Monterey, Carmel & Big Sur: Locations for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” offer a romantic, West Coast getaway on an actual budget
Another season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and the mental vacation of living in Monterey has fans swooning. I shamelessly soak up these complicated, flawed, fictional women’s lives.
I was smitten by the original HBO series. My husband even arranged a short escape for us to Monterey and Big Sur after season 1 aired.
And, there’s good reason “Big Little Lies” producers chose Monterey for Liane Moriarty’s seaside suspense. This place oozes Central California coast perfection. Fans feel they've walked onto a beautiful set of déjà vu; at any moment they could bump into Madeline or Renata.
We spent just two nights on our parents-only getaway — 58 hours, Friday - Sunday. We had zero schedule and definitely didn’t have a Hollywood budget. (No, we didn’t hunt down set locations, though it is easy to internet search all of them, if you’re interested.) Instead, we hit the ground running, wandered for good food and planned only to relax and see Big Sur.
How to arrive
We flew from Portland, Oregon, into San Jose, rented a car and cranked some music for the 1-hour and fifteen minute drive through pastoral Salinas Valley (filled with fields of prairie grass, farms and California native oaks). You could stop at wineries along the way, but I was hell-bent on getting my feet in the sand, so we drove straight to Monterey.
WHERE TO STAY
My husband left the hotel details up to me to sort. (Because he knows I have hotel control issues . . . )
I wanted the Northern California beach vibe and Monterey Tides hotel fit my vision. It’s oceanfront just a few minutes north of Monterey on a perfectly empty stretch of Del Monte beach. This beach, I later discovered, was the location for some of the “running on the beach” scenes of “Big Little Lies”. While not a luxury accommodation, it is a stunningly updated mid-century gem on prime real estate with walk-up rooms boasting views overlooking the Pacific and the downtown lights of Monterey at night. It is quintessential California, big beachfront coastline.
As soon as we arrived, we grabbed a drink from the hotel bar and settled into the breezy, oceanfront patio.
California, we have arrived!
Nothing is walkable from this hotel - except miles of splendid Pacific Ocean beach. There’s a bar and restaurant on site and the drive to Monterey is just 10 minutes. The hotel also offers beach cruiser bikes for a short ride downtown on beach-side path. (Bikes $20, for 4 hours). Or, grab a bonfire on the beach kit from the front desk. ($35 for fire kit, $12 per person for smores kit). Request a top floor ocean view room. (Room rates $119 - $500+)
WHAT TO EAT
We phone-search-winged-it and landed at Hula’s Island Grill in downtown Monterey on the first night. The vibe is a throwback to the original tiki bars of the 50s and 60s — in the best way possible — with a strong modern hipster scene also going on. The island-inspired fusion food was incredible: poke bowls, ahi and fresh mai tais. The best part of the evening was waiting for our table at the restaurant’s secret speakeasy-style bar aptly called “Next Door” and located - “next door” - behind an unmarked entrance. You won’t mind waiting for your supper, here. (NextDoor is open with irregular hours, or as the busy nights hit.)
For our dinner on night two, we simply ducked into a grocery for wine, cheese, crackers and meats and had a romantic, sweatshirt-attired beach dinner on the sand in front of our hotel. It was all we wanted. Plus, this is definitely not chumpy wine country. Loads of winning bottles to pair with a sunset.
WHAT TO SEE
We are surfers and hikers and active outdoorsy parents. But this weekend was about relaxing. That said, my brief sight-seeing recommendations are really for a quick trip to the area. This is just a starter list:
MONTEREY: Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Monterey Aquarium
(all locations in Big Little Lies Season 2) are tourist hot-spots, but on our first evening, we enjoyed simply walking the endless paths around Lovers Point (a definite spot for some Big Little Lies scenes) and then hopped in the car at sunset to drive around Asilomar State Beach leading to the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course. (Pebble Beach’s vista-rich, private 17-Mile Drive can also be accessed by car for just $10.50 or a meal at one of the restaurants. The famous drive stretches from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach.)
CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA: On Day two, we set out to see Big Sur and stopped for a wander through Carmel-By-The-Sea. Let’s be honest. This town seems like an imaginary place to live. It’s an artists’ colony with the perfect climate; plus Hansel and Gretel cottages dotting the neighborhood and dappled sunshine sprinkling everything. At the end of each street is friendly beach cove with happy kids and dogs. I felt like I was looking in on a Nancy Meyers movie set, but this village is one hundred percent real.
We explored Carmel’s downtown and easily found a little Italian bistro, Enzo, with outdoor seating for local wine and lunch - with an espresso chaser.
BIG SUR: Driving south from Carmel is when the coastal magic really happens. With the exception of Celeste’s house in “Big Little Lies”, the spectacular homes providing backdrop are actually in Los Angeles and Malibu. But that doesn’t mean the real star of the show - the drive itself - can’t keep you entranced.
Big Sur blew me away. I’m a native West Coast girl who grew up on the rugged Oregon Coast; arguably some of the prettiest coastline in the U.S.
Still, nothing prepared me for just how much I’d be humbled by the magnitude and beauty of Big Sur. She’s a doozy.
While there are hundreds of well-known vistas you could seek-out; my advice for seeing Big Sur is as follows:
Get in the car. Slap on your sunnies. Crank your best playlist.
When you see a beach or view you love. Stop (in a safe pullout).
Get out and stay as long as you want. Enjoy.
Repeat as many times as you want.
Drive as far as you feel like.
Turn around. Return to Monterey.
It is all that good.
Yes, you will see the Bixby Creek Bridge from the famous opening credits of Big Little Lies, but the access to it is touristy busy and a bit unsafe. (Though if you do, the pullout is on the north side of the bridge). Still, there’s no shortage of other breathtaking stops.
SANTA CRUZ: On our final day, we had a later flight out of San Jose, so we took the opportunity to drive up the coast to check out Santa Cruz. The beach scene here is more happening and more family-tastic, so it was perfect for a lunch stop and a chance to check out the wharf.
WHAT TO PACK
Clothing: Depending on where you’re visiting from, let it be known, the entire West Coast is decidedly casual. Particularly on the California coast. Jeans, shorts, tees and sweatshirts are appropriate any time of year. A dressier outfit for a nicer night out can be good. And it is actually never hot year-round. We were visiting in early May and layered clothes on and off throughout the day.
Useful Monterey & Big Sur Weekend Accoutrements:
Wine bottle opener and plastic glasses: Handy to keep with you anywhere in the vicinity of California wine country and the beach. (If you want to take it a step further, why not bring a tiny travel cutting board and plastic knife? You’ll thank me.)
A Great Road Trip Playlist: Let’s be 1994 again. It’s fun to pre-plan a playlist for your romantic scenic drives.
Small beach blanket: As easy to pack as a sweatshirt and elevates your weekend getaway game 100%. Who knows when you’ll want a kid-free, mid-day beach nap.
Hiking shoes: We did not do serious hiking (we were more into the afternoon naps this trip), but the option is there and hiking appropriate footwear could be good.
Other romantic activities in Monterey include kayaking, golfing (20 courses to choose from!), sailing cruises, wine tasting and more. Visit SeeMonterey.com for more information on all of these options.
(**Nothing was sponsored, nor has it been given to me for free or at any kind of discount for this article.)
I always love to hear other’s experiences, must-see stops and travel ideas — feel free to leave your comments and travel tips in the comments below ↓.