The ‘Big Little Lies’ Travel Guide to Monterey County, California
It’s easy to see why Monterey County was chosen as the backdrop for HBO’s dark comedy, Big Little Lies. Like the characters played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz (with Meryl Streep to join in season 2), the gorgeous central California coastline is often dramatic and unpredictable. One minute, you’ll be relaxing on a sunny beach, and the next, you’ll experience the strong ocean winds that have forced the native Cypress trees into a permanent lean. Besides the stunning scenery, Monterey County is also full of relaxed charm and hidden gems around every corner. Here’s your BLL guide to exploring the area’s highlights, minus all the drama and heartbreak, of course. (Photo via Jennifer Clasen/HBO)
Where to Stay
To get a dose of small-town vibes, head at La Playa Carmel, just a few blocks from both the beach and the bustling village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Formerly a mansion built in 1905 by an artist and given to his wife, La Playa still retains a sense of low-key luxury, complete with cozy rooms, meticulously lush gardens, a pool, and a life-size chess set on the grounds. Daily, guests can enjoy a free Champagne buffet breakfast, an afternoon wine reception, and late-night cookies and milk. On Sundays from 5-5:10pm, the bar offers well drinks for a dime (pro tip: you have to pay in exact change), a nod to the former Carmel native who bought the hotel in 1968 and introduced a number of amenities, including a full-time bar. (Photo via La Playa Carmel)
For a splurge, book a room at the iconic Lodge at Pebble Beach, located on the Pebble Beach Golf Links, a course with famously breathtaking ocean views that even non-golfers can appreciate (Witherspoon even played a round in Pebble Beach). Rooms have wood-burning fireplaces, and there are numerous restaurants and a large spa on-site.
What to See and Do
In downtown Monterey, you can get fresh seafood Old Fisherman’s Wharf, head out for a whale-watching tour, or just peruse the shops. Family-owned Italian restaurant Paluca Trattoria was the inspiration for the fictional Blue Blues cafe, where the women in BLL got their daily fill of caffeine and gossip.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is featured in both seasons of the show, is a marine lover’s paradise that supports ocean conservation. Get up close and personal with a giant octopus, multiple types of mesmerizing jellyfish, playful otters, sharks, an open sea exhibit, and a three-story kelp forest.
The 4.4-acre Lovers Point Park and Beach in nearby Pacific Grove is a popular spot for kayaking, surfing, picnicking, lounging on the beach, or watching otters frolic in the waves. The spot provided a calm background for various scenes in the show — season 1’s picnic with Jane and Ziggy, for example — and will also be in season 2.
To truly experience the beauty of the area cruise down the scenic 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach, where you’ll wind past beaches, golf courses, huge mansions, and one of the most photographed trees in North America, the Lone Cypress. There is an entrance fee for cars, but exploring by bike is free. Pack a picnic lunch and rent a specialty, vintage-inspired bike from Mad Dogs and Englishmen in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Their stylish e-bikes are pedal assisted and some even have a turbo boost button — you’ll be zipping up and down the hills without breaking a sweat.
The beaches of the central coast are stars of their own: The crescent-shaped Carmel River State Beach was used for season 2 filming, Del Monte Beach’s long stretches of sand were ideal running locations, and further down in Big Sur, the imposing cliffs and crashing waves of Garrapata State Park and Beach were used for scenery that provided serious mood (production designers even installed a new set of stairs down to the beach). The instantly recognizable Bixby Bridge, featured in the opening credits and in several driving scenes of the show, is also located in Big Sur, down Highway 1 (and a drive from the city of Monterey itself).
And if you need a break from all the sight-seeing, escape to Refuge, an outdoor co-ed relaxation spa in Carmel. Follow their three-step thermal cycle — heat up in a sauna or eucalyptus steam room, cool down in a plunge pool, and then relax indoors or outdoors. Cell phones are not allowed, and you won’t even miss the screentime as your everyday worries melt away.
Where to Eat/Drink
Stroll along the small streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where you’ll find gems like the locals-favorite Village Corner, which has been serving delicious bistro food for over 60 years, Stationæry, a trendy cafe tucked away in San Carlos Square with great coffee and a seasonal menu, and Carmel Bakery and Coffee House, a bakery established in 1899 and the longest running retail business in Carmel. There are also numerous wine tasting rooms right in town, like female-founded Dawn’s Dream Winery and Wrath Wines, which focuses on small production.
In Pacific Grove, vegetarians and vegans flock to Happy Girl Kitchen Co., which features inventive locally-sourced, organic food; pickled products and preserves; and homemade baked goods. Witherspoon was a regular during season 2 filming, while Kidman reportedly frequented Passionfish, a seafood restaurant that sources from sustainable farms and fisheries. And you can’t beat the views at The Bench at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, which is located right on the 18th hole of Pebble Beach Golf Links and offers outdoor seating with firepits, wood-roasted and open-flame cooking, and a great cocktail menu.
(Photos via SeeMonterey.com)
Lesley Chen is a California native who writes about travel, health/fitness, and other lifestyle topics. She has a serious case of RBF and exercises mainly to balance out an aggressive candy addiction.