Smitten With Carmel-by-the-Sea

Sea, surf, starry skies meet modern luxuries in this seaside haven.


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Photo courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

Carmel-by-the-Sea causes trouble.

Not the usual townish trouble such as traffic jams and hours-long restaurant lines.

Sandwiched like California’s most luxurious cold cut between fragrant forest and pelican-heralded surf, this pocket-size paradise about a hundred miles south of Oakland triggers an enviably peculiar problem: Once you arrive, you run a high risk of never wanting to leave.

Then if and when you do leave, you run the risk of yearning to return — especially if you love art, the sea, symphonically starry skies, and a sense of serenity so sumptuously substantial that you could slice it with a locally blacksmithed blade and spread it on a croissant or cinnamon pretzel from Chef Pèpe’s Carmel Bakery & Coffee House, established in 1899.

Ohlone and Esselen tribespeople dwelt on this coast thousands of years before Spanish friars established Carmel Mission — where Junípero Serra died — in 1771. During the 1850s, a French businessman bought, then began selling bits of, what would become Carmel-by-the-Sea. Its natural beauty was especially irresistible to artists who, after the 1906 earthquake, numbered prominently among those ex-San Franciscans inundating the new village, securing home-sized swatches for only $10 down.

This high artist quotient gave Carmel-by-the-Sea its enduringly quirky craftsy-ness, manifesting in handcrafted homes lining its sometimes-sunny, sometimes-foggy lanes and looking like dollhouses, castles, and cliffs. Like all houses hereabouts, they’re designated not by numbered street addresses but by evocative names such as Kitty Korner, Peekaboo, and Go Away.

That craftsy-ness also imbues a lively local arts scene and the 41 pedestrian-only pathways traversing downtown’s cozy warren of locally owned shops, restaurants, wineries, and galleries. Begun during the 1920s, dotted with ivy-clad courtyards that pop up suddenly like forgotten fairy-tale scenes, these stone-paved lanes feature Tudor timberwork, curved archways, steep storybookish roofs, and secret gardens among which locals like to boast of getting lost.

It’s a lucky kind of lostness, because downtown’s dreamy doorways open onto world-class paintings, sculpture, textiles, photography, and more. You’re as likely to find a silk-embroidered still life as a Richard McDonald bronze acrobat as a pillow-sized synthetic Prozac pill as vintage velvet stilettos as semiprecious gems expertly set in durable rubber bracelets and rings.

Under skies so unmarred by artificial light as to sometimes reveal the Milky Way, you might find yourself crunching toasted grasshoppers in the Mezcal Room at Cultura Comida y Bebida, launched in 2016 by local sommeliers. Or catching the latest game on large-screen TVs over a craft cocktail, filet mignon sliders, and truffle fries at lively Brophy’s Tavern. In this village renowned as California’s dog-friendliest, Doris Day’s landmark Cypress Inn offers amid its jazz-age Moorish majesty a daily “Yappy Hour.”

Even amid all this history, cutting-edginess occurs. Fourteen-year-old beekeeper Jake Reisdorf founded the Carmel Honey Company, whose brick-and-mortar store opened downtown last year; a portion of its proceeds aids honeybee research.

A few blocks closer to Carmel Beach — whose surf can be heard and even seen from some of its well-appointed rooms, and where both fires and off-leash dogs are allowed along that powder-soft white-sand scimitar — the immaculate-lawned La Playa Carmel hotel began as a sprawling pastel mansion built in 1905 as an artist’s gift to his wife. Room prices include ambrosial sea-view breakfast buffets with lush custom omelet and waffle bars.

And here looms yet another way in which Carmel-by-the-Sea causes trouble: Any place this dazzlingly located — where luxury comprises both fine art and otters — can’t help but trigger dire hard choices: Civilizedly nibble butterscotch budino at Stationaery; tour a dozen-plus wine-bars and tasting rooms; take a watercolor class — or go wild? Unbelievably panoramic running, biking, and hiking routes abound, including those at stunning Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a gateway to Big Sur just about four miles south of downtown. The kelp forests in its protected marine areas astound divers, and its rugged, Monterey cypress-clad, falcon-haunted slopes lure wintertime whale-watchers.

If You Go

Cultura Comida y Bebida: Dolores Street, between Fifth and Sixth, 831-250-7005, CulturaCarmel.com.

La Playa Carmel: Camino Real and Eighth Avenue, 831-624-6476, LaPlayaHotel.com.

Carmel Honey Company: Ocean Avenue and Mission Street, 831-687-8511, CarmelHoneyCompany.com.

Brophy’s Tavern: San Carlos Street and Fourth Avenue, 831-586-5566, BrophysTavern.com.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: 831-624-4909, Parks.ca.gov.

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