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The Monterey Peninsula meets the Pacific Ocean in a jagged coastline sprayed with sea mist, bursting with colored flowers, and backed by rugged mountains. For nearly 400 years, the area has inspired writers, artists and more recently photographers, to capture its essence.

Part of the National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay is home to sea otters, seals, sea lions and a variety of aquatic birds. A hike along the shoreline trail will reward you with frequent sightings of these sea animals, along with great scenery.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium deserves the drive south all by itself, while the nearby galleries, shops and restaurants at Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are also a major lure for visitors.

Galleries, shops and restaurants also abound in picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea just to the south, also a destination for its charming beach.

If you’d like to enjoy the beauty of the county’s coast without having to leave your car, 17-Mile Drive is the route of choice. This spectacular drive offers some of the best views of the coast as it winds through Pebble Beach from Pacific Grove to Carmel; along the way, you’ll drive past stately mansions and the world-renowned Pebble Beach Golf Links. Highlights include the Cypress Point Lookout with its magnificent views of the Big Sur coastline and the Lone Cypress—a 200-year-old tree whose tenacious hold on the rocks has inspired countless artists.

Tucked next to Monterey is Pacific Grove, a quaint town sitting on a beautiful stretch of the Monterey Bay coastline. Pacific Grove is peppered with Victorian cottages and is a preferred winter haven for Monarch butterflies. Check out Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the West Coast. The town is filled with dining choices, from cozy breakfast spots to high-end cuisine. South of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a shopper’s paradise. Equally famed for its picturesque cottages,flower-bedecked gardens and silky white-sand beach as for its boutiques, galleries and restaurants, Carmel begs to be explored on foot. The town’s earliest historic site, Carmel Mission (3080 Rio Rd.; 831/624-1271), is one of the loveliest of all California missions.

Head inland to Carmel Valley to enjoy a beautiful rural landscape; stop en route at one of several wineries to taste some of the finest fruits of the vine. With close to 85 wineries in all, Monterey County is one of the largest wine regions in the country. (Call 831/375-9400 for more information.) Hikers will revel in the beauty of Garland Ranch Regional Park, with trails for all abilities set among more than 4,500 acres that include a redwood canyon and the Carmel River.

More time on your hands? Then head south along Highway 1 to dramatic Big Sur, a 26-mile stretch of coastline winding through steep canyons and along seaside cliffs. The northern gateway is just south of Carmel at Point Lobos State Reserve, popular for its scenic walking trails. Within Big Sur, places to stop include Andrew Molera State Park (where the Big Sur River enters the ocean), Pfeiffer Beach and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where an 80-foot waterfall cascades into the ocean.