Surf's up in California

Sun & sand

Surf's up in California

What remains of our travels in the end? Places or images we may perhaps visit again only in memory, such as a sunrise slowly lighting up a valley, rounding a curve on a mountain somewhere to be surprised by a sparkling sea, a street at night with heavy swirling snow, lanterns strung across an ancient marketplace in a city square, or a winding path through a forest in an Alpine village.

Some of our memories may be from landscapes and lives we’ve left behind, others from places we travelled to in pursuit of adventure, art, exotic food, or simply driven by wanderlust. Long after we return, certain motifs endure in the mind’s eye, vivid and unfading. And on a 17-mile drive on Pebble Beach in the Monterey region of central California, the abiding motif is the dramatic play of the Pacific Ocean.

A geographic wonder

This popular scenic drive also passes through the Del Monte forest, curving along the coasts and forests of Monterey Peninsula. The peninsula itself was first discovered and mapped by Spanish explorers in 1602, but this particular route linking 21 points of interest evolved across different periods of time in the 20th century. Pacific Grove is to the north of the area and Carmel-by-the-Sea to the south. Clearly marked signboards and a red dashed line in the centre of the road on the entire stretch ensure that drivers can stay on track. The Pebble Beach Company owns and operates this 17-mile stretch, a part of the larger California Coastal National Monument, which itself spans more than a thousand miles of the Pacific coast between the state of Oregon and all the way down to Mexico in the south. Being a part of this immense zone provides certain safeguards to the various ecosystems found here.

This drive of many contrasts — rock and sand, sunshine and fog, beaches and high cliffs — is often described as one of the loveliest meetings of land and water in the vast state of California, the ‘Golden State’. This spectacular coast has something to appeal to everyone, regardless of their varying interests. A $10 entrance toll will get you a map with enough additional information to navigate quite easily. Even while setting off from the beach at the city of Monterey, there are flocks of cormorants and sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks. And the seagulls will venture close at some of the points, swooping low and trying to take a sandwich right out of your hands.

The first stop at Shepherd’s Knoll provides a grand vista of the bay and the Santa Cruz mountains in the distance. Surfers ride the waves thundering and rolling in, and boats of all types sail by as a backdrop. The sharp air makes you ravenous, and the map provides some options for food stops along the route. Or you can take your own picnic basket and enjoy some alfresco feasting.

Travellers can choose their own points to stop at, lingering at those which fascinate them the most, and skip certain points entirely. Nature lovers may choose the elevated Huckleberry Hill with its profusion of native huckleberry bushes, or Spanish Bay, a scenic picnic spot and ideal for a walk along the sandy shoreline. Or stop at the Restless Sea at marker number 6 to watch the turbulent waves crashing on the granite rock outcroppings. Bird watchers may stop the longest at Bird Rock, which is point number 10 on the route. Hundreds of shorebirds such as pelicans, seagulls and cormorants cover the rocks, and birds soar over the waves across a sapphire sky. Otters, harbour seals and sea lions add to the plethora of marine life here.

Golfers’ hub

This area is a magnet for golfers from all over, with several popular courses. The Inn and Links at Spanish Bay attracts enthusiasts, as does the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, which appears much later down the trail. There’s still plenty of coastline up ahead, with pines and cypresses on the high cliffs adding their own stark beauty. A 13-acre protected nature reserve, Crocker Grove at point number 15 has several species of native giant pines and cypresses. Also ahead is one of Pebble Beach’s enduring and most photographed symbols for over 250 years — the Lone Cypress tree atop its citadel of rock, a sentinel facing an endless ocean.

It’s believed to be one of the most photographed trees in the state, for a rare mix of natural elements in that setting. Expect some unusual sights on this trip. Ours was a model in an evening dress being photographed on the rocks and against the waves, by a camera crew. They were there at several of the scenic points. The changing topography and weather itself will pull some surprises. Somewhere towards the final points of interest, the sunshine disappeared completely and we were on cliff roads enveloped in fog, stopping at one last point to admire a foggy, brooding ocean with the roar of the waves far below.

We ended our trip at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quintessential American seaside town, with its claim to fame of having Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood as a former mayor. The shops and streets here are made for wandering. It had turned cold by now, though it was still late summer. In a cosy café with warm lighting, glass baubles and the aroma of coffee and bagels, the Pacific still seemed to be with us. It seemed that we had traversed through several seascapes in a single trip. And what are the images that endure? Running in to the ocean to be drenched by frothy waves, the glittering blue of the water, the spray on our faces and wind in our hair, the pines, the light, sand and rock beneath our feet, the unending dance of the waves. And all along with us was the music and song of the ocean. This is what remains.

Fact file

Getting there: Pebble Beach is located 120 miles south of San Francisco, and to the north of Los Angeles. It’s possible to drive there for a day trip if in that general area or even beyond. The Monterey Peninsula Airport, San Jose International Airport and San Francisco International Airport provide ground transportation.

Best time to go: Spring (March-May) or autumn (September-November) are publicised as the best months, as summers are likely to be foggy. Check the local weather conditions before departing. Take along some warm clothes.
For more information onall aspects of the 17-mile drive, check out

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