Carmel - The 71Miles Travel Guide

10:08AM August 13, 2007 22 Comments »

At a Glance: John’s Favorites

  • Lodging: Tradewinds Inn, Cypress Inn, Mission Ranch, Lincoln Green Cottages
  • Vacation Rentals: Find a place in Carmel
  • Restaurants: Grasing’s Coastal Cuisine, La Bicyclette, Van Gogh’s Table at Casanova, L’Auberge Carmel, Cantinetta Luca
  • See & Do: Carmel Mission, Point Lobos Reserve, Tor House, Carmel River Beach, Drinks at Cypress Inn, Gasping at bad art
  • Slideshow: Watch the video overview.

Introduction

Every storybook village has a witch, and she lives in Carmel.

Compulsively cute Carmel-by-the-Sea was founded by bohemians and artists, but nearly all of them have moved to Big Sur or Carmel Valley, forced out by sky-high real-estate prices. Scabs have hijacked the gallery scene, pedaling art so bad it’s comical. Ultra-rich social climbers with ugly thousand-dollar handbags have commandeered the once-charming village—and they don’t like visitors. Some are even pushing to close Ocean Avenue, the main drag, to vehicular traffic. But these same self-styled ‘preservationists’ are perfectly happy to enrich the tax base with your cash.

The ultimate gated community, Carmel is a monoculture of the parvenu, with zero cultural diversity. The village is hemmed in by mountains, ocean, a private toll road (17-mile Drive), and upper-middle class communities that act as a buffer for the nearby Salinas Valley, where the downtrodden live. The only dark-skinned people you’ll spot here are maids and pool boys, leaving Carmelites comfortable enough to amble their quiet little village, wearing $50,000 worth of jewelry, with no fear of robbery. Frankly, this town could use a few muggers, if only to mix things up.

Image is everything in Carmel. A local contractor told me about a house he’s working on: ‘I stuck together them floors with liquid nails and plywood. Ten-million-dollar houses rotting on the hillsides!’ Too bad Jaqueline Susann isn’t around to pen the sordid little tales.

And then there are the ordinances. A lifetime resident told me, ‘Dogs, trees, and old people have more rights than anyone else in town.’ Indeed, if you run into a tree and drive away, you’ll be charged with hit and run. Women are legally banned from wearing high heels downtown, lest they sue the city if they slip on the cobblestone streets and break an ankle. And up until Clint Eastwood changed the law, ice cream parlors could sell only cups to prevent hapless children from sullying the pretty streets with fallen cones.

As much as I enjoy mocking Carmel, I love the look of the place—never mind all those hideous galleries. The village has a timeless, small-town quality, and some marvelous, whimsical architecture. Think thatch-roofed cottages with turrets. The fog twirls through the pines lining Ocean Avenue, and the roar of the sea is never out of earshot. It really does feel like a fairy-tale village.

The best time to see downtown is after dinner, once the locals have curled up fireside, Scotch in hand. There’s not a single street light downtown, but there’s plenty of light bleeding out of storefronts so you can guffaw at the tawdry art under cover of night—my favorite pastime in Carmel.

As for the witch, you can spot her walking her just-groomed dog down Ocean Avenue, crone and canine both in matching outfits. But don’t stick around too long, lest you fall under her spell and wind up with an empty pocketbook and a chintzy portrait of a Labrador retriever.

Why Go?

  • Take your dog on a road trip somewhere he’ll be appreciated.
  • Comb the sand at one of the Central Coast’s prettiest beaches.
  • Catch a glimpse of early California life at the Carmel Mission.
  • Wear a fur coat in July.

How Far?

  • Three hours from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Drawbacks?

  • Cost; nothing comes cheap in Carmel, except breakfast.
  • Attitude; all those poseurs can get annoying.
  • No nightlife; drive to Monterey if you stay up past ten.

See & Do

The obvious thing to do in Carmel is window-shop the oh-so-cute downtown village. But really, there isn’t much worth buying—unless you dress your dog in diamond-studded collars. As for the gallery scene, the ‘art’ is imported as a commodity by profiteers from out of town. The only thing left of the once-thriving art scene is the Carmel Valley Art Association, a gallery that exclusively showcases local artists; most of the works are representational (think seascapes).

If you’re a jazz head, pop into the Jazz & Blues Company for cool jazz memorabilia and great-value boxed CD sets you won’t find at Borders. The local jazz station, KRML AM1410, broadcasts from the store during the daytime—very cool. On two or three Saturday nights each month, the shop becomes a venue for live shows, and they’re really fun! Call ahead for the schedule.

The magic of Carmel is its coastline, best viewed on a drive along Scenic Road. At road’s end, the spectacular Carmel River State Beach forms a giant sandy crescent at the river’s mouth, where thousands of shore birds flutter in the whispering grass. If you’ve a dog with you, you can’t bring him here; head to Carmel Beach City Park instead, where you’ll spot the world’s best-groomed canines and their moneyed mistresses.

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A holdover from the bohemian era, the visually stunning Tor House was constructed in 1919, on a hill overlooking the ocean, by poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). Constructed of rough-hewn stone, the miniature estate’s centerpiece is Hawk Tower. Call ahead for docent-led tours of the property, and be regaled with tales of the writers and artists who founded the town, most of whom couldn’t afford to live here today.

One of Carmel’s only authentic, substantive landmarks, the Carmel Mission (aka Mission San Carlos de Borroméo de Carmelo) was founded by Padre Junipero Serra, who arrived on horseback in 1771 to convert the local Indians to Christianity. Though the mission period was an abject failure in the end, ultimately killing more natives than converting them (think small pox), the marvelous hand-laid adobe church stands as a testament to the padre’s sheer willfulness and hope.

Inside the mission, look for the tiny library—the state’s first—and its decaying, dusty leather-bound texts; marvelous 18th-century statuary, including cute-as-a-button cherubs hiding in the church’s organ loft; and an over-the-top nativity scene. Serra is interred in the altar. (Keep your voice down; this is an active parish.) Other rooms include the living quarters, which demonstrate the hardships of 18th-century California life. Outside pose for pix beside baseball-sized roses and a rare ancient cork tree.

Nicknamed the ‘crown jewel of California state parks,’ Point Lobos State Reserve juts out to sea on a vast rocky promontory, just south of Carmel. Famous for its wind-blown Monterey cypress grove—one of only two remaining stands on Earth—the park also protects critter-packed tidepools (visible at low tide) and migrating sea mammals. Harbor seals breed in spring; sea lions laze on the rocks for all but two months in summer, when they swim off to rookeries down the coast; grey whales migrate off shore December to May. Get here early; the parking lot fills up noon on busy days.

Even if you’re not a hiker, plan to stroll one of Point Lobos’ gorgeous walking trails. The Cypress Grove Trail (0.8mi roundtrip) snakes beneath the canopy of these rare trees. To spot marine mammals or whale-watch, take the wheelchair accessible Sea Lion Point Trail (0.6mi roundtrip). Docents lead free guided walks to the best spots, but if you’re on your own and want to glimpse seals and sea lions, head to Headland Cove, visible from both of the above trails.

I don’t recommend shelling out for a drive along 17-mile Drive. You spend half the time driving through the woods and past late-20th-century mansions, then end up at the golf course at Pebble Beach (PB). If the food were better at any of PB’s restaurants, I’d suggest making a lunch reservation, which automatically waives the fee for the drive, but alas, it just ain’t worth eating here. For an easier drive that’s free, take Ocean View Blvd from Lover’s Point to Point Piños, in Pacific Grove.

Carmel Restaurants: Eat Cheap(ish)

Start the day with coffee from Caffe Cardinale ($), which roasts its own beans. The Tuck Box ($–$$) was once the place for breakfast, but it’s a shadow of its former self. A better choice is the Village Corner ($–$$), where you can sit on a flower-lined patio and fuel up on eggs benedict or stellar cottage fries layered with cheese and eggs. Alas, the pancakes come with fake maple syrup. Lunch is also good; dinner is so-so.

For homestyle cooking that would do grandma proud, have breakfast or lunch at the Cottage Restaurant ($–$$), which uses real maple syrup (for a charge) on its blueberry pancakes and walnut waffles. Good egg dishes too. At lunch, go for the burgers, patty melts, crepes and homemade soups, including the local specialty, artichoke soup. If you’re under 50, you may be the youngest person in the room.

Feed the kids at Forge in the Forest ($–$$$), a former blacksmith’s shop packed with memorabilia from when the building was an active smithy. I prefer sitting outside on the shaded brick patio, beside the outdoor fireplaces. The menu is basic and accessible, with pizzas, burgers, and mudd pie for dessert. Service is particularly good: this is the only employee-owned restaurant in town.

Ideal for a midday snack, the Cheese Shop ($–$$) serves sit-down wine-and-cheese pairings on the ground level of Carmel Plaza. The selection is overwhelming, but the always-friendly staff will help you find the perfect choice. On Fridays, from 5pm to 7pm, through September 21, the shop stages jazz performances in the courtyard outside; $15 gets you in.

Anyone awake after 10pm heads to Jack London’s Grill & Taproom, the only restaurant in town that serves till midnight. The meat-heavy menu is good; the hand-cut fries are great. If you’re looking for a bar after dinner, this is the place.

Carmel Restaurants: Splurge

Dinner prices skew high—way high—in Carmel. You can bring your dog to just about every restaurant in town, provided it has patio seating. In the old-school tradition, men often wear jackets to dinner.

Flavors are bright and clean at Grasing’s Coastal Cuisine ($$$–$$$$), a cheerful chef-owned California bistro whose menu maximizes the season’s best produce. Look for standouts like a simple roast chicken with red-wine sauce and mashers; and a seafood-heavy paella, redolent with saffron and fennel. Vegetarians do well here—try the artichoke lasagna. The wine list is exceptional for its mid-price choices and local vintages. If you’ve dog with you, sit outside on the canine-friendly patio.

The most happening spot on the Carmel dining scene, Cantinetta Luca ($$$–$$$$) gets packed every night with local bon vivants: this a safe space to down too much chianti and guffaw loudly without anyone batting an eye. The contemporary Italian menu features housemade salumi and pastas (the bolognese is succulent, though unnecessarily heavy for its enrichment with cream), wood-fired cracker-crust pizzas (try the wild mushroom, caramelized onion, and fontina cheese combo), and roasted meats and fish served family style on big platters (go for the meaty, pan-roasted halibut with clams, artichokes and cherry tomatoes). Portions are huge, so order light. Tables near the door get chilly; carry a sweater or sit in back.

I love the earthy sensibility of La Bicyclette ($$$–$$$$), a convivial French bistro with only 30 seats. The three-course meals include salad, as well as soup served in copper terrines. Expect dishes like beef bourguignon and salmon en papillote (baked in parchment paper). The wine list includes many rare vintages. When you order a grand vin not stocked in the cellar, the waiter hops on an old-fashioned bicycle and pedals to Casanova (see below), the sister restaurant where the fine wines are stored. Very fun!

One of the top tables between Los Angeles and San Francisco, L’Auberge Carmel ($$$$) caters to serious gourmands. The austerely elegant dining room keeps your attention squarely focused on the sublime cooking. Order the multi-course tasting menu. Though entrees are rooted in French technique—think wild turbot with chanterelles and Syrah-braised ribs with truffles—the spicing in the starters goes global, most notably in the signature deconstructed lobster tacos and curried shellfish soup. The white-glove silver service is unnecessarily formal, but the choreography and timing are impeccable. Plan three hours. Reservations essential. No lunch.

You can’t beat the atmosphere at Casanova ($$$$), a warren of dimly lit rooms and interconnected covered patios inside a former house. Dinners on the Franco-Italian menu come with three courses. Top appetizers include house-smoked salmon, duck paté, and feather-light spinach gnocchi, the specialty. Among the entrees, moules-frites (steamed mussels and French fries) served with crispy, tender fries; veal picatta; and sautéed scallops with a tangy-sweet tomato-basil relish. The dizzying 72-page wine list is one of the best in town. NB: If you’re planning dinner for six to eight people, book Van Gogh’s Table, the actual oak table where Van Gogh took his meals at Auberge Ravoux. The table has its own dedicated room and special menu of classic French dishes, typical of what the painter himself ate 150 years ago. This alone is worth a trip to Carmel.

Seafood is the thing at Flying Fish Grill ($$$–$$$$), a tiny Cal-Asian bistro downstairs at the Carmel Plaza. Though the menu lists the usual tempura and seared ahi tuna, be more adventurous and try one of the house specialties like almond-crusted sea bass with rock-shrimp stir-fry, or the steamed halibut with Chinese spices. The affable owner works the floor every night, ensuring some of Carmel’s best service.

Bouchée ($$$$) builds on the classic French brasserie menu, with updated Gallic standards like onion soup, torchon of foie gras, confit of duck, pied de cochon, and oysters, all flawlessly prepared. If you love abalone, Bouchée does it right, using sustainably farmed fish sauteed with Noilly Pratt vermouth and black truffles. In the French tradition, tables sit side by side along a running banquette: expect to hear your neighbor’s conversations. As the name implies, wine is a big deal here, and there’s an adjoining shop that carries an exceptional selection of European and California vintages. Though the service in the dining room is personable and professional, the clientele tends toward the overdressed and stuffy (welcome to Carmel)—but after a couple glasses of wine, you’ll hardly care. Bring your checkbook.

Restaurant Prices

  • $ = entrées under $10
  • $$ = $10 to $15
  • $$$ = $16 to $22
  • $$$$ = $22 and up

Carmel Hotels, Inns, and B&Bs: Budget and Midrange

Carmel inns embrace the Laura Ashley design aesthetic: expect heavy floral prints and too many pillows on the bed.

One of Carmel’s only true budget options, the Homestead Cottages ($–$$$) has several rooms for about $100. They’re nothing special, just a bedroom with a few niceties like bathrobes. Service is so-so, but at this rate, who cares? Breakfast is included, but you’ll have to drive to Mission Ranch (see below), about five minutes away.

Towering century-old eucalyptus trees greet your arrival at Mission Ranch ($$–$$$$), a country-casual resort owned by Clint Eastwood. Built as a dairy farm in the1850s, the inn’s rooms are inside historic ranch buildings. There’s a wide variety of accommodations, some costing as little as $120 a night—a steal in pricey Carmel. The high-end rooms overlook the mouth of the Carmel River and the ocean beyond. This is one of the area’s most gorgeous pieces of real estate. The onsite restaurant serves the usual steaks and seafood; the happening bar is one of the best places in town to watch the sunset.

An upper-end motel complex built in the 1970s, Los Lobos Lodge ($$–$$$) has rooms in several two-story buildings within earshot of the ocean (you can hear it, but because of the canopy of trees, you can’t see it). I like this place for its break with the standard chintz decor: expect blond-wood furniture and beige carpet. And it’s spotless. Some rooms have gas fireplaces.

The Normandy Inn ($$–$$$) sits smack downtown at the foot of Ocean Avenue, just up the street from the city beach. It’s essentially a lovingly tended, vintage 1950s, two-story motel built around a central courtyard gussied up with hanging baskets of impatiens. The best rooms have fireplaces. Kids love the heated kidney-shaped pool.

The smell of freshly baked cookies fills the lobby every afternoon at the Carmel Wayfarer Inn ($$–$$$), a small, two-story motel built around a central courtyard. Room types vary: some have kitchens, others have trundle beds good for kids, and most have gas fireplaces. The best rooms have distant ocean views. The entire place is immaculately kept—even the windows are spotless. The linens are nothing special and there’s no elevator to the second floor, but the service is some of the best in town.

Though it’s shaped like a standard U-shaped two-story motel, the design details at the Cobblestone Inn ($$–$$$) make it feel more like a cozy B&B. The exterior walls are made of river rocks from the Carmel River. The rooms are heavy on floral prints, and there’s a teddy bear on every bed. Afternoon wine and cheese is served in the lobby, and there’s a full breakfast every morning. For a motel, this one’s a charmer. NB: Not all bathrooms have tubs; if it matters, request one when you book.

One of Carmel’s most charming B&Bs, the Sea View Inn ($$–$$$) has eight rooms in a turn-of-the-century home with dormer windows and hidden nooks ideal for reading. In a quiet residential district walkable to downtown, the inn has a French provincial decor that’s cozy and inviting, with gingham and floral-print fabrics, but the look is easy and relaxed, not overly fussy or heavy handed. The two least-expensive rooms share a bath; the other six have private baths. Meet other guests over afternoon wine and cheese. Service is excellent.

Like an old family summer house with mismatched furnishings and country quilts, Edgemere Cottages ($$–$$$) is perfect for young families on a budget. Three very private cottages surround a scraggly garden, and they’re way folksier than what you normally find in Carmel. Once a grand estate in the 1920s, the place now feels a bit downtrodden: bathrooms have linoleum floors, kitchenettes haven’t been redone since the ’50s, and fabrics are fraying. But there’s a blue-jeans-and-gardening-gloves earthiness to the place that will calm the nerves of travelers who find Carmel too uptight. However, this same casualness to the decor and service will likely irritate the skirt-and-sweater crowd or others looking for a splurge weekend in Carmel.

Carmel Hotels and Inns: Top End

Generations of families return every year to the Pine Inn ($$$–$$$$), one of Carmel’s three full-service hotels (the others are La Playa and the Cypress Inn, below). The lobby is heavy on red-velvet and fancy Victoriana , but the overdone ornamentation stops downstairs. Rooms are utilitarian and run small, but they’re well maintained, with comfy beds and clean bathrooms. People stay here for the ghost of Carmel past: this is town’s original hostelry. Breakfast is included at the adjoining Il Fornaio restaurant. NB: Though service in the hotel is spot-on, it’s terrible at the independently operated Il Fornaio—some of the worst I’ve ever experienced.

La Playa Hotel ($$$–$$$$) has some of the best views in town. The vintage-1920s, giant pink hotel stand four stories tall, surrounding a vast open courtyard with flowering gardens and a big swimming pool. Ocean-view rooms look over the treetops to the pounding surf. Alas, the decor needs an overhaul. Rooms are painted the color of circus peanuts and bathrooms are way out of date, but the bed linens are crisp, service is good, and the entire place is spick-and-span.

Doris Day owns the stately and elegant Cypress Inn ($$$–$$$$), the quintessential Carmel hotel. Opened in 1929, the original Spanish-Moorish building’s rooms are on the small side and get limited light, while others are expansive, with patios and killer views of town and the ocean. The top choice is the Tower Room, which lords above the village like a sentry’s garison. All include extras like fruit, nuts, and sherry—nice touches, typical of the impeccable service, Carmel’s best. Come for drinks. Dogs are welcome with open arms; Tuesday is locals night in the lounge, when the place turns into a doggie pick-up joint. Thursday through Saturday evenings, there’s a jazz combo or a guitarist playing in the lobby, one of the only places in town where you can hear live music. And to Ms. Day’s credit, the entire hotel is going green. NB: Because each room has its own amenities and features too numerous to list here, plan to spend time on the phone with the well-trained reservationists, who’ll find the right room for you.

The Tally Ho Inn ($$$–$$$$) sits near the end of Ocean Avenue, and many rooms have blue-water ocean views. Rooms in the original building have big French doors opening onto a series of interconnected wooden decks above a tiled courtyard with an outdoor fireplace. I don’t care for the new rooms; they’re big and boxy, with disproportionate furnishings, andfeel more like suburban Atlanta than Carmel. The decor tends toward chintz, with forest-green carpet and lipstick-red bedspreads. But the towels are thick, the beds are delicious, and the service is terrific. Breakfast included.

The most gorgeous gardens in town are at Lincoln Green Cottages ($$$$), a compound of freestanding 1920s cottages near Carmel River State Beach—giant roses and enormous lavender bushes perfume the air. Cottages come with one or two bedrooms with fluffy white duvets, a full kitchen, and living room with hardwood floors, a big fireplace, and enough room to slow dance with your sweetheart. Each has a private deck with a lovely garden view and a Weber grill. Breakfast is delivered to your room, and there’s wine and cheese in the afternoon. If you’re on a honeymoon or romantic weekend, this is the perfect place to hole up and disappear. Downtown is 15 minutes away by foot.

The vintage-1920s L’Auberge Carmel ($$$$) got an overhaul a couple of years ago and the place looks great. Built around a sunny brick patio with a gurgling fountain and flower boxes overflowing with red geraniums, the inn has elegant furnishings like cherry-wood beds dressed with 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and spiffy jewel-tone fabrics. Some of the marble bathrooms have fabulous two-person Japanese-style soaking tubs, making this an ideal retreat for a romantic weekend. The restaurant is one of the best on the Central Coast (see Restaurants, above). Rates skew exceptionally high, even for Carmel.

The sexiest hotel in town is actually a styled-out 1959 motel. The Tradewinds Inn ($$$$) was gutted in 2004, and boy, did they do it right. The decor is Asian-themed, with soothing earth tones, Chinese and Balinese furniture, and woven rattan and bamboo accents. Most details are perfect—Frette linens, long-staple cotton towels, Japanese obis across the foot of the bed, and silky batik bathrobes—but at this rate, I’d expect better bath amenities than Aveda. Still, the place looks great, which explains why it was featured inArchitectural Digest. Rooms 19, 20, 27, and 28 have awesome (though distant) views of the ocean, Point Lobos, and the mouth of Carmel Valley. Rates are some of the highest in town.

Hotel Prices

  • $ = standard double under $100
  • $$ = $100 to $200
  • $$$ = $200 to $300
  • $$$$ = $300 & up