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Without a doubt the biggest star in the television series Big Little Lies is the stunning scenic backdrop of Monterey and its Californian coast surrounds.
This lead to it being a 2017 travel ‘must-visit’. I headed to California with a distinct vision of the place in my mind. A vision of an exclusive, sleepy town surrounded by stunning beaches, rolling hills and coastal views to take your breath away.
But the reality of Monterey turned out to be almost completeld unexpected. Televisual trickery had created a world of its own, unlike the reality. But that does not mean Monterey didn’t exceed expectations in many other ways.
Situated between an hour and two hour’s drive south of San Francisco (it is a longer journey taking the recommended and breathtaking route along the legendary Highway One), Monterey is a working-class town steeped in history and is a far cry from the exclusive enclave depicted on the small screen.
It is a town where historical influence of the Spanish and Mexican eras is in abundance and as much a tourist destination with all the trappings (if somewhat classer and more laid-back than the UK’s idea of seaside tourism) as rich persons playground.
Our stay was based right in the heart of the action at Portola Hotel and Spa, a luxurious spa hotel with views of the bay and on the doorstep of the famous Fisherman's Wharf. Complete with the award- winning restaurant Jacks Monterey and its own brewpub, Peter B's Brewpub, alongside its spa facilities, it is the perfect place to relax and indulge and the perfect place to explore the city on foot or further afield by car or bike.
Perfectly situated the hotel backs onto the heart of Monterey tourism and opened up the unexpected experience of the city.
All in all it is a city at odds with its on-screen representation. It does have a wonderful laid-back and tranquil vibe that matches the sunshine and its position amongst awe-inspiring beauty but it has an energy all of its own.
Portrayed on screen Fisherman’s Wharf, and its surrounding Marina, is a classy, tranquil place to relax and grab a coffee but in reality it is a largely brash, tourist trap certainly at the more commercial, tacky end of the seaside pier experience, think restaurants, bars and amusements. For a British traveller it is more classy than our stereotypical seaside amusements but hardly the classy destination of the show.
Finding the corner of the Wharf frequented by the main characters in Big Little Lies you discover it is not a coffee house at all but an Italian restaurant. While the exterior was used in the show, the inside was filmed in an entirely different location.
For me, while the Wharf is worth a visit, with any limited time in Monterey it is not a place to focus too much time on. It is however the place to depart on fantastic whale watching trips and other ocean activities such as fishing trips if that takes your fancy.
The Marina itself is nice to walk around in the sunshine.
Heading south from the Wharf, along the coastal path, is a wonderful walk where you start to appreciate the setting. Signs explain the history of the city which shows where the clash of influences in architecture comes from, and as you stroll the coast you’ll see seals, sea lions and incredibly cute sea otters in their natural habit up close and personal.
In reality the area depicted in the show expands much further into the surrounding area. Inside Monterey you’ll recognise the views at Lover’s Point, which is featured in several key scenes, inside the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the best in the world and the stunning expanse of Del Monte Beach which is mainly used by locals and is a definite must visit for a beach day.
Beaches in this area are beautifully wild and wind-swept but are completely spectacular and worth spending many hours on just relaxing or walking their length.
On the Municipal Beach, at the end of Del Monte Beach closest to the Marina, we witnessed a sea otter leave the sea and walk up the beach to check out the noise from a beach volleyball tournament before heading back into the sea and swimming near the shore. Spending time in this area opens up many opportunities for such amazing experiences.
Other big sites from the show are further out of the city. The stunning house occupied by Nicole Kidman’s troubled character reportedly sits in the ultra-exclusive Carmel Highlands, while the stunning Bixby Bridge (the bridge of the opening credits) is a way out along Highway One as you head into Big Sur.
This whole drive down the coast is more than worthwhile with its abundance of life changing views.
Back in town the vision of Monterey portrayed on screen continues to be contradicted in Cannery Row which is also a main tourist trap. As a street that was home to many sardine canning factories up till 1973, and was renamed in honour of legendary author John Steinbeck (who was known to frequent the area) it is a street that oozes classic Americana which much of it’s aesthetic bringing to mind the stories of the Beat writers and of the classic American dream.
Now it is home to many of the city’s top restaurants, hotels and stores as well as the world famous Monterey Aquarium (which is used in Big Little Lies frequently). From Fisherman’s Wharf and Portola it is about 25 minutes walk along the coast, or you can catch the regularly running free Trolley Shuttle which connects Fisherman’s Wharf with Downtown Monterey and Cannery Row. This traditional form of transport will only add to the overall experience.
In Cannery Row itself, we enjoyed beautiful sea views from the glass-fronted balcony of A Taste of Monterey Wine Market & Bistro whilst sampling a range of great local wines. This is not the only place to enjoy the view with 20 eateries in all that offer similar vistas.
For beer aficionados the Cannery Row Brewing Company has over 70 beers on offer in a friendly, classic American bar setting, but they don’t actually brew their own beers despite the name! For great locally brewed beer in a stunning, modern bar Alvarado Street Brewery has exceptional beer and a mouth-watering menu. This place was such a favourite we visited twice in our three-day stay in the city.
As much as Monterey keeps giving for visitors, if you want more of the stunning scenery that sets Big Little Lies up a journey along the 17-Mile Drive is a must. Some people are put off by the $10 fee to travel the route by car (it’s free on foot or by bike) but it is more costly, in the long run, to miss out. It packs in so much history and beauty into a short space that it should not be missed. Read more about the memories made on this drive HERE.
All in all Monterey was not what was expected but became so much more because of its surprises. It is a place that is often missed on British travellers Californian trips but, from experience, it shouldn't be.