Carmel-by-the-Sea. Could there be a more romantic-sounding city name? Even without knowing anything about the place, the lyrical name tickles the imagination. Long a haunt of celebrities, artists, and writers, this tiny 1-square on California’s Monterey Peninsula whisks visitors into a dreamy alternate universe of fairytale cottages, secret courtyards, and natural beauty shrouded in a close-growing urban forest of pine groves and gnarled cypress.
Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to lay eyes on the white sands of Carmel Beach in the mid-1500s, followed by Father Junipero Serra in 1771, who established the Mission San Carlos de Borromeo on a picturesque bluff overlooking the bay. In the early 1900s, the city’s founders advertised Carmel as a welcome haven for writers, artists, and intellectuals. Over the years, everyone from painter Salvador Dali to actor Clint Eastwood has called the hamlet home.
Hugh Comstock began building Carmel’s iconic English village cottages in the 1920s, beginning with the Tuft House, designed to showcase his wife’s Otsy Totsy doll collection. Strolling through the neighborhoods, one spots similar cottage styles next to modern renditions. Many bear quirky names — often the original, as it’s considered bad luck to change it. Interestingly, no house numbers are present. Residents must go to the central post office to pick up mail, which serves as a social hub for locals.
Get a Room
More than 40 inns dot the town, and the nonprofit Carmel Innkeepers Association takes turns year-round to ensure every visitor gets a room. No inn will post a “no vacancy” sign unless every room in the village is filled. It’s hard to go wrong when selecting accommodations, but Carmel Country Inn, La Playa Carmel, and L’Auberge Carmel are great options. Wherever you stay, make sure to take a blanket and a bottle of wine down to the beach to watch the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean.
The Wine Scene
Carmel-by-the-Sea has a robust wine-tasting scene thanks to the verdant vineyards throughout Carmel Valley. The region is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, but toward the hotter end of the valley farthest from the damp ocean air grow Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more. Pick up a Carmel Wine Walk tasting pass at the Visitors’ Center ($65) for flights at any nine of the 15 tasting rooms. At Caraccioli Cellars, sip on sparkling brut cuvée and French-style Pinot Noir, or plop down in the cowboy-boot lounge chair at Galante Vineyards for a Malbec redolent of boysenberry, violet, and leather.
Rich in Art
Art enthusiasts will think they’ve died and gone to gallery heaven, as more than 80 studios and galleries vie for space with boutique retail shops like the Scarf Gallery and White Rabbit (dedicated to all things Alice in Wonderland — locally crafted backwards-running clocks, décor, jewelry, etc.). Dining in Carmel is a lesson in fresh seafood, from Monterey Bay and locally grown produce from the Salinas Valley. Chef Justin Cogley coaxes delicate flavors from California products in a nightly changing eight-course tasting menu at Aubergine. The hotly anticipated CULTURA comida y bebida opened in 2016, serving Oaxacan-inspired dishes; the chorizo queso fundido crowned with flaming mezcal is a must-order, along with any of the mezcal-based cocktails.
Quick Adventures Nearby
Day trips are a great way to see the beautiful surrounding countryside. On the way out of town to the south, the Carmel Mission (actually called the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission) is a step back in time. Simple rustic wooden pews line the chapel of this working parish. A few more miles south of Carmel on Highway 1 is the crown jewel of California State Parks. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers visitors scenic trails, breathtaking ocean vistas, and wildlife encounters. There is a $10 entrance fee per car. Continue down Highway 1 for about 25 miles to experience the awesome panoramic seascape at Big Sur. Stop for a photo of the famous Bixby Bridge, and look out for the powerful wind at the aptly named Hurricane Point.
For a wine-focused side trip, venture into nearby Carmel Valley, where locals go to see the sun on foggy summer days closer to the beach. The sleepy little farm burg livens up on the weekends, when visitors flock to tasting rooms and lunch dates. Holman Ranch Vineyards’ tasting room is conveniently located downtown, but the 30-acre estate vineyard is just up the hill. The 400-acre working ranch was once part of a 5,000-acre parcel of land gifted by the Spanish Crown to the Catholic Church. It is currently a sought-after event venue and hosts many weddings each year.
Get a glimpse of the top 1 percent with a car tour through 17-Mile Drive, accessible via a gate at the north end of Carmel Beach. There is a $10 cash-only entrance fee for the privilege of laying eyes on some of the most expensive homes in the country. Several world-famous golf courses (like Pebble Beach) sprawl throughout the narrow peninsula. Fantastic natural sights include the much-photographed Lone Cypress and the most astounding piece of shoreline at Asilomar Beach. Continue out of the north gate into Pacific Grove for dinner at Passionfish — one of the pioneer establishments championing the cause of sustainable seafood, and featuring hard-to-find wines at just over retail prices (talk about a happy find!).
Not to be missed, the city of Monterey sports a casual wide-open feel. Cannery Row, former home of fish and whale processing plants and title of John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, is like a mini San Francisco fisherman’s wharf. Expect tchotchke shops and overpriced tourist-themed restaurants. But, definitely save some time and money ($50/adult; $30/child) for the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium made even more famous after the release of Finding Dory. A whole trip could be devoted to just this one attraction.
Or experience the bay firsthand with a Monterey Bay Kayaks 2 1/2 hour guided tour. Row solo or tandem (kids as young as three can ride with a parent) through the docks and into open water where sea lions bark and roll for dominance, sea otters nap with babies on their chests, and kelp forests hide fish hunted by scores of sea birds. Stop for a cocktail or beer at the Sandbar and Grill located on the dock within a couple of minutes’ walk. And be sure to dust off the term “rad” so your kayak guide will understand you.