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Monterey Is the Weekend Getaway for Anyone Serious About Farm-to-Table Food and Really Good Wine

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The Napa Valley isn’t the only California wine region you should plan a weekend getaway to.

Photo by Lisa Corson

The Napa Valley isn’t the only California wine region you should plan a weekend getaway to.

Did we mention that Big Sur is just over the mountains too?

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Sitting on California’s Central Coast, Monterey County is famous for the redwood forests and dramatic cliffs of Big Sur. But the destination’s heart really lies in its harvest. It’s not only that 70 percent of the world’s lettuce is grown here in the Salinas Valley; Monterey is and has always been home to tight-knit farming and fishing communities, and people around here take a lot of pride in their food and wine. At dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s likely that your black cod entrée was pulled from the waters of the nearby Monterey Bay earlier that day, and the strawberries and lettuce in your salad and the pinot in your glass came from just 40 miles away in the patchwork of farmland and vineyards in the Salinas and Carmel Valleys. 

Monterey County is a scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco, but visitors can also fly into the Monterey Regional Airport from Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Francisco on American, Delta, Alaska, and Allegiant airlines. But even if you arrive by plane, you’ll want a car for your weekend stay so that you can bounce around between shops and art galleries in posh and picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea, the aquarium and historic Cannery Row in the bustling city of Monterey, the inland farms in Salinas, and the wineries of Carmel Valley. Here are the places—and the meals—you can’t miss:

About 1,800 fishermen work the waters around Monterey, and you can find great sea-to-table meals on the wharf.

Where to eat

Known for its jams and pickles, Happy Girl Kitchen is actually the last cannery on Cannery Row—the former sardine factory area that John Steinbeck wrote about. The preserve shop also has an on-site café that serves fresh pastries with Happy Girl jams and sandwiches on crusty bread. In Carmel-by-the-Sea, locals love Stationæry for its hearty brunch bowls and superior scrambled eggs.

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For lunch, head to Old Fishermen’s Wharf in Monterey and sit down at a table on the deck at Paluca, an Italian trattoria that sources its fish from fishing companies at the end of the pier. (Big Little Lies fans might recognize the spot as the café from the HBO series.) Or if you’re spending the day at inland tasting rooms, get a picnic of homemade sausages and loaded salads from the chef-owned Jerome’s Carmel Valley Market. Most tasting rooms will let you bring in outside food so you can eat while you sip. 

You’ll want to plan to eat at least three dinners here—though there’s no shortage of excellent options if you can extend your weekend by a few days. The streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea are dotted with intimate Italian restaurants: Order a cured-meats board as long as your table and wood-fired pizza at Cantinetta Luca, and dine on handmade paparadelle with wild boar sugo at local favorite la Balena. At the chic Seventh & Dolores—known as 7D—start with caviar then slice into a perfectly cooked cut of meat. For a real treat, book the Chef’s Table in the kitchen at Lucia, the Bernardus Resort and Spa’s restaurant; the walls of the tiny booth have been signed by previous diners, including Leonardo DiCaprio, so look around while indulging in your exquisitely crafted multi-course meal.

Spend a day winetasting in the Carmel Valley.

Where to sip

You could—and should—take an entire day to visit the wineries and tasting rooms of the Carmel Valley. Start off with a glass of brut cuvée at the Caraccioli Cellars tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Caraccioli sparkling wines are made using a champenoise method, a very specific style of winemaking used in Champagne that incorporates a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and consistently win awards at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. A worthwhile 90-minute drive away, you’ll find some of the oldest vines in Monterey County at Chalone Vineyard on the outskirts of Pinacles National Park (Chalone is actually located outside the Carmel Valley AVA in its own—the Chalone AVA). The brand’s reputation took a dip in the 1980s, when it became known for bad wine, but with new management, it has undergone a renaissance in the past three years and is now making some delightful mineral-driven chardonnays.

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Along the stretch of tasting rooms in the heart of the Carmel Valley, don’t miss the I. Brand & Family Winery, with its zinc bartop and record player. Winemaker Ian Brand, who was named the San Francisco Chronicle’s winemaker of the year in December 2018, and his wife seek out remote, challenging vineyards and make what they call “idiosyncratic” wines under three different labels. End your day of winetasting at the enchanting Folktale Winery & Vineyards. With live music, firepits, a pizza oven, and a maze of Instagrammable buildings that look like something out of a fairy-tale village, this is where locals like to come for long evenings (and not just because it’s open until 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays).

What to do

When you’re not perusing menus or hopping between tastings, take an afternoon to drive into Big Sur to visit the bookstore at the Henry Miller Memorial Library to browse books about Big Sur by writers who loved the place and to soak up the bohemian ambience. Or head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you could spend hours learning about the bay’s marine life. If you want to look for sea creatures without the glass tanks, opt for a a whale-watching trip at any time of year; a number of migration routes pass by the bay, so you may see gray whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, and even, sometimes, orcas. And while you can’t visit the working farms of Salinas, you can stop in at the Farm, an agricultural education center and local farming business that offers farm tours and family activities, to learn more about the “the Salad Bowl of the World.” 

Suites at the Carmel Valley Ranch enjoy sweeping views of the valley.

Where to sleep

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Immerse yourself in Monterey County’s countryside and splurge on a stay at the sprawling Carmel Valley Ranch. The 500-acre property features 181 ranch suites, an 18-hole course, a lavender farm, its own vineyard and apiary (where you can take beekeeping classes), and the relaxing Spa Aiyana. Carmel-by-the-Sea also has a number of historic inns, such as the Pine Inn, which was built in 1889 and has rooms done up in French country style. 

>>Next: The Best Weekend Getaways in the United States

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