Who knew that horsey Carmel Valley was once a hippie haven? Long before celebs and fifth-homeowners started building palatial estates on the hillsides, the once-sleepy valley was populated by cowboys and dairy farmers, the perfect locale for 1960s-era Back-to-the-Landers. Leading the fray? None other than Joan Baez.
Today you’ll find scant reminders of the days of pot smoke and tie-dye, only two small arts centers and an enduring hippie-chic design ethic in the many garden shops of Carmel Valley Village. But the wine and roses remain: Vineyards are slowly replacing pastureland, and high-end hotels and tasting rooms are popping up, leading some to dub Carmel Valley the next Napa Valley—a proposition that makes locals shudder.
Fortunately the pastoral landscape looks the same as ever, and—best of all—the weather is perfect. Straddling the sweet spot between fog and inland heat, the 25mi-long valley is cool enough by night to sleep with the windows open (indeed, most lodgings have no air conditioning), but warm enough by day to hike the river canyon and oak-wooded hillsides in a pair of Bermudas.
Though it may lately have become the province of the ultra-rich, Carmel Valley is still the provinces. Wild-boar hunting is huge. Some old-timers actually still wear cowboy drag—when’s the last time you saw that? Most weekenders drop a bundle on spa treatments, fancy hotels, wine and food, but you don’t have to: The valley’s real beauty lies in the outdoors. Still, pack a little Prada, just in case.
- Ride horseback on silent, wooded hillsides.
- Splurge on a spa weekend with your sweetheart.
- Satisfy your gardening fetish at gallery-like garden shops.
- Stock your cellar with terrific-value vinos.
- Meditate in hot springs at a Zen mountain retreat.
- Escape the fog without broiling to death.
- 2.5 hours from the Golden Gate.
- Cost; you won’t find rooms for under $150 a night.
- Weekend congestion in the village; head to the hills.
- Nothing to do at night; make supper the main event.
See & Do
Wine-tasting in Carmel Valley Village is a major draw; plan to visit at least one tasting room.
Hike the hills for the best vantage points on the bucolic valley. At dog-friendly 4500-acre Garland Ranch Regional Park, amble along the river through grassy meadows studded with spring flowers, then climb 1800ft up the wooded hillsides for killer views. Watch for ticks. (Note that these hills separate the Big Sur Coast from the Salinas Valley. If you kept going, you’d eventually hit the Ventana Wilderness.)
Or hit the woods on horseback, high above the valley floor, on a guided trail ride at Holman Ranch. On a hot day, if you’re staying somewhere without a pool, you can pay $7 to swim at Los Laureles Lodge, and sip margaritas in the sun with the locals. Golfing is huge. The premier course is at the Golf Club at Quail Lodge. If you can’t swing the nearly $200 weekend price tag, the public, 36-hole course at Rancho Cañada Golf Club is a good backup; it’s near the mouth of the valley.
The best birding is just off the side of the road, way up-valley, just after mileage-marker 20. Bring binocs and look for yellow-billed magpies, a thrilling sight—if you’re into birds.
Read full-length reviews of some of my favorite Carmel Valley wine-tasting rooms.
The spa treatments at cushy Bernardus play on the elements—stone massages, Vichy showers, Ayurvedic facials—and the 7-treatment-room facility sports all the latest bells and whistles to satisfy spa-savvy urbanites. The couple’s treatment rooms are exceptional for their adjoining, private outdoor patios with two-man Jacuzzi tubs, where you can make out with your sweetheart after your massages. Bring your checkbook.
For greater sense of place, the Japanese-style hot-spring baths at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center sit high in the mountains, at the edge of the spectacular Ventana Wilderness. The segregated men’s and women’s baths both include a hot-spring fed pool, indoor hot plunge, and outdoor cold plunge. Because this is a Zen retreat center—catering first to spiritual devotees, second to visitors (from April to September)—quiet is the order of the day, and yoga and hiking are the de rigeur activities (wear hiking boots). Bring your own bag lunch, but be discrete if there’s meat on your sandwich: vegetarianism is the dominant paradigm. The center also rents rustic cabins for the full-on retreat experience (see Hotels, below). NB: If you have a nice car, you’ll bum out on the jostling, hour-long-drive along a 14mi-long, rutted-out, dirt access road. Rent a 4×4, or drive a clunker with automatic transmission.
Shopping in Carmel Valley Village caters to the Cadillac demographic (think De Villes, not Escalades), and few of the shops or galleries sell anything you really need—there’s not even a bank in town anymore. But the garden shops are fabulous, and carry everything from wind chimes and pottery, to $3000 rusted (er…I mean, patinated) vintage patio-furniture sets. I particularly like the garden-art collection at Avant Garden and Home. If you’re shopping for plants, check out FezQ Gardens, which specializes in low-maintenance Mediterranean-climate plants and ornamental grasses that do great in Northern California.
NB: Parking on a weekend in the village can be tricky. When you find a spot, grab it, then walk around. Dogs are welcome in most shops; feel free to traipse around with Fido.
Wander into the Carmel Valley Art Center to see painter and and bon vivant Walter Georis working on his canvases. The center is open when Walter is painting, or by appointment. Joan Baez founded the Hidden Valley Performing Arts Institute, which doubles as a school for budding musicians, and a performance venue where you can hear jazz and classical recitals.
The all-organic, commercial flower-and-vegetable grower, Earthbound Farms, has a roadside stand and gardens open to the public. The farm stand is way overpriced considering its location in the fields (I pay less in SF for organics of equal or better quality at Rainbow Grocery), but there are myriad family-fun activities during the warm months, from garlic-braiding workshops to ladybug walks through the flower gardens. Check the farm’s calendar for up-to-date happenings.
To watch the sunset, the easiest-to-reach spots are up Los Laureles Grade, at the pullouts as the road ascends. To reach the grade, look for the turnoff from Carmel Valley Rd, right next to Bernardus Lodge and Spa.
Carmel Valley Restaurants
Consistently spot-on, first-choice Café Rustica ($$–$$$) specializes in European-bistro fare, with big portions of rustic, hearty cooking. New owners took over last year, and they haven’t missed a beat. Cracker-crust, wood-fired pizzas are a specialty; paired with a mountainous salad, they’re perfect for an al fresco lunch on the small patio out front. At dinner, there are heartier dishes like grilled sausages with red cabbage; wood-roasted chicken; and always-outstanding fish specials. Service is charming, but the small dining room is tight; for more room sit outside. Reservations essential.
Owned by the proprietor of Georis Winery, cute little Corkscrew Cafe ($$–$$$) has a mishmash California menu, with a few Mexican dishes thrown in the mix, including a mean chile relleno. The standout at lunch is the salmon niçoise salad; at dinner, braised lamb shanks and seafood paella. The cozy (read: small) dining room is done up like a Santa Fe casita, with painted wooden tables and Mexican-tile floors; sit in the back alcove for maximum romance. While I don’t care for the gift-shop setup when you walk in, I do like the selection of cookbooks. Make reservations.
The valley’s top special-occasion table, Marinus ($$$$) at Bernardus Lodge is the place for serious eating. Overseen by celeb chef Cal Stamenov, the menu is firmly rooted in French technique, but is tempered by a California sensibility—evidence the use of seasonal, local ingredients, some from the gardens right outside. But for all its sophistication, the food manages to exude a clean and bright provincial earthiness. Order the tasting menu; for maximum effect, pair it with vintages expertly selected by a super-smart sommelier. A giant limestone fireplace anchors the elegantly austere dining room, and the white-linen-draped tables leave plenty of elbow room, perfect for private conversations with your paramour. Everyone wants table 8 because it’s by the crackling fire, but I find it too warm. Better to choose see-and-be-seen tables 6 or 13 for the best views of the ballet-like service and St John-clad matrons; for privacy, book table 4.
Inside an ivy-covered, 1920s brick roadhouse, Will’s Fargo ($$$$) doubles as a saloon and steakhouse, a throwback to old-school ranchers’ restaurants, like the ones in Santa Barbara County (think Hitching Post). The menu is classic, from the veggie crudité that hits the table as soon as you sit down, to the stuffed mushroom caps and iceberg-wedge appetizers, to the seven different cuts of steak, done just right. Though recently taken over by the Bernardus group, the dining room still has ugly low-pile carpeting and linoleum on the bathroom floor that lend authenticity to the Old West look. I hope they never change it. Reservations essential.
For weekend brunch, sit in sun-dappled shade on a flower-lined wooden deck at Garden Bistro ($–$$), a romantic spot to start the day. And the pancakes come with real maple syrup. For homestyle breakfasts and lunch in a room decked out with cowboy paraphernalia, head to the favorite hangout of aging ranchers, the Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop, near the mouth of the valley. Expect a wait. No credit cards.
If you’re on a budget, you won’t find many inexpensive spots to eat. A best bet is the $13 Tuesday-night special at the Paradise Wine Bar, which includes an earthy hot dish, such as beef bourguignon, and a glass of wine; there’s live acoustic music too. On Thursdays, there are $8 small plates at the bar. Alas, they close early on other nights. Taqueria del Valle ($) serves standard melted-yellow-cheese Mexican cooking in baskets (ask for a plate). They’re closed Sunday and Monday.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Carmel Valley Hotels, Motels, and Lodges
Since its opening ten years ago, Bernardus Lodge ($$$$+) has successfully positioned itself as the dominant player in the valley’s lodging scene. The emphasis here is on two things: the spa and the dining room (see Marinus, above). Done in the sunny colors of Provence, the expansive rooms bear the standard for valley luxury, with subtle high-end fabrics, gas fireplaces (the good kind), private patios (the best views are from upstairs rooms), float-away beds with umpteen-thread-count sheets, and double-sized soaking tubs in the bathroom. Every room has a complimentary ‘wine grotto,’ with snacks and two bottles of wine from the eponymous vineyard. My only complaint is with the frilly bathrooms: the lighting is too bright (bring your own votive candles). Rooms are in two-story satellite buildings clustered around the croquet lawn and swimming pool; for the most privacy, request a room not facing them.
Dog-friendly Carmel Valley Lodge ($$$) was built in the Brady Bunch era, and has expansive, mature gardens and comfy rooms (some with wood-burning fireplaces) done up in country-cute, with Americana quilts and wreaths of dried flowers. It’s essentially an amenity-heavy motel (evidence the utilitarian baths and their tub-shower combinations) with extras like a video library, extended continental breakfast, and s’more kits to roast by the fire. But the grounds are lovely, and the friendly owners keep it sparkling clean and properly maintained, making this my first choice for midrange accommodations in the valley.
The motel rooms at the Hidden Valley Inn ($$$) are tucked in a little valley below the main drag, so you won’t hear traffic noise on the busy road. The rattan furniture and purple-iris-patterned bedspreads look like vintage-1980s Palm Springs, but the place is well kept, even if its design elements don’t quite match. All rooms face the swimming pool: For the most privacy (and quiet), book rooms 13 to 23. Families do well here: suites have trundle beds, ideal for kids. Parents appreciate the evening wine-and-cheese hour and complimentary breakfast.
I have mixed feelings about Los Laureles Country Inn ($$–$$$). From the outside, the whitewashed, converted ranch buildings look cute as a button, but with the exception of the tiny knotty-pine-paneled, budget-category rooms, the accommodations don’t quite measure up to the charm of their exteriors. And many have locker-room-style, low-flow shower heads. Housekeeping is satisfactory, though I’ve heard complaints, and the front-desk attendants can be self-involved and perfunctory. The lodge’s saving graces are its large swimming pool and saloon-like bar, with trophy heads lining the walls (but what’s with the blaring TV set?). I’d stay here, but only if I couldn’t find a room elsewhere.
The fanciest digs are at Stonepine Estate Resort ($$$$), though I’m disappointed that they no longer rent rooms in the opulent château. But you can still book one of the ultra-luxurious houses on the 300-acre grounds, like the Hermes Suite (a fave of celebrities), with its four fireplaces and 27ft-high ceilings. Every detail is perfect—they’ll even send a private chef to prepare dinner in your kitchen—but the estate’s ethic is so patrician that not everyone will feel comfortable (which is, of course, the point of coming here: exclusivity). Among the activities are horse-back riding (but of course, darling) and archery.
At Tassajara Zen Mountain Center ($–$$$$), the mood is delicious—quiet, meditative, and totally in synch with the land. From late April till September, you can rent bare-bones basic accommodations in yurts, dorm rooms, rustic cabins with shared baths, and cabins with half baths and shared bathing facilities. They have no electricity, only kerosene lamps. You don’t have to be a Zen devotee to stay here, but an expansive mind will serve you well. Spend days hiking the Ventana Wilderness, soaking in the center’s natural hot springs, or simply tripping out on the beauty of now. NB: Access is via a jostling, hour-long-drive down a 14mi-long, rutted-out, dirt access road. Rent a 4×4, or drive a clunker with automatic transmission.
Popular with the gray-at-the-temples, golf-and-tennis set, Quail Lodge Resort ($$$$) has a waspy, country-club vibe. Rooms have all the requisite upper-end amenities, but they take few design risks, which is just fine with the staid regulars. Personally I prefer Bernardus—it’s so much less stuffy—but the service here is excellent.
The enormous Carmel Valley Ranch ($$$$) is in the midst of an identity crisis. A cushy golf resort in the Regan era, it now needs a big refurb, and it’s getting one, but slowly. The golf course is undergoing construction, and suites are being sold as condos (though it continues to operate as a hotel as well). Until things settle down here, I’d recommend staying somewhere else.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up