world’s largest mammals starboard is a sight you will likely never forget. Randy’s Fishing and Whale Watching Trips will take good care of you. randysfishingtrips.com.
Stop by the historic two-story Stokes Adobe building for cocktails and elevated comfort food from new chef Jason Franey, a 2011 Food and Wine best new chef winner, whose rebooted menu includes a variety of whole-animal dinners that serve six, and require a week’s notice. restaurant1833.com.
Adventures by the Sea
The only thing better than marveling at the beauty of the surging water is being on the bay in a kayak, getting up close to otters and harbor seals. Rentals include gear, paddling instruction, and wildlife orientation, and you can launch from right under Monterey Plaza Hotel. adventuresbythesea.com.
InterContinental The Clement Monterey
Stay right in the heart of Cannery Row, overlooking Monterey Bay. Rooms are stylish, the spa offers massages and facials, and the restaurant is on the oceanfront for more soul-quenching views of the bay. ictheclementmonterey.com.
Alvarado Street Brewery and Grill
Airy with a vintage vibe, this brewpub excels in hop-forward ales, and also offers shareable plates such as short rib poutine and Peruvian-style ceviche. Sip and snack at the counter, where a windowed divider lets you sneak a peek at the brew equipment. alvaradostreetbrewery.com.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid, and Cuttlefishes opened in April, and is much like the aquarium’s mesmerizing displays of the alienlike jellyfish—only cooler. The octopus, squid, and cuttlefishes change color before your eyes. montereybayaquarium.org.
3X Fun for Kids
—No trip to Monterey is complete without some saltwater taffy, and this shop has barrels and barrels of flavors. (831) 655-7744.
Dennis the Menace Park
—This playground from the creator of its namesake comic features an array of play structures, including a roller slide. monterey.org.
Monterey Mirror Maze and Lazer Challenge
—Solve the psychedelic walk-through mirror maze, or make it across the break-the-vault challenge set up to imitate the trip wiring that guards museum artifacts. montereymirrormaze.com.