In the not-so-distant past, Carmel was regarded as a reclusive little seaside town with the sort of relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere that was conducive to such pursuits as photography, painting, and writing. Robert Louis Stevenson, Upton Sinclair, Ansel Adams—all found Carmel so peaceful and intellectually inspiring as to settle down here. ↓
Not anymore. The charmingly ragtag bohemian village of yesteryear has long since given way to a cute but conservative tourist mecca filled with yogurt parlors, T-shirt stores, and chichi House and Garden marts offering $300 ceramic geese and other essentials. Traffic—both vehicular and pedestrian—can be maddeningly congested during the summer and on weekends, and prices in the shops, hotels, and restaurants tend to be gougingly high.
The funny thing is, no matter how crowded or expensive Carmel gets, nobody seems to mind. Enamored of the village’s eclectic dwellings, outrageous boutiques, quaint cafes, and silky white beaches, tourists arrive in droves during the summer to lighten their wallets and darken their complexions.
In fact, most B&Bs are usually booked solid from May to October, so make your reservations far in advance and leave plenty of room on the credit cards—you’ll need it.
So much to see and do
Carmel is a wee bit o’ heaven for shoppers. Even if you can’t afford a lizard-skin gym bag or a Waterford crystal bird bath, it’s still fun–and free–to window-shop among Carmel’s oh-so-chic boutiques. Ocean Avenue has its share of tourist-schlock shops, it’s true, but hit the side streets for some fine adventures in consumerland.
Intriguing stores include Ladyfingers for jewelry (on Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh Avenues), Handworks for beautifully made modern furniture and crafts (two locations, both on Dolores Street, one between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and one between Fourth and Fifth Avenues), GJ’s Wild West for Western clothes and accessories (on San Carlos Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues), the Dansk II outlet for housewares (on Ocean Avenue and San Carlos Street), and the Secret Garden for pretty garden accessories (on Dolores Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues).
If you’re looking for a gift for you teenager, head to On the Beach Surf Shop at Ocean and Mission Streets, which has a huge selection of cool clothing. But wait, there more: just outside of town are two luxe suburban malls: The Barnyard (on Highway 1 at Carmel Valley Road) and The Crossroads (on Highway 1 at Rio Road).
A thick cluster of quality art galleries is located between Lincoln and San Carlos Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Particularly noteworthy is the Weston Gallery, which showcases 19th- and 20th-century photographers’ works, including a permanent display featuring such famous Carmelites as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. Located on Sixth Avenue at Dolores Street; (831)624-4453.
If your sprees have left you shopped out, visit one of the town’s fabled beaches. Carmel Beach City Park, at the foot of Ocean Avenue, tends to be overcrowded in summer (even though its chilly aquamarine water is unsafe for swimming), but the satiny white sand and towering cypresses are worth the price of sunbathing among the hordes.
Better yet, head a mile south on Scenic Drive (the street running alongside the beach) to spectacular Carmel River State Beach, where the locals go to hide from the tourists. The Carmel River enters the Pacific here, and the nearby bird sanctuary is often frequented by pelicans, hawks, sandpipers, and the occasional goose. Middle Beach and Monastery Beach lie beyond.
The only thing better than a good bookstore is a good bookstore with a good cafe. Within the sea of Carmel’s exorbitant boutiques and restaurants is the refreshingly unpretentious (and inexpensive) Thunderbird Bookshop and Cafe, located within the Barnyard shopping complex at Highway 1 and Carmel Valley Road. Peruse the largest book selection on the Central Coast, then sit your fanny at the adjacent cafe armed with a slice of quiche, a decaf latte, and your new read. Now that’s vacationing. (Open daily 10am–8pm; 831/624-9414.)
Five entrances, manned by spiffy security guards adept at making change, lead into this fabled enclave that serves as home and playground of the absurdly wealthy. Though it can be whizzed through in about 30 minutes, two to three hours is about the average touring time.
The $7.25 toll fee includes a map and guide, but all that’s required to stay on course is to follow the dotted red line painted on the road. Aside from a few scenic overlooks, the third of the drive that passes through the Del Monte Forest is rather dull—a better bet is to double back along the coastal stretch. Among the 21 “points of interest” you’ll see everything from a spectacular Byzantine castle with a private beach (the Crocker Mansion near the Carmel gate) to several tastefully bland California Nouvelle country-club establishments in perfectly maintained forest settings.
Other highlights include the often-photographed gnarled Lone Cypress clinging to its rocky precipice above the sea; miles of hiking and equestrian trails winding through groves of native pines and wildflowers, with glorious views of Monterey Bay; and Bird Rock, a small offshore isle covered with hundreds of seals and sea lions (bring binoculars).
Self-guided nature tours are outlined in a variety of brochures, available for free at the gate entrances and at the Inn at Spanish Bay and the Lodge at Pebble Beach (see reviews, below). On your way out, splurge on an $8 margarita at The Inn at Spanish Bay’s oceanside cocktail lounge (hey, who’s gonna know?). For more information, contact Pebble Beach Security at (831)624-6669.
How much is a room and a round of golf at Pebble Beach these days? Put it this way: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. If the 6,000 or so residents of this exclusive gated community had their way, Pebble Beach would probably be off-limits to mere commoners. Perhaps more of an indignity, though, is the $7.25 levy required to trespass on their gilded avenues and wallow in envy at how the ruling class recreates.
If you have no strong desire to tour corporate-owned hideaways and redundant—albeit gorgeous—seascapes along 17-Mile Drive, save your lunch money: you’re not missing anything that can’t be seen elsewhere along the Monterey Coast.
At the south end of Carmel on the corner of Rio Road and Lasuen Drive is the restored Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, better known as the Carmel Mission. Established in 1770, this was the headquarters of Father Junípero Serra’s famous chain of California missions, as well as being his favorite (Serra is buried in front of the altar in the sanctuary). The vine-covered baroque church with its 11-bell Moorish tower is one of California’s architectural treasures.
The mission houses three extensive museums, and its surrounding 14 acres are planted with native flowers and trees. The cemetery has more than 3,000 graves of Native Americans who worked and lived in the mission; in place of a gravestone, many plots are marked by a solitary abalone shell. 3080 Rio Road at Lasuén Drive, several blocks west of Highway 1, (831)624-3600.
If the Carmel crowds are starting to drive you buggy, head to the intersection of Mountain View Avenue and Forest Road (off Ocean Avenue) and bask in the glorious silence of Mission Trails Park. Even on the busiest weekends, the north end of the park is usually deserted, allowing those in the know a few hours’ respite among the 35 shaded acres of tree-lined trails. Dogs are permitted, and plastic doo-doo bags are provided to keep things tidy.
Worth a gander is Tor House, the former home of poet Robinson Jeffers. Constructed over several years beginning in 1914, the rustic granite building looks as if it was transplanted from the British Isles (it’s still occupied by one of the Jeffers clan). More intriguing, however, is the nearby four-story Hawk Tower, which Jeffers built for his wife, Una, with thousands of huge granite rocks he hauled up from the beach below his house.
Guided tours of the house and tower are available for a fee on Friday and Saturday by reservation only. 26304 Ocean View Avenue at Stewart Way, Carmel-by-the-Sea; no children under 12; (831)624-1813.
Carmel has an active theater scene, perhaps best represented by the Pacific Repertory Theatre company, which puts on an outdoor musical and Shakespeare festival each summer and performs other classics such as The Madness of George III and Death of a Salesman in its indoor theater year-round. Tickets are reasonably priced; call (831)622-0700 or (831)622-0100 for details.
Johann’s Bach in Town. The annual monthlong Carmel Bach Festival offers numerous concerts, recitals, lectures, and discussion groups–some are even free. In addition to Bach masterpieces, you’ll hear scores by Vivaldi and Scarlatti, Beethoven and Chopin. The classical music celebration begins in mid-July; series tickets are sold starting in January, and single-event tickets (ranging from $10 to $50) go on sale in April. Call (831)624-2046 for tickets, and (831)624-1521 for additional festival facts.