This town is the real star of 'Big Little Lies'

California peninsula has chance to shine

By Katia Hetter, CNN
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO via CNN

On Monday, star Reese Witherspoon shared a photo on Instagram of her and Dern in character on set in front of the fictitious Seaside Coffee Shop in Monterey, California.

(CNN) - Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley are the human stars of "Big Little Lies," the television adaptation of Liane Moriarty's story of the same name.

Originally set in a fictional Sydney, Australia, suburb, the story's setting was moved to California's Monterey Peninsula for the television series, and the location also plays a starring role on the show.

When Meryl Streep signed on to star in the second season, which premieres Sunday, June 9, on HBO, the peninsula got another chance to shine. (CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.)

Streep, who plays the mother of a character who died in the first season, isn't convinced the death was accidental, and her piercing gaze and pointed questions upset the balance of the newly-named "Monterey Five," the women who were all present at her son's death.

She carries her unease on her visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to the local cafes, to her daughter-in-law's house overlooking the ocean.

A sense of impending doom hangs over those rugged cliffs, the crashing waves and the sometimes foggy towns along California coast, and we wonder if Streep might uncover the truth behind her son's death.

"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," executive producer Gregg Fienberg told The Hollywood Reporter. "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."

The peninsula, which includes the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, among others, is already packed most of the year with visitors driving up or down the coast's iconic Route 1, spending a day at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and exploring Cannery Row made famous by John Steinbeck's book of the same name.

And many other movies and television shows have shot on location here. Now it's just a little more famous because of all the lies that were told in this tiny little bit of paradise.

 

Bixby Bridge and Highway 1, Big Sur

 

Bixby Bridge is one of the visual signs of the peninsula in the show's opening credits, and it also serves a local road for the rich and even richer families taking their children to their local elementary school. (In reality, it's 20 miles from the bridge to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.)

If you're heading north from Los Angeles on coastal Highway 1 to Monterey, stop in a pullout in Big Sur to take pictures of one of California's most beautiful bridges among the stunning cliffs and Bixby Creek Canyon.

We're not sure if the show's stars ate there, but Nepenthe in Big Sur is a great place to get an ambrosia burger and triple berry pie.

 

Garraparta State Park and Beach, Big Sur

 

Production designers from the show added new stairs to Garrapata State Park, where some scenes showing the cliffs, powerful Pacific Ocean waves and lovely shoreline were shot. It's also where wildflowers are in season during spring and summer. Tourism officials recommend the western coastal trail that begins at gate 19 off Highway 1.

 

Old Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey

 

There's no doubt that Old Fisherman's Wharf in downtown Monterey is a tourist trap, with lots of T-shirts, chocolates and tchotchkes for sale. But it's also the perfect place to have some Italian food on the water at Paluca Trattoria, which inspired the Blue Blues, the fictional café where the show's main characters gathered for coffee and the occasional battle during season one. (Blue Blues exists only on a sound stage in Los Angeles.)

 

Wait, that coffee joint isn't real?

 

Forget the fictional Blue Blues. Witherspoon, who also served as co-executive producer on the show, has been spotted in Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove, a café serving breakfast and lunch, along with house-made jams, pickled goods and shrubs for sale.

Our current favorites are strawberry summer jam and the oh-so-tart pink grapefruit marmalade. And if you look carefully as you're watching the first episodes of season 2, you can spot Happy Girl jam jars in Madeline Martha Mackenzie's (Witherspoon's character) kitchen.

 

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey

 

This world-famous aquarium, where one character works during the second season, is home to more than 35,000 plants and animals representing more than 550 species found locally and in other marine habitats around the world.

Nearly 200 galleries and exhibits are open to the public, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a leader in several key conservation efforts. It is the only aquarium to have introduced rescued sea otter pups to the wild using a surrogacy program and to build a living kelp forest exhibit (which is fed by incoming ocean water).

Get there before the aquarium opens: It's often packed daily just an hour after opening. And check local hotels for discounts, or consider becoming a member if you're planning on visiting more than once annually.

 

Lover's Point Park, Pacific Grove

 

Lovers Point State Marine Reserve has served as the set for several scenes, starting with the first episode when Witherspoon's character, Madeline, meets Jane, played by Shailene Woodley. For locals, Lovers Point Park has long been a place to hang out, picnic above the beach and swim -- and even pose for wedding pictures.

 

Del Monte Beach, Monterey

 

A beach popular with locals for swimming, sunbathing and surfing, Del Monte Beach is part of Monterey State Beach. The show had a lot of joyous and dramatic running and dancing along the beach, and this is where some of those scenes were filmed. Visitors can just pack a bathing suit, towel, sunblock and some water.

 

Other joints we like

 

If you prefer a hole in the wall for breakfast or some really great tacos for lunch, we know where to go (and where the stars should go too). Tucked into the back of a strip mall in nearby Seaside, The Breakfast Club has the best no-frills pancakes and breakfasts in the peninsula. There will be a line, of course. Just grab a cup of coffee and wait. Papa Chano's is favorite hole-in-the-wall taco joint in Monterey. Again, no frills but great tacos.

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