With a big birthday sneaking (well, galloping) up on us, two dear friends and I wanted to travel someplace in the U.S. where we could enjoy both a serene, gorgeous area and a nearby big city. One would, hopefully, be just right for our yearning for a slower-paced, peaceful atmosphere, and the other would satisfy our still-energetic selves for the last two days of our trip.

As we approached this milestone birthday, we realized we'd become more two-sided than ever - one side in bed by 9 p.m. and immersed in grandparenthood, the other side still active and excited to explore. We found the perfect combination, Carmel and San Francisco, and consulted TripAdvisor for hotels and restaurants. Two of us would share a room, so we needed two beds in one room. Other considerations? Price, continental breakfast (and happy hour), central location - and a little charm. We found all these and more: an inn three blocks from the ocean in Carmel, and a small hotel near Union Square in San Francisco.

We rented a car at the San Francisco airport and headed south to Carmel. Coming back in three days, we returned the car to the airport and took a shuttle into the city - no parking worries, no additional rental days, no hassle. A good choice.

We loved Carmel's charm (and cool climate) and the range of excursions that were spectacular but that didn't take all day; there was still time for early-morning beach walks, and a little down time in the late afternoon.

Going early for both parking ease and fewer crowds, we enjoyed the world-renowned (and rightly so) Monterey Bay Aquarium for five hours the first day. We later had time for a leisurely cruise along 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, stopping often for photos of the sea and the rocks enveloped in spray and crashing waves.

The next day, we ventured 30 miles down Highway 1 through a portion of Big Sur to the Nepenthe restaurant for a burger and a beer. Friends encouraged us to stop there, and we were thrilled we did; the food, views, and laid-back California ambience were perfect. Again, we took photo after photo of stunning scenery: fog, cliffs, waves churning way below us.

Everything seemed to go our way: parking places miraculously waiting for us; suddenly empty tables at cozy restaurants that were booked when we originally called for reservations; a bakery with coffee and croissants opening early one day, just in time for our daily walk.

It took us an afternoon to adjust to the pace and people of San Francisco when we arrived for our last two days. But we were soon tramping up and down the hills, enjoying the farmers' market and a craft fair at the Ferry Building, riding one of the only cable-car routes with no lines, enjoying a frothy gin fizz at the Buena Vista cafe, and exploring the side streets of Chinatown. We were nicely exhausted, with a few new blisters and more photos and memories.

By trip's end, we were excited about our approaching birthdays, knowing our "two sides" could coexist with ease.

Nancy Rasmussen writes from Philadelphia.

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