Glorious Coastal Getaways: Point Reyes, Santa Cruz, and Carmel-by-the-Sea
A rugged stretch of shoreline teeming with wildlife and artisanal eats. A laid-back hipster haven drawing surfers and beer enthusiasts. A luxe storybook village mixing natural beauty with a thriving arts scene. Let Diablo guide you to the nearby seaside escape that best suits your vibe.
Photo courtesy of Visit Santa Cruz County
A Walk on the Wild Side
Outdoor enthusiasts will discover more than just coastal views in this laid-back slice of west marin.
By Dana Rebmann
It’s with the first cow sighting that you realize you’re getting close.
Things, including the speed limit, seem to slow down as you make your way right into the middle of, well, nature. According to the National Park Service, 2.4 million people visit Point Reyes National Seashore every year. It’s easy to understand the park’s seemingly magnetic attraction. About a 90-minute drive from the East Bay, it feels like you’ve traveled a world away, but your odometer proves otherwise.
Your first stop should be the Bear Valley Visitor Center; enthusiastic rangers will help you make the best of your time in the area, and there are a number of trails nearby. At the very least, you’ll want to grab a map; chances are good you’re going to need it. Cell service in these parts is iffy at best. Embrace it and disconnect. Enjoy the peace and quiet. Get lost, and remember how much fun it can be to correctly fold up a paper map. visitmarin.org.
Due to reopen this fall, the Point Reyes Lighthouse and Visitor Center will soon shine brighter than ever, thanks to a $5 million, yearlong restoration. Dating to 1870, the 35-foot-tall, 16-sided tower is the area’s most-visited site and a great spot for whale watching.
Sheltered by sandstone cliffs, Drakes Beach has long been a favorite with visitors, but after the 2018 government shutdown, it rose to new levels of fame. With park rangers locked out, a colony of elephant seals moved in, taking over the empty stretch of coastline. As you make your way to and from the beach, keep a lookout for Tule elk. Although the bulk of the herd lives in the reserve to the north, they can make appearances here, too. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800s, Tule elk were reintroduced in 1978. Today, some 450 are said to roam freely.
Its long stretch of soft sand makes Limantour Beach ideal for exploring. Keep your eyes open for harbor seals in the waves. The trail from the parking lot to the beach comes with a bonus view of the surrounding wetlands, especially popular with shorebirds in the fall. Leashed dogs are allowed on the southeast end of the beach. Bathrooms and picnic tables are located near the parking lot. nps.gov/pore.
A Locavore Haven
There are a handful of shops, markets, and restaurants scattered throughout Inverness, Inverness Park, and Olema, but the small town of Point Reyes Station rises to the top as the food and shopping hot spot. Expect a line at Bovine Bakery, a go-to for in-the-know visitors to pick up strong organic coffee and handmade pastries before hitting the trails or the beach. Osteria Stellina proudly touts the fact that 95 percent of its ever-changing menu is sourced from West Marin. In addition to Tomales Bay oysters, Stellina has offerings like Double 8 water buffalo ricotto and pizza with roasted oyster mushrooms, onion, and truffle oil. bovinebakeryptreyes.com, osteriastellina.com.
Just five minutes down the road, you’ll find Due West restaurant, which focuses on West Marin ingredients. It’s tough to go wrong with the Adult Grilled Cheese made with locally baked Brickmaiden Bread and served with roasted tomato bisque. Clemente Garden at Due West is a popular hangout, and it’s not unheard of for locals to arrive for a “night on the town” on horseback. If the idea inspires you to saddle up, Five Brooks Ranch offers trail rides for city slickers of all abilities. olemahouse.com/dine, fivebrooks.com.
It’s easy to lose track of time in these parts, but you don’t want to be late for the Cheese 101 Class at Cowgirl Creamery. “Good milk makes good cheese,” says cheese educator Cheryl Dobbins. “The more complex [the cows’] diet, the more flavorful your cheese is going to be.”
The tabletop curd demonstration simplifies the science behind cheese-making, then rewards students with tastings of some of Cowgirl Creamery’s most popular selections. Classes are offered on Fridays, and reservations are a must. If you don’t get a spot, it’s worth checking back; they try to squeeze folks in whenever possible. cowgirlcreamery.com.
Less than a mile north of Point Reyes Station on Highway 1, Heidrun Meadery crafts sparkling meads—wines made from honey instead of grapes, using the traditional French Méthode Champenoise. The flowers from which bees collect their nectar determine the honey and, ultimately, the mead’s flavor. Even if you don’t have time for a tour, it’s worth buzzing in for a tasting. heidrunmeadery.com.
Where to Stay
For Alfresco Adventures
Point Reyes National Seashore offers four hike-in backcountry campgrounds; permits and walk-in reservations are often available at Bear Valley Visitor Center, but advance reservations are suggested. (There is no car camping within the National Seashore; sites may only be accessed by hiking, biking, or horseback.) Samuel P. Taylor State Park has car and RV camping, along with cabins, too. recreation.gov, parks.ca.gov/469.
For Creature Comforts
After spending your days immersed in nature, sometimes a night in a cushy bed is the way to go. Located on four acres just off of Highway 1, Olema House has two dozen guest rooms, including an apartment and two cottages. Each accommodation is a bit different, but there’s a cozy, seashore-lodge feel throughout. All rooms look out toward Point Reyes National Seashore park, with views of Olema Creek. The expansive back lawn invites relaxation with Adirondack chairs and a fire pit, making it easy to linger and take it all in. olemahouse.com.
A Surfer’s—and Sipper’s—Paradise
Play in and out of the water in a chilled-out city that’s reinvented itself as a hipster hot spot.
By Virginia Shannon
Considered the birthplace of mainland surfing, Santa Cruz holds a special place in the hearts of wave riders.
Swells at the county’s beaches can tower to 10 feet, drawing surfers, spectators, and sun worshippers from around the globe. But Santa Cruz’s shore features another big attraction: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—seen in the recent horror flick Us and, three decades earlier, The Lost Boys—holds two national historic landmarks: its 95-year-old roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, and its hand-carved carousel, built by the famed Charles Looff.
The area’s beaches, surfing pedigree, and seaside amusement park should be reason enough to make the 90-minute trek to Santa Cruz—but there’s much more to entice visitors than just sandy summer fun. So throw your board (or bike) in the back of the car, and head south on 880 to experience this cool city and its up-and-coming dining, shopping, and drinking scenes. beachboardwalk.com, visitsantacruz.org.
Eyes on the Tide
Each of Santa Cruz County’s nearly 20 beaches has its own distinctive charms. Beginning surfers beeline for Cowell Beach, with its easy-going waves and summer lifeguards. Club Ed surf school offers lessons there; look for its beachfront caravan. Advanced wave riders—or fans hoping to watch top surfers in action—head to Pleasure Point or Steamer Lane, which hosts the O’Neill Freak Show Pro surfing competition in November. The event is sponsored by the O’Neill surf company, founded by the late local icon Jack O’Neill, an eye-patched surf legend who invented the neoprene wetsuit in the 1950s. club-ed.com, oneill.com.
Of course, the options for water sports aren’t limited to surfing. Stand-up paddleboarding is gaining popularity. (Club Ed offers SUP lessons, too.) The main beach in the charming village of Capitola, adjacent to Santa Cruz, is ideal for kayakers. Sailing enthusiasts enjoy the regattas held in Santa Cruz Harbor on Wednesday evenings from March through October. For an alternative coastal perspective, rent a bike from Pacific Ave Cycles and ride along the paved West Cliff Drive path, which offers stellar views of Cowell Beach, Steamers Lane, Lighthouse Point, and the awe-inspiring rock formations of Natural Bridges State Beach. santacruzharbor.org, pacificavecycles.com, parks.ca.gov/541.
A City Reborn
Thirty years ago, the Loma Prieta earthquake decimated Santa Cruz’s downtown. Today it stands reborn, with contemporary architecture and a buzzing commercial district that’s transformed the city from hippie hamlet to hipster hangout. Pacific Avenue is the main drag, filled with eclectic boutiques and upmarket eateries. Staying true to the area’s environmentally conscious roots, Bhody sells ethically sourced, fashion-forward apparel and lifestyle items, and Eco Goods deals in organic clothing. Stripe’s two stores on Walnut Avenue (one for women, another for men) juxtapose designer fashions with vintage-industrial decor. There are three O’Neill shops in the region, but serious surfers favor the one on 41st Avenue in Capitola. bhody.com, ecogoods.com, stripedesigngroup.com.
Santa Cruz’s food scene is blowing up, too. The latest hot spot is Alderwood, a high-end eatery that puts a California spin on new American recipes. Former Chez Panisse chef Tom McNary helms the kitchen at the small-plates standout Soif, which is known for its extensive wine selection as well as its ultra-fresh seafood and ingredient-driven California cuisine. In nearby Soquel, Home dishes out dazzling pasta, meat, and seafood dishes inside a bungalow-style house-cum-restaurant. For a taste of classic Santa Cruz, pick up salt-water taffy at Marini’s Candies, a local institution that has been making sweets here for more than 100 years. alderwoodsantacruz.com, soifwine.com, homesoquel.com, mariniscandies.com.
While Santa Cruz is probably best known for its surf culture, it’s also gaining a reputation for its booming beer scene. The city boasts more breweries per capita than most places in the United States; favorites include Humble Sea Brewing Company (beloved for its craft IPAs) and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, which pours organic suds in its busy beer garden.
Explore the county’s bounty on the Brew Cruz—a four-hour brewery tour aboard a 1964 Volkswagen bus. Or chart your own course using the online Santa Cruz Beer Trail map, which will lead you to the region’s hoppiest destinations. humblesea.com, scmbrew.com, scbrewcruz.com, scbeertrail.com.
For more vino-centric types, the illustrious Bonny Doon Vineyard is based in nearby Davenport. Stop in to its tasting room to sample wines from the brand’s highly regarded Cigare series, which includes Volant red blends, white blends, and the ever-popular Vin Gris de Cigare rosé. bonnydoonvineyard.com.
Anyone with an interest in beer or wine should time their visit to the Scotts Valley Art Wine and Beer festival, held on August 17 and 18. The popular event, about six miles from Santa Cruz, also features food trucks, car and dog shows, live music, and an outdoor art gallery. svartfestival.com.
Where to Stay
For Beachfront Delights
Situated on Cowell Beach, right beside the Boardwalk, Dream Inn Santa Cruz is walking distance from the city’s top attractions, and all of its 165 guest rooms boast ocean views. Outdoor amenities include a heated pool and hot tub—complete with poolside mimosa bar and street-taco cart—as well as firepits. Guests have access to surfboard and bike storage, a library of beach-read books, and yoga classes. Meanwhile, Dream Inn’s new surf-themed, on-site eatery, Jack O’Neill Restaurant and Lounge, contains a massive collection of Jack O’Neill memorabilia. dreaminnsantacruz.com.
For a Romantic Retreat
Those craving a more intimate environment can’t go wrong with the Inn at Depot Hill in Capitola. Housed in a former train station, this stately bed and breakfast features 12 elegantly appointed rooms and suites, each decorated to reflect a different global destination. Comfort is paramount here, from the luxurious feather beds, to the in-room fireplaces, to the delectable breakfasts. It’s a short walk into Capitola village, which charms visitors with its shops, cafés, and colorful bungalows lining the beach. innatdepothill.com.
Fairy-Tale Charm Meets Luxury Living
Historic treasures and a vibrant arts scene enhance the allure of this storybook town.
By Emilie White
With its stone-lined streets, lack of numbered addresses, and harmony with the natural world, Carmel-by-the-Sea feels like it blossomed to life out of a fairy tale.
Incorporated in 1916, this hamlet of less than 4,000 residents is just over a two-hour journey from the East Bay and boasts some of the Central Coast’s most picturesque landscapes.
If you visit around August 18, or in the days leading up to it, you’ll find yourself in a classic car collectors’ haven; the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance takes place that weekend. But you don’t have to stay near the celebrated golf links to witness the spectacle. Carmel’s Concours on the Avenue brings exquisite autos to the village on August 13, and two days later the Tour d’Elegance cruises through Carmel. Indeed, this is a town that revels in its upscale events, world-class restaurants, posh shopping, and spellbinding natural beauty. pebblebeachconcours.net, carmelcalifornia.com.
Start your outdoor excursion at the “crown jewel” of the Golden State’s park system, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, popular with nature lovers and artists for photography, painting, hiking, picnicking, scuba diving, and more. The meadows, beaches, and forests within the park’s gates are intensely varied and include breathtaking wildflower-strewn vistas and unique cliff outcroppings. The seals, sea lions, and otters help make this former whaling and abalone fishing site a favorite of locals and visitors alike. parks.ca.gov.
When you arrive in the heart of town, everything seems to lead to Carmel Beach. Park on Ocean Avenue and walk down the hill, where you can hear the sound of crashing waves before you can see them. Cypress trees blanket the sidewalks as you emerge upon a white-sand hillside and gaze out at the azure waters of Carmel Bay. There are eight staircases descending to the shore; feel free to bring your favorite canine, as the beach (like the town itself) is dog friendly. Carmel Beach will host its 59th Annual Sandcastle Contest on September 7.
If you’re a history buff, make sure to stop by Mission San Carlos Borromeo, just over a mile from Carmel Beach. The designated United States National Landmark—California’s second mission and the final resting place of Father Junípero Serra, who founded the mission system—is resplendent, with gardens surrounding its spiritual areas and museum spaces. carmelmission.org.
On the Town
When you’ve had your fill of Carmel Bay’s coastal breezes, head back up the hill to explore Ocean Avenue and the town’s 40-plus courtyards and passages—a paradise of boutiques and cafés. Shops including Coast Carmel, Paloosh, and Girl Boy Girl carry chic fashions in a variety of styles, while an appealing mix of specialty stores adds flair to the retail scene. Check out Diggidy Dog for luxurious canine and feline lifestyle goods; Carmel Honey Company in Carmel Plaza; and Cottage of Sweets, a British-style candy shop that’s been hailed among the country’s best confectioners. diggidydog.com, carmelplaza.com, cottageofsweets.com.
When you’re ready for dinner, Carmel’s wide range of enticing dining options beckons. The Mediterranean and Middle Eastern eatery Yafa earned a nod in Michelin’s 2019 Bib Gourmand guide. The Restaurant at Mission Ranch offers classic American cuisine at the historic ranch resort restored by Hollywood icon (and former Carmel mayor) Clint Eastwood. Reese Witherspoon, who stars on HBO’s Monterey Bay–set Big Little Lies, reportedly favors La Bicyclette, whose locally sourced, rustic European menu changes weekly. Make reservations in advance. yafarestaurant.com, missionranchcarmel.com, labicycletterestaurant.com.
Though the region is gaining a new level of fame from Big Little Lies, the visual and performing arts are built into Carmel’s DNA. After the Carmel Arts and Crafts Club set down roots there, the community became a haven for artists fleeing San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. That creative spirit lives on today, with art galleries—close to 100 of them—interwoven into the town’s framework. The Carmel Art Walk, held the second Saturday of each month, is an excellent opportunity to tour the various local galleries.
Carmel also counts literary legends including Call of the Wild’s Jack London and poet Robinson Jeffers among its former residents, and has enjoyed a thriving performing-arts scene practically since its inception. The town features two resident theater companies—the Forest Theater Guild and Pacific Repertory Theater—as well as three captivating stages. Taking in a show at the Forest Theater, in particular, is a breathtaking dramatic experience with its outdoor setting, perfect for audience picnics. Catch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, opening there this month. foresttheaterguild.org, pacrep.org.
Meanwhile, in late September, music fans will take over the region for the 62nd iteration of the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival, which presents more than 130 performances (including Diana Krall and Chris Botti) across eight stages. montereyjazzfestival.org.
Where to Stay
For Pet-Friendly Pampering
Formerly co-owned by the late Hollywood legend and animal activist Doris Day, the Cypress Inn is one of the country’s most famous dog-friendly hotels. It consists of 44 rooms decorated in a Mediterranean style, each offering fruits and nuts, filtered water, and complimentary cream sherry for the humans. Guests can indulge in a daily continental breakfast at its on-site restaurant, Terry’s Lounge. cypress-inn.com.
For the Ultimate Luxury Experience
If Carmel is straight from a story-book, L’Auberge Carmel is its seaside castle with Wi-Fi. Established in 1929, L’Auberge, a Relais and Châteaux getaway, boasts 20 individualized and newly renovated guest rooms, each with four-poster beds, bathroom-floor heating, and antique decor. The hotel also provides a signature breakfast and curated guest packages tailored to each party’s taste. Aubergine, the hotel’s Forbes Five Star Restaurant, was recently awarded the first Michelin star on the entire Central Coast. laubergecarmel.com, auberginecarmel.com.