Pret-a-Reporter

How to Do Monterey, California, Like HBO's 'Big Little Lies'

Hilary Bronwyn/HBO
'Big Little Lies'

The idyllic Central Coast town is just as much a star of the show as Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley.

The star-studded cast of HBO’s Big Little Lies is not only made up of iconic blondes and big-screen beauties — it also features a different type of head-turning character — the town and area surrounding Monterey, California. The golden Central Coast county was chosen in lieu of the wealthy, upscale, beautiful city in Australia where the book is set, according to executive producer Gregg Fienberg, because "We wanted to make an American version of the story, and specifically in California, as it matches the feel and tone of the book’s locale. Monterey is one of the most beautiful areas in the world, and probably the most beautiful spot on the California coastline, so it was the perfect match."

Indeed, in a behind-the-scenes clip, Nicole Kidman, perched on a cliffside above the beach, effuses, "This is glorious, this is not work," and co-star Reese Witherspoon snaps a photo with her phone of the view she calls "so pretty." Big Little Lies also stars Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz. The appeal to shoot there, says Fienberg, was its flawlessness. "The story is about a seemingly perfect town with seemingly perfect people who clearly have much darker sides to them than what appears on the surface of their lives, so we needed a place that seemed idyllic and perfect and wonderful to help push the critical elements of the storytelling, namely setting the drama against an absolutely stunning backdrop." Slow-motion waves crashing dramatically against boulders can also feel a little sinister compared to picturesque Pacific vistas and beach runs. 

For fans of the series, a long weekend spent visiting filming locations is easy thanks to a new virtual tour available for free with a download of the iTourMobile app (search for the Big Little Lies tour in Monterey, CA). But even without the app's help, some scenery is instantly recognizable. Even the Monterey Peninsula Airport (where one can fly directly from L.A. in just over an hour) makes an appearance in later episodes.

Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove — a 4.4-acre groomed park and shoreline that regularly draws surfers, kayakers, divers, beach volleyball players and picnickers — is one iconic spot where Fienberg says they filmed some important scenes that "set the tone for the beauty of the locale." Another great spot for fans to visit: Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf, where sea lions and otters play in the harbor. They filmed a good bit there, since it is where Madeline, played by Witherspoon, and her stay-at-home-mom girlfriends convene frequently for coffee after drop-off at school. "The pier is pretty fun and will be recognizable," says Fienberg. Locals love Big Fish Grill for lunch, and the rooftop for sunset cocktails and dinner with impeccable views.

Residences in the Carmel Highlands were used as the characters' homes, and the expansive views from the 100-year-old Hyatt Carmel Highlands’ brand-new 870-square-foot rooftop deck are exactly the same, without the price tag. (Go for coffee, cocktails or a meal with dramatic Big Sur views.) And the Monterey Bay Aquarium — one of the country's leading marine life institutions, with 35,000 creatures representing more than 550 species — makes a cameo, too. Nearby, Cannery Row, which was first made famous by John Steinbeck's novel of the same name, is worth a stroll. Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa offers tours of the original Tevis Estate, and visitors can do like Witherspoon's Madeline and Kidman's Celeste in the second episode and have a cocktail by one of the fire pits.

A few short road trips also make sense when plotting the path of the Big Little Lies crew. Fienberg recommends the scenic 17-Mile Drive, which winds along Pebble Beach, by mansions and world-renowned golf greens. "There's not a more beautiful drive on the planet." And travel along Highway One to Bixby Bridge, where you can pull over oceanside for the classic Big Sur shot. Lunch at Nepenthe, and hike around Garrapata State Beach — "a great spot where we shot as well," says the producer — for epic vistas. And the area's ultimate dinner destination is The Restaurant at Ventana, where local seasonal ingredients are used in creative, ever-evolving menus. They also shot scenes along Ocean View Boulevard, near Point Pinos Lighthouse, which has been operating since 1855 and is en route to a spectacular sunset, down Sunset Drive.

The series was filmed exclusively in Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel Highlands and Big Sur in January and May 2016, and has to date generated $2.5 million for the region. It pays to be pretty. Says Fienberg, "Honestly, just about anywhere you point the camera up there is gorgeous."

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