Quaint Carmel is great for a weekend trip
by Ed Walsh
"When you see a passageway, try not to go out the same way you came in," advised Gael Gallagher, who leads the daily Carmel Walks walking tour of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quintessentially quaint California seaside city just two hours south of San Francisco.
I had the pleasure of taking the tour earlier this month and exploring a good part of the Monterey Bay Area.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is home to just 3,800 residents and is one of the most unique communities in the world thanks to its founders a little over a century ago. The early developers sold land in small lots encouraging a sense of community with a lot of folks living together in walking distance of each other. Carmel-by-the-Sea got its biggest boost in population from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as quake survivors headed south to start over in the Monterey Bay Area.
While people call Carmel-by-the-Sea simply "Carmel," technically Carmel is the unincorporated area surrounding Carmel-by-the-Sea and it's not to be confused with Carmel Valley Village, which most shorten to "Carmel Valley," an unincorporated Monterey County community inland that is known for its wine tasting rooms and sunny weather.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its picturesque storybook architecture and its aforementioned passageways that connect the galleries and restaurants that keep tourists coming back year after year.
The best way to see Carmel-by-the-Sea and the surrounding sights in Monterey County is through a guided tour. One of the best is gay-owned and -operated. Evan Oaks runs Ag Venture Tours and takes visitors on a number of tours throughout Monterey County and as far south as Big Sur to the Hearst Castle in neighboring San Luis Obispo County. Oaks has an encyclopedic knowledge of the wine and agricultural industry in Monterey County and he offers some tours that concentrate on vineyards and wine tastings while others give more of an overview of the region's most popular attractions.
The square mile of seaside property that makes up Carmel-by-the-Sea is best explored on foot. A couple of must-do walking tours do the job well. The aforementioned two-hour Carmel Walks tour offers a fascinating history lesson on the city and takes walkers on some of the charming back alleys that you would probably never find on your own. The tour runs Tuesday-Saturday starting at 10 a.m. with a 2 p.m. walk on Saturday. Reservations are required and it costs just $25.
The Carmel Food Tours is another must-do excursion. The tour starts at 11 a.m., lasts about three hours and costs $69, a bargain considering that gourmet food samplings along the way are included. People often find a favorite restaurant on the tour and return for dinner. The tour is also perfect for day-trippers who are looking to sample food from the restaurants that have made Carmel-by-the-Sea famous. The Carmel Walks and Carmel Food tours complement each other well as there is only a little overlap between the two.
Carmel-by-the-Sea has been LGBT friendly for decades but has never been GPS friendly. One of the city's quirks is that none of the homes or buildings is numbered. Everybody picks up mail at the post office. Some homes are named to avoid confusion. You also technically have to get a permit from City Hall to walk the streets in high heels. That law was enacted in the 1960s to prevent lawsuits from people tripping on the city's sidewalks, which sometimes can be made uneven by root growth. Clint Eastwood famously helped repeal the law barring people from eating ice cream cones in the street after he was elected mayor in 1986. That law was designed to protect art galleries from sticky fingers.
You can get a sample of Monterey County's famous wine crop without leaving Carmel-by-the-Sea. Wrath in the Carmel Plaza and Mazoni Cellars on San Carlos between Ocean and 7th offer a great selection of wine tastings from the county. Carmel-by-the-Sea offers a number of fine dining options where visitors can sample the region's wines. Il Fornaio in the historic Pine Inn offers superb patio and outdoor dining in the heart of downtown. Grasing's Restaurants on San Carlos between Mission and 6th is famous for its farm-fresh produce from the Carmel Valley.
Speaking of deliciously fresh, locally produced food, the largest grower of organic food in the U.S., Earthbound Farms, was founded in the Carmel Valley. The Earthbound Farm stand at 7250 Carmel Valley Road is a great place to stop for lunch and take a stroll through an organic garden and see how the food is produced. The farm stand offers all-you-can eat free raspberry picking over the late spring and early summer. The rule is that you can't take any home with you.
The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is the biggest attraction in the county and is a must-stop for any visitor to the area. The aquarium is located on Monterey's famed Cannery Row. The old cannery buildings now showcase shops, art galleries, and restaurants that draw tourists from all around the world.
The Monterey Movie Tours is a good way to see the major attractions along the scenic 17-Mile Drive and beyond. The bus shows film clips as it cruises by the most picturesque places in Monterey County where those films were shot. The bus makes a few stops, including one of the most photographed trees in the world, the Lone Cypress, which stands on a bluff along the 17-Mile Drive. You can see your favorite sights and then see how they used to look in old Hollywood movies.
The Monterey Bay Area is known for its boutique hotels and bed and breakfast inns. Carmel-by-the-Sea has a number of historic places to stay. The Pine Inn was the city's first hotel, built in 1889. The upscale property was once up the hill and literally rolled down Ocean Avenue to its present location close to the ocean. A full complimentary hot American breakfast buffet is included with your stay.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the most dog-friendly cities in the U.S. thanks to legendary actress Doris Day, who lives nearby and celebrates her 92nd birthday next month. Day co-owns the Cypress Inn, which famously features a "Yappy Hour" afternoon social where dogs are very welcome.
The Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley is the place to be if you want to stay at a full service resort hotel. The hotel boasts a spa, fitness center, croquet court, and two restaurants. Its location in Carmel Valley means that it often stays warm and sunny there when the coast is socked in with fog. The hotel's Wickets Bistro is open for casual dining for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Centrella Inn in the charming town of Pacific Grove was built in 1889 and has been restored to give its guests the feel of what it was like for San Franciscans to vacation in the 19th century when the train used to run there. The Centrella includes a free hot breakfast and cocktail hour. The hotel is a couple of blocks from the ocean and it is a pleasant mile or so walk along the water to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. You can walk to a number of wonderful restaurants in the area or, if you want to splurge, check out the fabulous 1833 Restaurant near downtown Monterey.