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Carmel delights visitors with art, dining, wine, and hikes

by Charlie Wagner

The famous, and protected, Lone Cypress stands majestically on the 17-Mile Drive. Photo: Charlie Wagner
The famous, and protected, Lone Cypress stands majestically on the 17-Mile Drive. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

When some people think of Carmel-by-the-Sea, they think of cute houses, former mayor Clint Eastwood, and maybe Doris Day. But there's so much more, as my husband and I discovered recently over two delightful days there.

Carmel does have century-old Fairy Tale Cottages. It also has more modern buildings designed by architects like Bernard Maybeck, Charles Sumner Greene, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Less than 30 minutes away are spectacular hiking opportunities plus a gorgeous wine-growing region with over 50 wineries.

At 10 a.m. on a weekday, we departed San Francisco and drove three hours on scenic Route 1 all the way to sunny Carmel.

Arriving too early to check into our hotel, we stopped for lunch at the Village Corner at Dolores and Sixth streets. The founders of Carmel feared "citification" and rejected house numbers so addresses are given as the intersection of two streets.

Like many Carmel restaurants, the Village Corner is dog-friendly and allows pets in the outdoor heated terrace area. Food was good, portions were generous, and prices were reasonable with a Cobb Salad at $15.95 and a Croque-Monsieur at $12.95. The restaurant was not busy. We both noticed a pleasant feeling of life slowing down.

We checked out two rooms at the Vagabond House Bed and Breakfast Inn where we stayed two nights. Number 6 upstairs looked plush, comfortable and quiet. But we chose the larger Number 1 on the ground floor, recently remodeled, with a large bathroom with two vanities, a heated marble floor and separate tub and shower.

The Vagabond has 13 rooms, ranging from $219 to $359 per night, and pets are allowed for an additional fee. "Most visitors with pets bring dogs," said manager Thomas Rogers, "but we've hosted some cats and even parrots." It's LGBTQ-friendly, not surprising because lesbian Amanda Levett is the owner and Rogers is married to gregarious fellow employee Randal Gilbert.

Carmel on foot
Carmel is a delightfully clean and peaceful place in winter, with plenty of shops and dozens of art galleries. There are supermarkets, too, and even a discrete gas station.

The town's famous Fairy Tale Cottages were built by Hugh Comstock between 1924 and 1928 and have unique names like Hansel and Gretel. Historical walking tour maps are available at the tourist office in Carmel Plaza at Ocean and Mission streets.

The famous quirkiness of the town extends beyond architecture. Carmel has a municipal code banning heels more than 2 inches high unless the wearer has a permit. Passed in the 1920s to fend off lawsuits from people tripping on the uneven sidewalks, the law is not enforced today. But for a unique souvenir, you can obtain a free permit from City Hall.

This ordinance unintentionally highlights that much of Carmel is not accessible. Many of the newer hotels have some accessible rooms but Vagabond House, built in the late 1920s, does not.

Carmel is visually harmonious with many buildings of rough wood and stone. We appreciated the low-key signs on the shops, the result of another Carmel municipal code. Graves are banned in Carmel with one exception. Pal, the town dog, was buried in 1943 next to the picturesque Forest Theater. Carmel has been dog-friendly for a long time.

Right in the village, Maybeck's Harrison Memorial Library can be visited at Ocean and Lincoln streets and has a striking arts-and-crafts entryway. Less centrally located are Greene's much-admired Seaword House, built between 1918 and 1922, and Greene's own house and studio from 1923.

Built right on Carmel Beach and perhaps the most interesting is Lloyd Wright's Della Walker House, designed in 1948. The house is easily viewable from the beach or from the adjacent street.

The Greene and Wright buildings are usually closed to the public, but several times a year the Carmel Heritage Society organizes tours, which have included these buildings in the past.

Near the Walker house is a hand-made castle called the Tor House and Hawk Tower, built by poet Robinson Jeffers in 1919. Locals highly recommend the Tor tours, running daily except Sunday. Advance reservations are required.

If you have time for only one art gallery, visit the Carmel Arts Association at Dolores and Sixth streets. Founded in 1927, the association presents only the works of their artist members.

On the southern edge of town and worth visiting is the San Carlos Borromeo De Carmelo Mission founded in 1771. Close by is the Mission Ranch and Restaurant where you might run into proprietor Eastwood at the piano bar.

Perhaps the most charming features of Carmel are the more than 40 passageways and courtyards. Passageways are tiny pedestrian alleys and many open to courtyards. Popular Pilgrim's Way bookstore is entered via a passageway near Dolores and Sixth streets.

The Court of the Fountains, behind the Anton and Michel Restaurant at Mission and Seventh streets, was our favorite courtyard. We decided to return to that restaurant after we noticed their bargain "sunset dinner," offered between 5 and 6:15 p.m. The hostess studied her watch after we arrived at 6:13, then graciously showed us to our table.

We were seated in a glass-enclosed room overlooking a large courtyard with several fountains. The meal was elegant and our best in Carmel. Sunset dinner for two with a half-bottle of wine was $140 before tip. Carmel restaurants tend to be expensive, with mains between $25 and $55. Casual dress is acceptable in all restaurants.

Our dinner the next night at romantic Casanova, at Mission and Fifth streets, featured French and Italian dishes and was delicious. With two glasses of wine, the check was $170 before tip. We had a foodie moment savoring the micro-arugula and micro-basil while considering their motto, "We're always questioning and ever evolving." There's a pretty outdoor terrace for warmer weather.

For nighttime entertainment, the Sunset Center has live music and comedy, primarily on weekends. The rustic Forest Theater, established in 1910 as the first outdoor theater west of the Mississippi, presents plays and movies under the stars in summer.

Rogers said the closest movie theaters were in Monterey, where there are several live entertainment venues. The calendar in the Monterey County Weekly is the best source for what's happening. For more ideas, pick up a free copy of the Carmel Pine Cone, the local weekly paper. Its police, fire and sheriff's log provides a unique insight into the local culture.

You have to venture out of Carmel to appreciate the area's full potential. Two great options are Carmel Valley, home of over 20 winery tasting rooms, and Point Lobos State Reserve, with rocky headlands, tide pools and photo-ready stands of Monterey cypress.

Carmel Valley
Drive less than 30 minutes and you're in Carmel Valley, where we had an excellent lunch at Corkscrew Restaurant, 55 West Carmel Valley Road. We enjoyed the beautiful Market Salad with persimmons, yellow squash, mixed greens, beet cubes, and champagne dressing.

A main of salmon with bok choy, saffron rice, aioli and cranberry relish was also a standout. The tab was $93 with two glasses of wine, before tip.

Most of the tasting rooms are directly on Carmel Valley Road. We visited two recommended by Evan Oakes, the gay owner-operator of Ag Ventures, a tour company offering wine tasting, sightseeing and agricultural tours. Both tasting rooms were easy to find, attractive, and not busy.

Bernardus at 5 West Carmel Valley Road has been in business since the 1980s and has a Dutch owner. Practically across the street is Cima Collina, 19 East Carmel Valley Road, in a building dating from the late 1800s. Nearby Earthbound Farms, a giant farm stand and the largest organic grower in the U.S., is worth visiting at 7250 Carmel Valley Road. It opens in the spring.

Hiking Point Lobos
Tour books call Point Lobos the crown jewel among California's state parks and we quickly saw why. Drive just 15 minutes south from Carmel for dramatic views of rocky coastline, sea birds, otters, harbor seals, and tide pools teaming with sea creatures.

Point Lobos has countless Monterey cypress trees clinging precariously to rocky perches like the famed Lone Cypress of the 17-Mile Drive. Point Lobos deserves a full day if you have the time. In a little over a half day, we had enough time for four short hikes.

We walked the North Shore trail to the Old Veteran tree, took the Cypress Grove Loop, inspected tide pools along Weston Beach, and finally strolled the Bird Island Trail. Trails were mostly flat, under one mile in length, and the Bird Island Trail was even accessible.

We saw wonderfully twisted trees on every trail. On the Cypress Grove Loop, branches were covered with orange-colored algae due to carotene, the pigment that colors carrots.

We found "Day Hikes on the California Central Coast" the best hiking guide. It describes dozens of other hiking trails in the area including two right on Carmel Beach.

There are no LGBTQ bars in Carmel or Monterey, but just south of Point Lobos is gay-popular Garrapata Beach State Park, which has an unofficial clothing-optional section. The closest gay bar is Franco's in Castroville, open only on Saturday night.

Return to Carmel
If Carmel Beach is crowded, nearby Carmel River State Beach is a good alternative and has great birding.

The tourist office recommended the Carmel Walks walking tour as well as the more specialized Carmel Art Tours, which focuses on galleries and special exhibitions. On the second Saturday of the month, the Carmel Art Walk visits only artist-owned galleries.

If you have more interest in wineries, the Monterey Wine Country Tasting Room Map has other itineraries including tasting rooms in Carmel Village, Monterey, and along the River Road Wine Trail, which goes from Salinas to Soledad.

If you spend time in Point Lobos, you might even skip the 17-Mile Drive. We had to see it once and found the northern end much more interesting. There are several knockout beaches plus the famed Lone Cypress, though we found the trees at Point Lobos just as dramatic.

Fine dining, favorite wineries, Fairy Tale Cottages, Frank Lloyd Wright - Carmel is a place to enjoy and explore.

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