Inspired by some epic online photos of Big Sur (and my faint memories of visiting the magical area as a kid), we decided to ride our June-wedding high straight to Northern California—land of mystical redwoods and rocky outcrops—where we took an easy road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey County and into Napa Valley.
Normally I’d plan a trip myself, but with all the wedding coordinating, I decided to delegate it to a travel agent who created the itinerary and booked the hotels. The route she came up with called for just one to two hours of driving between each destination, save the three-hour drive from the San Francisco airport to Carmel:
Carmel/Big Sur → Half Moon Bay → Tiburon → Yountville
We were gone nine gloriously sunny days (eight foggy nights), and experienced many wonderful things, but here’s what stuck:
7 Reasons to Honeymoon in California
1. The charm of Mission Ranch
We stayed the first three nights in a simple Farmhouse room at Carmel’s Mission Ranch Hotel, a 22-acre pastoral property made up of 10 separate adorably historic buildings that harken back to its dairy farm beginnings.
We loved …
… the view! The property includes a lovely sheep pasture that overlooks the marsh, the beach, and the bay beyond. When we arrived, we ordered a glass of wine at the piano bar and grabbed seats on the wooden chairs on the side lawn to take in the sunset and watch the fog slither over the hills. So peaceful.
… the live piano music. Yes, there’s a for-real piano bar! When we first entered, a distinguished older gentleman with a white beard was playing “Sailing” by Christopher Cross.
… the fact that Clint Eastwood owns the place. And he pops into the piano bar on a fairly regular basis, according to our sources, an Uber driver and a patron named Fred.
… the lack of pretension. Even though it sometimes attracts celebrities (like Andy Garcia, according one local), this property is so refreshingly not trendy. It feels beloved and old-fashioned. And the crowd skews older—lots of over-60s—with an interspersing of younger couples and families with kids who played tag on the grass.
2. Scenic Road morning jogs and evening walks
The morning after we arrived in Carmel, I decided to go on a quick jog around the neighborhood, and after taking a couple of left turns in the general direction of the ocean, ended up on Scenic Road, a narrow one-way street with gorgeous, gorgeous views of the rocky Carmel coast.
Note the lady with the easel, painting the view…
It was so pretty, we took the same route that evening, and walked on the beach in the fog. And again the next night, except it was clear and the water looked silvery…
3. Lunch in Big Sur at Sierra Mar
The drive from Carmel to Big Sur is just 45 minutes—the perfect day trip—and Highway 1’s dramatic edge-of-precipice route will make you dig your fingernails into the armrest (if you’re like me and you’re afraid of heights!). But the scenery is stunning. When we passed over the iconic (and quite narrow) Bixby Creek Bridge, a lone patch of fog washed over the road and for a moment it looked like we were driving a bridge into the clouds. There are lots of places to pull over, get out, and peer down the steep ocean-side cliffs, which in late June were blooming with the prettiest yellow flowers.
But as breathtaking as those roadside views were, they didn’t compare to the one from our table at Sierra Mar. (I’m a sappy honeymooner and my eyes welled with tears when I first saw it.) Our table was set in a corner next to two glass walls overlooking the ocean. But this was no ordinary sea view. The restaurant is perched on stilts on a cliff so far above the water that we were able to look down on the fog laid out over the ocean’s surface in the distance, making it seem like we were dining high above the clouds—very ethereal. There was a sliding door next to the table where you could step out onto a small balcony and feel the air. Oh my goodness, it was amazing.
The meal was very good–wasabi, avocado, and apple salad with foam dressing, and carrot risotto with flower garnish. But honestly, with that view we could have been eating Goobers and it still would have been the best lunch ever.
4. Davenport tacos
After three relaxing nights at Mission Ranch, we drove up the coast from Carmel to Half Moon Bay—a two-hour jaunt along the PCH past many cherry and berry farms with people picking in the fields (so weird to see farmland facing the ocean), farm stands selling jam, and tempting signs that read “pie.” Craving coffee, we pulled over in a tiny Bohemian/surfer town called Davenport (population 408, according to Wikipedia), which was really just two short streets lined with weathered cottages, a cement church with the initials DOM on the front, a Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room, and a bakery/diner called Whale City that faced a sunny beach directly across the highway.
I’m not sure why we loved Davenport so much except that it was so teeny and quirky, and because it had a Mexican restaurant where a line cook agreed to make each of us a $2 carne asada taco for breakfast.
Best thing I ate the whole trip.
5. Bike ride along the cliffs at Half Moon Bay
We stayed one night at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, whose website I’d devoured several times on my afternoon lunch break, which is how I knew about the complimentary bikes and the gorgeous 1-mile cycling path that meanders along its St Andrews-esque golf course at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.
On the way to check out our bikes, we investigated the outdoor seating area. Note the fire pits, the cushiony chairs, the ridiculously picturesque view. There are also servers at the ready to bring you a glass of wine, clam chowder, and a warm fleece blanket … we found out that evening after our bike ride.
But back to cycling. The path does in fact run along the edge of a peaceful, grassy bank a la Scotland that drops off to a sandy beach where guests are welcome to enjoy the sun. The fog rolls in and out depending on weather and time of day. At the far end of the path, if it’s sunny, you can look back and see the Ritz in all its grandeur set like a castle at the edge of the bluff. If it’s foggy, the hotel vanishes and all you see is a path to obscurity—equally as beautiful.
When we returned to our room they’d set out complimentary champagne and chocolate covered strawberries! (the perks of honeymooning.)
6. Tiburon churchyard with a view
From Half Moon Bay, we traveled to Tiburon (via the Golden Gate!), where we spent two nights and did several advisable things: rode bikes on the Tiburon Linear Park trail that runs along Richardson Bay (such pretty, sunny views of the water); strolled Tiburon’s Main Street and stopped in for a Pinot tasting at my favorite boutique winery from the trip, Couloir; had a waterside Fourth of July picnic at Shoreline Park and attempted to watch fireworks that were completely obliterated by fog (not necessarily advisable actually; and it was freezing!).
But the experience that stood out the most was our short hike at Tiburon’s Old St. Hilary’s Historic Preserve, a wildflower preserve perched high on a hill whose centerpiece is an adorable white chapel built in 1888. The views of the bay and the cities that line it from this vantage are gorgeous, and the brown grasses waving in the breeze lent the site a tranquil “Little House on the Prairie” feel. While we were there, a couple sat down on the stone steps to the church to have a picnic, which seemed like such a good idea.
7. Lounging at the pool in Napa Valley
Last stop was Yountville, a small easily walk-able town in Napa Valley teeming with Thomas Keller cuisine (The French Laundry is here, plus Bouchon Bakery, Bouchon Bistro, and Ad Hoc + Addendum, where we ate our last fancy meal). We could have ventured out in our car or hired a driver to explore the wineries, but instead we borrowed Hotel Yountville’s bikes and cycled Yountville Cross Road alongside the vines to take in the views. Then we did our tastings in town—because walking is so much easier—and because as guests at Hotel Yountville, we received discounts or free tastings at many of the Yountville tasting rooms.
But truth be told, my favorite Yountville activity was quite simple—sitting in a cushiony cabana in the hotel’s decadent pool area. Sunny skies, a light breeze ruffling the trees, a generous helping of chips and guacamole to snack on. It was a very honeymoon way to spend our last day.
Is a California road trip on your bucket list?
This guest post was written by Amanda Arnold. Amanda is a writer and editor in Atlanta, Georgia. You can follow her on Twitter: @AmandaSArnold
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CC header image photo credits from Flickr: Air, land and sea by Brandon.