If you’re a Steinbeck nerd like me, you’ve probably wanted to visit Monterey, California ever since Cannery Row. But if you’re, you know, a normal person whose travel plans aren’t dictated by midcentury American literature, you probably added Monterey to your bucket list after watching HBO’s epic and Emmy-winning miniseries Big Little Lies.
Because what’s not to like? BLL makes Monterey out to look like a wonderland of cozy seaside coffeeshops, windswept mansion terraces, craggy cliffs and beaches upon which to contemplate your destiny, not to mention wine, wine and more wine. Well, I hate to break it to you: It’s not all true. For one thing, working-class Monterey is laughably absent from the series, and the town is not actually made up of rich, beautiful blondes plus rich, beautiful Zoë Kravitz. But that’s because real-life Monterey is even better. And there are race cars.
I headed to Monterey to see what all the fuss is about. The good news is that the surreal scenery, foggy/hygge atmosphere and a lot of the actual locations from Big Little Lies are indeed real, and they definitely measure up. (So does the wine.) And for what it’s worth, Alexander Skarsgård’s character, fuck-face Perry, is not real, so consider that the extra-good news. The bad news? There’s not much of that. Just the fact that you’re probably not going to stay in one of Monterey’s private mansions when you visit — and the fact that most of the BLL mansions are actually in Malibu.
For your travel-planning pleasure, ahead are the best Monterey spots where you can live out all your Big Little Lies fantasies with all the wine and none of the murder. And just for good measure, we threw in a couple that aren’t even on the show — yet, that is. There is going to be a second season, right?
Fisherman’s Wharf & Cannery Row
What used to be a bustling fish market is now more of a quaint coastal tourist trap — complete with its very own Bubba Gump Shrimp (*eye roll*) — but boy is it lovely. Otters and sea lions leap about the harbor and sun themselves on rocks, and I was particularly smitten by a seaside busker who I believe was singing acoustic covers of ’90s alt-rock. And although Fisherman’s Wharf doesn’t harbor a ton of Monterey locals IRL, it’s definitely a favorite spot for the BLL gals; this is where Madeline, Celeste and Jane have their coffee shop-confidential meetings — and where the cute café owner valiantly kicks out fuck-face Gordon (ugh, the men on this show) in the series finale. Except the “coffee shop” is actually Italian restaurant Paluca Trattoria.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The dramatic lighting! The soothing undersea sounds! The creepily intelligent octopus that hopefully will never figure out how to escape the tank! The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an HBO-worthy travel destination in and of itself. And it’s also just plain one of the best aquariums in the world. No wonder Renata, Laura Dern’s deliciously awful character in Big Little Lies, serves on its board.
There’s also that sweet-sad scene in the series when Shailene Woodley’s Jane brings her son to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Jefferson Airplane plays gloriously before she tells him he needs to see a child psychologist. Jane and Ziggy then presumably concluded their aquarium tour by petting a live sea urchin, getting freaked out about that and calming themselves down by purchasing a stuffed orca. Oh, wait — that was me.
Bixby Bridge is a highlight of famous coastal California Highway 1, which connects Monterey in the north and Morro Bay in the south — and it is gorgeous. Clearly, BLL director Jean-Marc Vallée is as obsessed with this architecture as I am since he takes every opportunity to have his cast drive across the 1932-built bridge “on their way” to school/therapy/whatever in Monterey, regardless of the fact that Bixby is 20 miles south of Monterey, in Big Sur. Oh, well. Suspension (bridge) of disbelief?
Travel tip: If you’re a not-great-driver like me, you may want to buddy up on this road trip so you can take in the sweeping vistas without worrying about driving off a cliff. Then again, those winding highways don’t seem to bother Reese Witherspoon.
Laguna Seca Raceway
And speaking of winding highways: If you, like Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, want more (speed, danger, what have you), make your way to the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca just outside Monterey. The racetrack was built in 1957 and is the home of the Monterey Grand Prix as well as countless other motorcycle and car races; its most famous and frightening turn is ominously nicknamed “The Corkscrew.”
Remember what I said about being a shitty driver? It’s true; I’m terrible. I’d also never driven a stick shift in my life. But when my clueless self showed up at Laguna Seca, the kind folks at Cooper Tires and Lucas Oil School of Racing (yes, it’s a real school) taught me to drive a race car. I’m not kidding; see the pic of me speeding around the entire race track in second gear at probably 30 mph. Whatever. If I can learn to drive a race car, so can you. It’s a great way to burn off steam and probably actually safer than pulling a Jane and heading to the shooting range.
Once you’re back in your regular, non-race car (sad, I know), hit the road to scope out the Monterey Peninsula. This area boasts plenty of jaw-dropping homes, and Pebble Beach is prime for real estate stalking — albeit oddly absent from Big Little Lies‘ actual real estate roster. BLL executive producer Gregg Fienberg strongly recommends the enclave’s 17-Mile Drive (as do I). Fienberg told The Hollywood Reporter, “[T]here’s not a more beautiful drive on the planet.” And I’m telling you: rugged Instagram gold.
Del Monte Beach, where many of Big Little Lies‘ frightening flashbacks — and our pal Woodley’s emo coastal jogs to our favorite lady-punk tracks — occur, is also well worth a stop.
Bernardus Lodge & Spa
Of course, you’ll have to sleep somewhere in between all that driving and beaching and jogging and plotting and wine-drinking, and unfortunately, the BLL houses are all off the market — at least in Monterey… they’re actually in Malibu. The Bernardus Lodge & Spa may not be a glass-walled modern megamansion, but hey, it’s a spa. (And fuck-face Perry doesn’t live here, so all the better.)
Bernardus is situated on 28 acres including vineyards, orchards and gardens in Carmel Valley outside Monterey. The food and wine are stellar, but it’s really the atmosphere that’s the draw: a happy medium between desert-chic design and that kind of casual opulence (“Oh, is that a custom fire pit? Are we surrounded by trailing lilies? I didn’t realize.”) that even Celeste would love. Plus the bathtubs are unparalleled.
Monterey & Carmel Valley vineyards
You can’t channel Big Little Lies without a cabernet in sexy stemware that magically drinks and replaces itself in between jump cuts, right? Right. And a trip to Monterey wouldn’t be complete without exploring wine country in the Santa Lucia Highlands and Carmel Valley. I would say Monterey County is the new Napa or the undiscovered Sonoma, but Big Little Lies spinoff tourism has probably made it, you know, somewhat discovered. But don’t worry; it’s still wonderful. Bernardus has its own winery, pictured here, and other (very well-named) valley favorites include Folktale and Wrath Wines. Santa Lucia Highlands AVA wines are particularly renowned for their long-ripened grapes and full flavors, courtesy of the chilly mountainside landscape.
The list of coastal must-sees in this area just goes on. Quite a few BLL scenes were filmed at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove, and Garrapata State Park provided plenty of shots of crashing waves — and those jolts of anxiety whenever Jane nearly runs herself off a cliff. The famous Lone Cypress, pictured here, is along the Fienberg-favorite 17-Mile Drive — and has been there for 250 years. Yep, it was a seedling when the 13 colonies declared their independence from Britain. This fact really made the three flights I took to get to Monterey seem… remarkably short!
Pacific Biological Laboratories
OK, this Monterey spot has nothing to do with Big Little Lies, but you must go — because, Steinbeck. Way before Madeline, Celeste, Jane and their lot were hitting the town dressed as various Audrey Hepburns, Mack and his unemployed entourage were enlisting the help of a few Monterey prostitutes to throw their friend Doc a party in Cannery Row.
Now a Monterey city museum, Pacific Biological Laboratories was once the research base of John Steinbeck’s best bud and collaborator, Ed Ricketts — the inspiration behind Cannery Row‘s Doc. His live-in lab also became the starting point of the now-legendary Monterey Jazz Festival. To find out how, you’ll just have to take the (free!) museum tour.
And there you have it: all the best things Monterey has to offer, possibly ranked in increasing levels of nerdery. So pack your bags, put on your chic tailored boots, and fly west, young lass — before Season 2 tourism starts in earnest.
Amelia Edelman visited Monterey, California, and its surroundings as a guest of Cooper Tires.
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