Design Destination: Carmel
A long weekend escape plan filled with natural beauty, eclectic food and more in Carmel, a hideaway by the sea.
Carmel: A Hideaway by the Sea
The last time I was in Carmel, officially Carmel-by-the-Sea, was with my husband Kent. We were anxious to get to the beach, the place I consider my official welcome to the city, but our progress was interrupted by a four-way stop. Impatient to continue toward our scenic goal, I signaled the convertible to my left to proceed. “Was that who I think it was?” I quizzed my co-pilot. With the positive shake of Kent’s head that whom I saw was indeed the village’s most famous resident and one-time mayor, Clint Eastwood, I realized I had received my greeting, Carmel-style.
Welcome to Carmel—a photo-perfect locale that has more than 50 restaurants in one square mile and 41 secret passageways and courtyards. Here, there are no street lights, no parking meters, no fast-food joints and no high heels (seriously, there’s an ordinance) but just about every carpet that is red rolls out for dogs. Though it can be reached by air, my always preferred method of arrival is by car—an easy, full-of-options, seven-and-a-half-hour drive away. So follow me in my discovery of Carmel along its main streets, off its beaten paths and out of the village limits.
TIP: Visit the Carmel Mission to learn about the local history through the museum, cathedral, cemetery and stunning Spanish-style courtyard.
Where to Start
My first stop is always Carmel Beach. Located at the bottom of the town’s signature street, Ocean Avenue, this is the iconic cypress-strewn, white-sand beachfront. Always complemented by the soundtrack of the Pacific surf and scattered with locals, tourists and dogs (of course), it’s the best place to meld into Carmel mode.
Things to Do
Picnicking is a must. Stop at The Cheese Shop–known for its selection of more than 200 fromage choices. Purchase your favorites, complement them with the shop’s baguettes, charcuterie, olives and more and head mere blocks for a beach picnic, or bring your meal-to-go on a road trip up the coast.
Big Sur is curve after curve of dramatic cliffs, pounding waves and ocean views that seemingly lead to infinity, and it’s connected to Carmel by Highway 1 and a quarter tank of gas. For the full experience, stop for photo ops, take a short hike and eat along the way. Be sure, however, to time your meal to daylight, request deck seating and be prepared to become entranced by the view.
TIP: Cell service in Big Sur is spotty so download Google Maps for offline use before going. Also, restrooms can only be found at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Ranger Station. And before embarking on a road trip on Highway 1, check with Caltrans Highway Information Network to avoid temporary road closures since rain and mudslides can make the highway inaccessible.
About 10 minutes inland is Quail Lodge & Golf Club, our three-night home for this visit. Situated in Carmel Valley (versus Carmel-by-the-Sea; there’s a distinction), the short distance from the village is a significant one. Rather than cozy and charming, the valley is more open, contemporary and sunny as it’s just beyond the coastal fog. Set amid 850 acres of fairways, meadows and lakes, Quail Lodge is best defined by cars and golf. As host of two noted motor events, this theme runs throughout the resort, where it’s possible to rent such prestigious vehicles as a DeLorean and Rolls Royce.
And its golfing opportunities are no less impressive–18 holes and 6,500 yards of prime-time golf, a Golf Academy headed by Katherine Marren (a PGA pro recognized by Golf Digest as one of California’s top 20 teachers) and a nine-hole putting circuit that meanders throughout the accommodations of this California ranch/Spanish Colonial-style resort.
TIP: You don’t have to be a guest at the lodge to take advantage of the course, and you don’t have to pack balls, clubs or shoes either. Rent them from the pro shop.
If it’s a pocketbook issue and a walk-out-the-door-into-the-village stay you seek, the Normandy Inn is perfectly positioned. Only three blocks from Carmel Beach and surrounded by blooming gardens, it’s been described as “a very quaint inn in a quaint town.” Plus, each afternoon wraps with a sherry and cookie finale.
TIP: In August, visit the Pebble Beach Concours Tour d’Elegance to see 200 unique vehicles parked on Ocean Avenue for visitors to check out.
Perched atop a cliff for a front-row seat of Big Sur is Nepenthe (pictured at right), a legendary eatery that was originally opened in 1949 and designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. With a legacy tied to Big Sur’s Beat Generation, the ambiance is laid back and nature focused. Don’t miss the famous Ambrosia Burger or Lolly’s roast chicken and don’t overlook the Phoenix gift shop.
Smack dab in the middle of Carmel-by-the-Sea is Dametra Cafe, known not only for its Mediterranean fare but also for its contagious congeniality. There on a night when a married couple were celebrating, a kitchen line cook began to sing; and after his rendition of “Bésame Mucho” and more, all were dancing (albeit encouraged by the gregarious hostess).
Self-proclaimed “Carmel’s charming terrace restaurant,” the outdoor deck of the Treehouse Cafe is reminiscent of a deluxe version of your inner child’s dream come true. Look for the rope ladder attached to the deck and enjoy the eclectic menu. The cuisine is a delicious blend of owners Fadi Alnimiri and his wife Pam’s ethnicities—Mediterranean, Greek and Thai.
Closer to home (assuming it’s Quail Lodge), is Edgar’s, the resort’s signature restaurant that is convenient, comfy and projects a clubby feel. Arrive early and order quickly to avoid the disappointment of missing out on the melt-in-the-mouth sand dabs. Harvested daily from Monterey Bay, I was warned, “When they’re out, they’re out.”
Go Boutiquing! Dozens of stores line the streets in the center of town. You’ll find locally owned specialty shops, art galleries selling works by California artists and so much more.
Diggidy Dog is a retail tribute to the village’s four-legged visitors, complete with neck and bow ties, whimsical apparel for pups and a selection of doggy cookies, displayed in bakery fashion.
Like an Old-World millinery shop, The Carmel Hat Company is a village staple. Having hatted customers over the years for such celebratory occasions as the Kentucky Derby, this packed-with-hats boutique offers styles from fedoras to Panamas.
For those with champagne taste on a cosmo budget, there’s Foxy Couture. Described as “sustainable luxury,” this 30-year-old consignment shop has an impressive selection of top-quality Chanel, Louis Vuitton, YSL and Hermès purses, jewelry and clothing—all with the guarantee of authenticity.
For the sweet-toothed crowd, The Cooking Channel’s Katie Lee featured treats from Cottage of Sweets, a traditional, British-style confectioner, on her Beach Bites show last summer. You’ll find classic candy, homemade fudge, imported products and more here.
Good to Know: Don’t forget that in the village it’s wise to dress in layers, even in summer, as throughout-the-year temps vary by only 10 degrees. Consider a puffer jacket (the local uniform), contemplate casual (the local norm) and confirm your return.
Hot Finds: Carmel Style
The city of Carmel is home to stunning ocean views, stretches of gorgeous greenery and quaint eateries galore—but if it’s your next vacation destination, don’t forget the constant coastal chill! Bring your toastiest puffer jacket, coziest sweaters and chicest scarves along with gear for scenic hikes and enchanting beach picnics.