By David Webb
California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea is famous for having Clint Eastwood as a former mayor, Doris Day as an active hotelier and a cutesy vibe that’s just about perfect.
Located a two-hour drive south of San Francisco Airport, Carmel is a seaside town the way one should be: charming, scenic, walkable and palpably relaxed. For my wife and I, while driving the California Central Coast’s classic Highway 1 road-trip, Carmel proves an ideal two-night stop.
At first blush, we discover diminutive Carmel is big on food and wine. Impossible to choose from its 60 restaurants, we follow the lead of Monta Potter, CEO of the Carmel Chamber of Commerce, and meet at Terry’s Restaurant & Lounge at the Cypress Inn — a cheery, bustling operation co-owned by Doris Day.
Potter is quick to order two plates of the locally adored brussel sprouts appetizer — sautéed with bacon and served with a Dijon aioli — to complement a choice from the extensive list of Monterey County wines. And as we take a seat in the lounge's Living Room, a Victorian-themed, pet-friendly lounge area with a fireplace and exposed-beam ceiling, we learn more about the area’s award-winning vino.
Though not as widely known as Napa Valley, Monterey County has two centuries of winemaking history. Classified as Region I and II, the county’s Salinas Valley boasts a climate similar to France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. Syrah and Pinot Noir are the varietals Monterey is best known for — I order a glass of the latter. Smooth and robust, it pairs with the strong flavours of our appetizer well.
Potter tells us wine-lovers visit Carmel for its “Winewalk.” Scattered within the tight alleyways, along hilly streets and around floral-adorned courtyards, a dozen local tasting rooms tempt with flights of the region’s reds, whites and bubbles. Carmel’s Wine Passport is the best way to imbibe — bought at the visitor’s centre for $65, this non-expiring pass buys a flight at nine tasting rooms of your choice. Self-guided and self-paced, the Winewalk can be done in a weekend or over the course of a week.
Aside from delectable sips at regional wineries like Silvestri Vineyards, Caraccioli Cellars, Vino Napoli and others, a wander through Carmel’s hilly streets reveals the town’s many eccentricities. Such as a total lack of house numbers — addresses are vague, citing nearby intersections and subjective descriptors (“fifth house on the east side of Torres Street, blue trim, driftwood fence”) and the fact that high-heeled shoes are technically illegal (an archaic law that is, of course, no longer enforced but still on-the-books). Town founders didn’t want to see their home “citified,” so along with those funny regulations, there is also a lack of parking meters and streetlights in Carmel. Essentially — don’t worry about pocket change, but do pack a flashlight.
Architecturally, the town is a mash-up of century-old wood-and-brick cabins and modern vacation properties built of steel and glass. Carmel is particularly regarded as a showcase of the architecture of Hugh Comstock, who, in the 1920s, created the English village cottage style noted for rolled eaves, rounded doors and asymmetrical stone chimneys. About 10 of Comstock's original cottages are still found around town. The oldest home is located on San Antonio Street. Built in 1846, it was once home to Frank Powers, co-founder of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Carmel is also distinctively pet-friendly. Along with the Cypress Inn’s welcoming policy for dogs, as well as its “Yappy Hour,” there are numerous other pup-pleasant restaurants happy to offer Fido a bone, and Carmel Beach is off-leash OK. In fact, the beach’s frolicking dogs are just as much of a claim to fame as the sunsets and surfers.
Soon, our meandering tour leads us to famous Carmel Beach, where hyperactive puppies chase tennis balls, wetsuit-clad surfers challenge overhead waves and cuddling couples watch the California sun fall into the Pacific. This crescent of soft white-sand curves gently southward towards Point Lobos State Park, one of the great underrated parks of California and home to a myriad of hiking trails with expansive Pacific Vistas. Vacationers more industrious than us have brought firewood and picnic dinner to the waterside; another of the beach’s notables is that it is booze and campfire friendly.
My wife and I take a seat on the sand to watch pipelining waves crash at the base of 8th Avenue. Beside us, a random dog pops by and drops a Frisbee, begging for a fetch. I oblige. The vibe here is tangibly friendly; despite the fact that multi-million-dollar homes line the beachfront, Carmel is devoid of pretence.
As the sun turns the western sky pink, our only lament is that we don’t have a month to spare. Truly, Carmel is for lovers of wine, lovers of the sea and lovers at-large.
If You Go
- Carmel Tourism: http://www.carmelcalifornia.org
- Lamplighter Inn & Sunset Suites: http://www.carmellamplighter.com
- Cypress Inn: http://www.cypress-inn.com