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The Perfect Santa Lucia Highlands Itinerary for First-Time Visitors

Discover Santa Lucia Highlands: A First-Timer's Dream Itinerary

By Alicia Tenise Chew

May 2024

Santa Lucia Highlands is a beautiful wine-growing region in Monterey County, California. This area is known for its stunning views, cool climate, and exceptional wines. Many renowned wineries across California in the region produce some of the country's most delicious Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs from the region’s grapes. 

People from all over the world, drawn by the exclusivity of Santa Lucia Highlands wines, visit this region to experience its unique terroir. Whether you are a wine enthusiast or a casual drinker, Santa Lucia Highlands is a must-visit destination that offers an unforgettable experience.

Want to explore this esteemed wine region? Here is the perfect Santa Lucia Highlands itinerary for first-time visitors.

Getting Here and Getting Around

The Santa Lucia Highlands are about 45 minutes from Monterey and 2 hours from San Francisco. Many member tasting rooms are located in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley Village. 

If you're traveling from outside of Northern California, rest assured that getting here is easy. The most accessible and convenient way to travel to the region is to fly to Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), which is served by a limited number of airlines. Alternatively, you can fly into either San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), or San Jose International (SJC), rent a car, and drive the rest of the way.

While Uber and Lyft do operate in the area, I would not rely on rideshare to bring you out to Carmel Valley Village or the vineyards south of Salinas. To ensure your safety and the safety of others, I recommend renting a car and having a designated driver to travel between wineries.

The Perfect Itinerary for First-Time Visitors

Day 1:

Arrive at Carmel-by-the-Sea, and take a drive down the scenic 17 Mile Drive along the coast. Head to Caraccioli Cellars Wine Tasting Room in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a family-owned and operated winery known for its exquisite sparkling wines and complex, yet elegant Pinot Noirs. 

Some dinner options you can walk to: La Balena for Italian, Flaherty's Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar for the fresh catch of the day, Cultura Comida y Bebida to enjoy Mexican cuisine, or Dametra Cafe for Mediterranean dishes.  Check in to Carmel Mission Inn, a fantastic home base for a few days of wine tasting. 

Day 2: 

Head to Bernardus Lodge and enjoy a relaxing massage or rejuvenating facial at their luxurious spa. Then, enjoy a delicious breakfast at their on-site restaurant, Lucia Restaurant and Bar.

It's time for your first wine tasting of the day at Corral Wine Co. in Carmel Valley Village. Reservations aren't required here, but if you book one, you will receive two (2) tastings half off. This family-owned winery claims it's "not fancy," but it makes fantastic wine. Grab some lunch at either Plaza Linda or Cafe Rustica — and drink plenty of water between wineries. Return to Carmel-by-the-Sea and stop by the Wrath Wines Tasting Room to try their renowned Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc. Stroll around Carmel-by-the-Sea and visit the local shops and boutiques. Most of the stores in this neighborhood will close at 6 PM, so plan accordingly!

 Enjoy a nice dinner at Seventh & Dolores. This innovative, modern American steakhouse is dedicated to sourcing its meat sustainably.

Day 3:

Stop by Pangea Grill for a quick yet filling breakfast before a day of wine tasting. This restaurant is known for its Asian fusion dishes, and they do a beautiful job of meshing authentic Eastern and Western flavors. Their breakfast offers a wide range of dishes, and there's something for everyone in your group to enjoy.

Venture over the mountain and see the vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands for yourself. Drive to Salinas, CA along River Road (about a 45-minute drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea), and enjoy a wine tasting in the 100-year-old barn at Rustique Wines. Here, you can enjoy exquisite Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the most beautiful vineyard views. (Note: this winery is open from Friday-Sunday)

Return to the Carmel Valley Village and spend the rest of the afternoon at a winery fit for royalty. Folktale Winery and Vineyards is one of the most popular vineyards to visit in the area: it is a family-friendly tasting room with a full-service restaurant, they offer live music on the weekends, and they are known for their bright, acidic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Enjoy dinner in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Our recommendations include La Balena (Italian), Flaherty's Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar, Cultura Comida y Bebida (Mexican), or Dametra Cafe (Mediterranean). 

Day 4: 

Make a reservation and have brunch at Stationæry Restaurant, a popular restaurant among locals and tourists. 

Enjoy one last wine tasting at Morgan Double L Vineyard's tasting room across the street from Carmel Mission Inn. This winery is known for its organic farming practices and minimalist winemaking and produces some of the most elegant wines in the area.

We hope this itinerary has given you a good idea of what to expect from a trip to Santa Lucia Highlands and has inspired you to start planning your wine-tasting adventure. Remember to drink responsibly and always have a designated driver if you drive between wineries. 

This region is truly a gem of California's Central Coast, and we are confident that you will fall in love with the stunning views, exceptional wines, and warm hospitality of the people who call this place home. Cheers to a memorable experience in Santa Lucia Highlands!


About the Author

Alicia Tenise Chew is a lifestyle blogger and former East Coaster now based in LA. On her blog, Alicia Tenise, she writes about entertainment, fashion, beauty, food and drink, and travel. She is the author of From Harvest to Home.

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