Fodor’s wanderer Constance Jones recently spent a long spring weekend in Carmel, California. The exclusive Monterey Peninsula town, officially named Carmel-by-the-Sea, is known for its celebrity residents, funky architecture, art galleries, and a spectacular setting along a dramatic stretch of the Pacific Coast.
Why Carmel? I live in a very rural area, so as often as possible I make a point of exploring towns and cities that offer culture, nightlife and the finer things in life. Carmel has so many restaurants, high-end shops, galleries and sightseeing options for nature lovers that it was easy to fill three days.
What was your favorite part of the trip? I loved Carmel Valley. The rounded hills are blanketed with wide-open meadows and forests of oak and sycamore; ranches scattered here and there raise what must be some of the happiest cattle on earth. Of course, there are the vineyards, too. Carmel Valley Road, which runs the entire length of the valley, makes a jaw-droppingly beautiful drive. About 9 miles in from Highway 1, Carmel Valley Village is really just a wide spot in the road, with several very good restaurants and some tasting rooms. I tried several examples of the high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced by Talbott Vineyards. Joullian Vineyards makes what I think is the valley’s only Zinfandel, among other wines. Heller Estate grows superior Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a few others using organic dry-farming methods.
What was your best find? Tradewinds Carmel, where I stayed, is a lovely alternative to the area’s fancy resorts, frou-frou inns and tour-group motels. Its distinctly Asian aesthetic makes it unique in Carmel, and it’s tucked away on a quiet street just a couple of blocks from the main drag. The modified-Japanese-style buildings surround a multilevel courtyard planted with bamboo and palms; there’s a firepit and a big Buddha that sits in a fountain. In the rooms are more fountains and fireplaces, along with furnishings and fabrics that evoke the Far East. You even get a kimono to lounge around in, and they’ve thought of all the little details, from slippers to WiFi. Some of the rooms have views over the town to the bay, and even if you don’t have a balcony you can hear the surf through your windows. The whole effect is cushy but low-key, and very tranquil.
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What surprised you? I was impressed by the quality of some of the art galleries. Whenever a resort destination claims to be an “artist’s colony” I’m leery—usually it means you’re going to find a lot of beach landscapes and dolphin sculptures. But there are some serious art dealers in Carmel who offer oils and watercolors by members of the Early California school (roughly 1875-1950), such as Edgar Payne and Mary DeNeale Morgan. A few galleries sell drawings, prints and paintings by European and American masters. You can even see works by Degas, Cassatt, Goya, and Rembrandt.
What was overrated? The 17-Mile Drive. You can see its famous ocean views along only about a third of the road; the rest runs through the woods or past golf courses. It’s pretty, but not worth the $8.75 toll you have to pay for the privilege of driving there. In my opinion, you get just as much of an eyeful if you go a few miles north to Pacific Grove and (for free) follow Sunset Drive past Asilomar State Beach and Point Pinos, then Ocean View Boulevard all the way to Monterey.
What do you want to visit on your next trip? I want to go back to Point Lobos State Reserve, which protects a piece of coastline just south of Carmel. The day I went was blustery and wet, so for the most part I just drove the park road. The surf pounds the rocky bluffs and beaches all around the point, and you can hike trails through groves of the rare Monterey Cypress, through lichen-draped forest and, of course, go to all kinds of hidden coves.
What advice do you have for someone going to Carmel? Go to Katy’s Place for breakfast. This place is serious about the morning meal: they’ve got 13 kinds of eggs Benedict and omelets plus nine varieties of waffles. Katy’s does sandwiches, burgers, etc. for lunch, but breakfast is what it’s all about here: they serve it all day, every day until closing time at 2 p.m.
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