You think you know Carmel. Quaint with a dash of Clint, right? It’s about time to find out what you’ve been missing.
Carmel lures visitors each February with big events. Duffers and celebrity-watchers check in for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament, while epicures flock to The Masters of Food and Wine, one of the country’s leading culinary happenings. But even if you don’t know a sand wedge from a sand dab, now is the time to see the fairy-tale hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the rustically classy Carmel Valley at their best. You’ll probably catch a little sun, the hills will be carpeted in green, and you just might discover that this region has more to offer than you ever imagined.
There’s lots to see in the one-gorgeous-square-mile city that is Carmel-by-the-Sea. But you probably knew that already. You may have already walked the pine needle–dusted streets lined with shops, restaurants, 120 art galleries, and countless Tudor cottages and Mediterranean villas. But have you ever stumbled into any of the 60 hidden courtyards? Let yourself get lost. The buildings are happy to assist: They have no street numbers. And bring a flashlight. To encourage stargazing, Carmel-by-the-Sea has no streetlights (how’s that for romantic?).
Take your time. Get out of the car. Lounge in the sidewalk cafés kept toasty warm by outdoor heaters. Browse the chic boutiques. And whatever you do, find the beach. It’s easy. Just follow the dogs. Carmel’s City Beach is one of the only California beaches to allow four-legged residents off leash. Even if dogs aren’t your best friends, this beach is a stunner: craggy rocks; surging surf; seagulls in aeries. And when you’ve gotten your fill of salty air, head east.
Just inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea lies its sultry cousin, Carmel Valley. This wine country-cum-art-colony has all the charm of better-known wine valleys—without the price tags or the theme park vibe. Carmel Valley is still rambling horse country, where real cowboys herd cattle and buy boots at the local western shop. And it has become a second-home magnet for artists and horse lovers from all over the world. With its perennially fog-free skies and more than 30 acres of flower-filled organic farms, Carmel Valley is a bohemian, bodacious pleasure for the senses.
So what are you waiting for?
Where to Stay
La Playa Hotel, Eighth and Camino Real, (800) 582-8900, www.laplayahotel.com, $175–$650.
This pink Mediterranean dowager is sprawling and elegant, yet hides gracefully behind billowing gardens on a side street near the ocean. La Playa (named for its views of the beach) is an old-time Carmel favorite, with a pretty restaurant, an intimate pool, and a tiny vest-pocket spa that promises to transform mind and body. The five private cottages, located close to the sea, are Carmel’s best-kept secret.
L’Auberge Carmel, Monte Verde at Seventh, (831) 624-8578, www.laubergecarmel.com, $250–$450.
The talk of the town, this rarefied new inn is just what Carmel needed: a full-service hotel oozing with elegance. Carved out of a 1929 adobe-style building in a prime location, sumptuous rooms are draped in red brocade fabric and outfitted with stunning dark wood furniture and plasma screen TVs. Rooms overlook the sea (a few short blocks away) or a picturesque brick courtyard hiding within. The maids in black-and-white frocks make L’Auberge Carmel feel more like a French manor than a California B&B. It’s the most European experience you’ll find in a town that’s not short on things Continental. The tiny restaurant at street level may become as much of a draw as the hotel.
Pine Inn, Ocean at Lincoln, (800) 228-3851, www.pine-inn.com, $135–$260.
Built in 1889, the Pine Inn is Carmel’s oldest inn. Behind the simple white stucco shell, the interior is ornate and old-fashioned. Stepping into the lobby is like walking back in time. Many rooms offer sea views. Il Fornaio, the famed Bay Area Italian restaurant franchise, occupies the street level.
Tradewinds Inn, Mission at Third, (831) 624-2776, www.tradewindsinn.com, $195–$325.
Occident meets Orient at this tastefully remodeled inn. Tropical gardens whisper. Japanese silks drape the beds. And the views make you think you just might be able to see all the way to Asia. Years ago, Tradewinds was the favorite of Bing Crosby’s family. More recent visitors include Viggo Mortensen, star of The Lord of the Rings movies and Hidalgo, who was probably more interested in Carmel’s world-class horse country than in its world-class fairways.
In Carmel Valley
Bernardus Lodge, 415 Carmel Valley Rd., (831) 658-3400, www.bernardus.com, $375–$1,045.
Just five years ago, Bernardus Lodge put Carmel Valley on the map. Well-heeled travelers flock to this cluster of handsome rust-and-ochre buildings surrounded by rose gardens, vineyards, and even a formal croquet lawn. The spa is first-rate, rivaled only by the perfection of the dining room, Marinus, named by Zagat as the top restaurant in the Bay Area. Vintage wine (Bernardus’s own label) is served to arriving guests in a picturesque lobby that’s as lovely as the views it offers of the valley.
Los Laureles Lodge, 313 W. Carmel Valley Rd., (831) 659-2233, www.loslaureles.com, $95–$460.
This gem of a place is old Carmel Valley at its best. White picket fences and country cottages with comfortable, updated rooms and suites stretch out across acres of rambling ranch land. It’s a wedding snapshot with chintz and lace. The staff will ply you with tales of local lore, especially if you stop in for the live music performed in the restaurant/bar on the weekends.
Quail Lodge, 8205 Valley Greens Dr., (831) 624-2888, (888) 828-8787, www.quail lodge.com, $275–$755.
Surrounded by swathes of green grass at the foot of Carmel Valley, Quail Lodge draws duffers with its world-class golf course. The just-completed $25 million renovation added a wellness center and a spa (with outdoor treatment rooms) to the roster of amenities at this full-service resort. Rooms are spacious and a lot sexier than they used to be (some bathrooms sport fabulous copper sinks and window seats). Still, Quail is popular with the corporate crowd.
In Carmel Highlands
Park Hyatt Carmel, Highlands Inn, 120 Highlands Dr., four miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea on Highway 1, (831) 620-1234, www.highlandsinn.hyatt.com, $225–$685.
Set on a rocky bluff above the coastline, this luxurious hotel is home to the annual Masters of Food and Wine, the culinary equivalent of the golf world’s pro-am. Winemakers and chefs from all over the world gather to prepare feasts that you’ll remember with relish as you soak in the Jacuzzi in your exquisitely comfortable room. This year’s Masters of Food and Wine takes place February 17–20.
Where to Wine and Dine
Café Rustica, 10 Del Fino Pl., Carmel Valley, (831) 659-4444, $$.
Exactly what its name suggests. Rustic Mediterranean food served with style in the cozy dining room or on the bustling outdoor patio. A favorite of local author Jane Smiley.
Casanova, Fifth between San Carlos and Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, (831) 625-0501, $$$.
Locals crowd the bustling courtyard tables for lunch, when the prices are lower, but whenever you go, the authentic sights and flavors of France await you. The Mediterranean casserole with saffron and shellfish tastes like a slice of Provence, especially when served by long-aproned waiters scurrying among the many rooms of this bohemian labyrinth. Tile panels and colorful ceramics brighten dark rooms where romance is on everyone’s mind. The wine list is first-rate, featuring rare bottles, such as the La Tache Romanée Conti.
Grasing’s, Sixth and Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, (831) 624-6562, $$.
A longtime local favorite co-owned by chef Kurt Grasing and Berkeley’s own KCBS radio food personality Narsai David, this casual restaurant serves up light, flavorful "Coastal Cuisine" in small rooms splashed with colorful abstract paintings. Try Kurt’s four-onion tart with creamy fennel sauce or lobster "risotto" made with pearl pasta and crunchy corn. And don’t miss his newest venture, The Carmel Chop House, Fifth and San Carlos, (831) 625-1199, $$$.
L’Auberge Carmel, Monte Verde at Seventh, Carmel-by-the-Sea, (831) 624-8578, $$$$.
Time and money are what you’ll need—in excess—at this dazzling new restaurant in the hotel of the same name. Chef Walter Manzke has trained with the best, from Alain Ducasse in France to Joachim Splichal at L.A.’s Patina. The prix-fixe menu changes nightly and includes up to 18 courses that may be paired with a remarkable selection of French and California wines. Course after course, tiny, delicate bites—you might taste Arctic char (a cousin of salmon) with Monterey abalone, diver scallop sashimi, and Kobe beef pot-au-feu—keep coming in a culinary experience reminiscent of The French Laundry. With only 12 tables, it may be the most intimate dining room on the California coast.
Also try Manzke’s Bouchée Restaurant & Wine Bar, on Mission between Ocean and Seventh, (831) 626-7880, $$$.
Marinus at Bernardus Lodge, 415 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, (831) 658-3400, $$$$.
Snuggling by the roaring fire at Marinus, you can understand why Zagat rated this restaurant No. 1 in the Bay Area. The just-one-more-bite cuisine fashioned by star chef Cal Stamenov is unforgettable. Try the scallop Wellington with foie gras and wild mushrooms in puff pastry, or the Sonoma duck with fig confit and a port wine reduction. A special-occasion restaurant where dreams are no less than edible.
Will’s Fargo, 16 West Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, (831) 659-2774, $$.
Not a bank, but a saloon created in the ’50s by a man named Will. Today, the history lives on at this top-notch steak house, which serves up lots of atmosphere and great food. Run by the people who made Bernardus Lodge what it is.
Bernardus Winery and Vineyard, 5 West Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, (800) 223-2533, www.bernardus.com.
Elegant Carmel Valley tasting room. Sample a range of wines from Chardonnay to Marinus, a Bordeaux blend.
Château Julien Wine Estate, 8940 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel, (831) 624-2600, www.chateaujulien.com.
Heading east on Carmel Valley Road, Château Julien is the first winery you see, and seeing is believing. The spectacular, turreted building is a replica of a castle on the French–Swiss border. Château Julien is best known for its Cabernet blends—consistently good performers. Stop by for a great tour and a taste.
Georis Winery and Corkscrew Café,
4 Pilot Rd., Carmel Valley, (831) 659-1050, www.georiswine.com.
One of the owners of Casanova restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the artistic Walter Georis runs this eclectic winery/restaurant with his wife, Sylvia. Don’t miss the whimsical tasting room hidden behind the gardens. Across Pilot Road, look for Georis’s newest creation: a gallery/community art center.
Heller Estate, 69 W. Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, (831) 659-6220, www.hellerestate.com.
Come for the wines and stay for the sculpture, or vice versa. They’re equally seductive. Park next to the dancing bronze at the tasting room near the entrance to Carmel Valley Village and sample some well-crafted wines, all made from certified organic grapes. Pack a picnic lunch from your hotel and get lost in the secret sculpture garden out back.
Talbott Vineyards, 53 West Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, (831) 659-3500, www.talbottvineyards.com.
This premium producer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has a loyal following. Classic Burgundian varietals yield dramatic results in the Santa Lucia Highlands, where much of Carmel Valley wine is grown. Ask for the Cuvée Audrey.
Where to Shop
A Great Place, Dolores between Ocean and Seventh, (831) 620-1903. Darling new collectibles store. Treasures for home and garden.
B. Real, Mission Patio between Fifth and Sixth, (831) 625-6234. A gorgeous women’s clothing boutique with real-world prices.
Carmel Bay Company, Ocean and Lincoln, (831) 624-3868. Old-time village store with collectibles, puppets, rattan trunks, antique pottery, and Chinese furniture.
Diggidy Dog, Mission and Ocean, (831) 625-1585. Everything for the pampered pet.
GBG (Girl Boy Girl), Court of the Fountains, on Mission between Ocean and Seventh, (831) 626-3368. "Gourmet Women’s Clothing" for the young and hip.
Jan de Luz, Dolores between Ocean and Seventh, (831) 622-7621. Limestone fireplaces, chandeliers, and a stunning selection of French linens (monogramming available).
Madrigal, Ocean between Junipero and Mission, (831) 624-3477. Ultra-upscale, made-in-Italy women’s clothing from Etro and Cambio; cashmere and silk. Oprah Winfrey shopped here.
Pacific Rim, San Carlos and Seventh, (831) 625-5475. Upscale women’s clothing and accessories with a distinctive international flair.
In Carmel Valley
Earthbound Farm, 7250 Carmel Valley Rd., (831)
625-6219. Just a few miles into Carmel Valley, you’ll find North
America’s largest organic produce grower. (You know, the people who put
that baby lettuce in a bag.) Earthbound’s Farm Stand offers organic
produce year-round; the Organic Kitchen dishes up soups and salads made
from the sweetest veggies this side of heaven. Look for its Saturday
programs—Harvest Walks, Flower Walks, Chef Walks, and Bug Walks—when
you can step in stride with the locals by plucking your own organic
greens and veggies from 30 acres of pristine gardens.
Jan de Luz, 1 and 4 E. Carmel Valley Rd., (831) 659-7966. Everything to renovate your French chateau, including stone mantels and lion’s head fountains.
Kim3, 25 Pilot Rd., (831) 659-1360, www.kim3.com. The bright-red London phone booths in the yard are just the beginning of chic at this upscale furnishings store.
The Pot Farm, 8 Pilot Rd., (831) 659-1564. Eclectic outdoor shop, busting with ceramics and furniture for home and garden.
Sally Russell, 1 W. Carmel Valley Rd., (831) 659-5333. A hip purveyor of fashion accessories and "couture ceramics" (lime-green polka-dot plates, anyone?). This designer is one to watch.
Where to Wander
Scenic Drive (the coastal road) leads you to Carmel River State Beach. Head downhill from almost any point in town and you will eventually find yourself on the coastal path that parallels Scenic Drive. Follow the path southward, passing Carmel’s waterfront cottages, until it ends. Continue on Scenic Drive, winding around until you reach the beach, where the Carmel River meets Monterey Bay. Billowing dunes, quiet expanses of sand, and a lagoon bird sanctuary await you.
In Carmel Valley
The trailheads from the Garland Ranch Regional Park deliver gentle switchback turns through chaparral grasslands and slopes of manzanita, coyote bush, and bay laurel, and, if you time it right, a blanket of blooming wildflowers. The main entrance to the park is 8.6 miles east of Highway 1 on Carmel Valley Road.
The Holman Ranch, 60 Holman Ranch Rd. off Carmel Valley Rd., (831) 659-6054, www.holmanranch.com.
Guided trail rides for all skill levels traverse the Holman Ranch’s 400
acres, offering views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Salinas and
Carmel Valleys. One-hour rides are $50 per person.
Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, Portola Rd. and Alva La., Pebble Beach, (831) 624-2756, www.ridepebblebeach.com. Climb sand dunes for ocean views or walk along the beach on a group or private tour.