Vacationing in the Monterey Peninsula, California

In Monterey, a mural captures the atmosphere of nearby Cannery Row as spectators watch kayakers paddle on the bay. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times / August 16, 2011)

Clint Eastwood knows how to set a scene on screen or at Mission Ranch, his strikingly handsome hotel and restaurant in Carmel.

The hotel, a historic property, has a multimillion dollar view of the sea and beautiful grounds to match. Magenta bougainvillea spills from balconies, flowering pots decorate porches, huge cypress trees shade buildings and lawns. You'd expect a room to cost $500 a night or more.

So how about $120 a night?

Hard to believe, especially in a pricey tourist area like Carmel. But that's the starting rate for Eastwood's beautiful Mission Ranch, which he rescued from a developer.

Eastwood's hotel isn't the only find we discovered in the Monterey Peninsula on a recent visit. We scoured the region and unearthed five great hotels with rates beginning as low as $79 a night during the high season (summer) and $59 a night during the low season.

We also found 10 deliciously inexpensive restaurants where you can eat for $10 or less. To top it off, we list 15 free things to do, enough to keep a family happy for a weekend or a week.

Our penny-pinching tips include hotels and restaurants throughout the Monterey Peninsula, including Carmel and Carmel Valley, areas where hotel tariffs can be sky high. But you're too smart to pay those prices. So go ahead: Spend a few days with the high rollers. Just don't let them know how little it's costing you.

Five hotels that are super deals

1. Los Laureles Lodge

Looking for a great country escape? Los Laureles Lodge is the right place for you. The knotty pine-paneled rooms here were once stables for the horses of Muriel Vanderbilt Church Phelps Adams (yes, that Vanderbilt family). Now they're cozy accommodations. This California Historic Country Inn sits amid the oak-covered hills of scenic Carmel Valley. The grounds are expansive, with a pool and restaurant; the hotel is kid- and pet-friendly.

313 W. Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley; (800) 533-4404 or (831) 659-2233, http://www.loslaureles.com

Summer rates for doubles from $130 a night; off-season rates start at $100. Continental breakfast included.

2. Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant

While mayor of Carmel in the late '80s, Eastwood bought this historic property to save it from being turned into condos. Now he can sometimes be found in the restaurant's bar around 5 p.m. Eastwood restored the property, a ranch in the 1800s; it includes a farmhouse, bunkhouse and other original buildings. Rooms are small but charmingly furnished, and the property is beautiful.

26270 Dolores St., Carmel; (831) 624-6436, http://www.missionranchcarmel.com

Doubles from $120 a night year-round, including continental breakfast.

3. Butterfly Grove Inn

Take a step back in time for a super deal at Butterfly Grove Inn, a charming motor court-style motel that borders the monarch butterfly park in Pacific Grove. Baskets of flowering plants decorate the pink-and-white motel; it has a pool, and rooms are efficient and tidy. Another plus: It's close to Point Pinos Lighthouse and Sunset Drive, a scenic coastal byway.

1073 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove; (800) 337-9244, http://www.butterflygroveinn.com