Monterey County

Monterey County is full of surprises. It's a place of stunning natural beauty - from the sandy beaches of Carmel to the craggy shoreline of Big Sur.

You'll find major attractions, historical architecture, abundant wildlife, world-class golf, unique shops, wine-tasting rooms, fine restaurants, whale watching cruises, and plenty of opportunity to just sit back and relax.

We'll take a look at what the county has to offer, heading from north to south.

North County

In the northernmost corner of Monterey County is the tiny fishing village of Moss Landing, where you'll find all sorts of hidden treasures. There are numerous antique shops, art studios and restaurants.

Nature lovers will enjoy kayaking or birding at Elkhorn Slough, California's second largest tidal salt marsh. Take a guided tour of the Slough on a pontoon boat, or board a whale-watching cruise at Moss Landing Harbor.

There are three beaches in the Moss Landing area, characterized by sandy dunes and hazardous tides. Popular activities include fishing, clamming, surfing, windsurfing, horseback riding and picnicking.

The tiny burg of Castroville bills itself as the "Artichoke Center of the World," and the acres and acres of giant thistles are a sight to behold. The town hosts an Artichoke Festival in mid-May.

The first festival, held in 1959, featured Marilyn Monroe (then Norma Jean) as its first Artichoke Festival Queen. Not much doing here besides "chokes," but if you love this prickly vegetable, you might want to stop here for lunch.

Marina is a bustling community of some 21,000 residents, located six miles north of Monterey. The city is tucked behind the ancient sand dunes of Marina Dunes Preserve, which are accessible via a boardwalk at Marina State Beach.

The beach is a popular spot for hang-gliding, radio-controlled gliders and kites. An excellent hang-gliding school is located here, and Marina's small airport also offers sightseeing, helicopter, and skydiving flights.

Monterey Peninsula

The Monterey Peninsula offers spectacular scenery and varied recreational activities. Enjoy the sun and sand in Seaside and Sand City, or explore the coast on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, which runs 19 miles from Seaside to Pacific Grove. The section of trail in Pacific Grove is the most scenic.

The city of Monterey boasts world famous attractions, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. You'll also find beautifully preserved historic architecture, museums, galleries, fine dining and plentiful shopping.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the richest marine environments in the world. The variety of sea life is incredible, and you're sure to see harbor seals, sea lions, pelicans, sea otters -- and more. You can explore its wonders on a whale watching cruise, by boat or by kayak. There are many excellent diving and snorkeling spots.

Peaceful little Pacific Grove boasts some of the loveliest coastal scenery on the Peninsula. P.G., as it's known locally, bills itself as "Butterfly Town USA" in homage to the thousands of Monarch butterflies that overwinter here from late October to mid-March. You'll also find lovely Victorian homes and inns, quaint shops, and charming restaurants.

Pebble Beach is famous for its golf and its scenery. There are 7 golf courses, an equestrian center, kayak rentals, and the ever popular scenic 17 Mile Drive.

Carmel-by-the-Sea offers a charming "fairy-tale" village and beautiful white sand beaches. It's the hands-down choice for most romantic spot in Monterey County.

In nearby Carmel Valley, you'll find luxury golf resorts, wine tasting rooms, and a relaxed ranch-style atmosphere. It's considerably sunnier and warmer here than right along the coast.

Salinas Valley

Salinas Valley is the agricultural heartland of Monterey County. Salad lettuce is the main crop here, but you'll also find a number of award-winning wineries and tasting rooms.

Salinas is also home to the National Steinbeck Center, a 37,000 square foot museum honoring Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who was born a few blocks away in historic Old Town Salinas. You can take a walking tour through the streets described in Steinbeck's novels. The Steinbeck House is now a restaurant, and offers docent guided tours.

Big Sur

Big Sur is the most dramatic coastal area in Monterey County. Here, the mountains seem to drop into the sea, and Highway 1 winds in and out, hugging the edge of the precipice. This is a place to slow down and savor the views. And to that end, you'll find numerous scenic turnouts on Highway 1.

The only real attraction in Big Sur is nature itself -- stunning vistas, redwood forests, resinous hillsides of chaparral, woodland streams and waterfalls. Yes, there are some luxury inns and fine restaurants, art galleries and tourist shops -- but they all revolve around the grand scenery outside.

There are no real towns or cities in Big Sur, just loosely organized communities marked on a map. Big Sur is more a region than a town, extending from Carmel Highlands through Big Sur, Lucia, and Gorda. You won't find a lot of amenities here, and accommodations are limited. Camping, hiking and horseback riding are popular activities.