The entire Monterey Peninsula is blessed with some of the most dramatic scenery on earth, yet Carmel-by-the-Sea manages to stand out. Whether you’re in Monterey for business, Pacific Grove for its monarch butterfly groves or Pebble Beach for this month’s U.S. Open, the rewards of making the short excursion far outweigh the effort.
On my most recent visit, it struck me how nice everyone is; it’s as if some divine being ordained that Carmel would be impossibly picturesque, filled with art, and populated by happy, unfailingly civil people. In truth, it’s all down to history. Artists who gravitated to Carmel in the early 1900s were joined after the 1906 earthquake by droves of newly homeless San Francisco bohemians such as author Jack London and a coterie of Paris-trained artists. The fairy-tale cottages wherever you look took hold in the 1920s, when builder Hugh Comstock, inspired by children’s book illustrator Arthur Rackham, designed a narrow, pointy-roofed house for the dolls his wife made.
Those two events define Carmel to this day, along with the construction of Mission Carmel (officially San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo) in 1797. The most authentically restored and one of the most beautiful of all the California missions, it houses a museum evoking what life was like for the missionaries and Native Americans. I’m always awestruck by the labor and craftsmanship it required and by the serenity within.
Carmel Valley held the franchise on wine-tasting until a group of tasting rooms in the village formed the Carmel Wine Walk.
Now encompassing 13 tasting rooms throughout town, the Wine Walk offers visitors the full breadth of Monterey County wines. A passport is available online (winewalkcarmel.com), or at Blair Wines on the first level of Carmel Plaza, which also has tasting room maps if you just want to try a couple.
Wrath Wines and Hahn Family Wines also have tasting rooms in Carmel Plaza, which merits some exploration on its own. My husband and I had dinner at Yeast of Eden, an offshoot of Monterey’s Alvarado Street Brewery that opened in January. Its experimentation with different types of fermentation yields unique flavors, such as the Alvarado Street Petite Pastry we tried. The menu, inspired by Latin and Asian street food, is a perfect complement.
When it comes to art, how does one choose from Carmel’s 70 galleries? We booked a Carmel Art Tour with Rohana LoSchiavo, who guides small groups of visitors to a rotating selection of galleries that have the best to offer. She is the director of Gallery Sur, which shows a unique combination of African stone sculpture and photography emphasizing the Monterey Peninsula. Other highlights include the studio gallery of Steven Whyte, who created the Comfort Women sculpture installed two years ago in San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Square, and the James J. Rieser Fine Art gallery, devoted to California art.
There’s no better way to explore Carmel than by wandering its many courtyards and passageways. These floriferous retreats are lined with shops, art galleries and places to eat. In sunny San Carlos Square, we stumbled upon Stationæry, open for breakfast and lunch daily. I loved that they let me order oat milk, sans coffee, to go with my ricotta sourdough toast topped with strawberry-rhubarb jam. The eatery recently began The Residency at Stationæry, serving dinner Thursdays through Saturdays, with Klaus Georis as the featured chef through fall.
Several blocks away in Morgan Square, we found Kush Day Spa, which offers massages with CBD oil, the cannabis ingredient that does not make you high but promotes relaxation and eases inflammation. My husband, who has been battling a sore shoulder for months, was surprised by how quickly and effectively it eased his pain.
Carmel, which is a little bit famous for banning women’s shoes more than 2 inches high and selling or eating ice cream on public streets (since overturned by onetime mayor Clint Eastwood), was the last place I expected to find a CBD massage, but maybe the town is just returning to its bohemian roots.
Where to Stay
If a quick day trip isn’t enough, these lodgings in the heart of the village put you within a few minutes’ walk of everything you want to do.
New: The Getaway, 831-624-3864, thegetawaycarmel.com
Classic: Cypress Inn, 831-624-3871, cypress-inn.com
Sumptuous: L’Auberge Carmel, 831-624-8578, laubergecarmel.com
Jet-Setters Weigh in
Lauren Weymouth (senior manager, university partnerships at Ripple): Cowgirl Winery in Carmel Valley has a cozy ranch-style tasting room that is country chic. We saddled up in the deep leather couches with our dog for flights of wine that were so tasty we instantly registered for club membership. The samples were generous and the staff was incredibly welcoming.
Kathryn Harrison (managing director at First Republic Bank): My perfect day in Carmel begins with a latte at Carmel Belle on Ocean Avenue. It’s a yummy cafe featuring locally sourced meals and drinks. Later, I enjoy a bloody or mimosa at Cypress Inn, annual site of Doris Day’s birthday celebration — and pet-friendly in her honor.
Bonnie Carlson (yoga instructor, fictional Big Little Lies badass) Face it: Even the most type A Monterey go-getter secretly wishes she could be me, and can you blame her? I’m so Zen, I get away with murder. (Well, we’ll see about that.) What’s my secret? Regular excursions to Esalen, where I center myself, reconnect with nature, and bond with fellow spirit seekers such as Don Draper.