Tucked neatly along the southern shore of the Monterey Peninsula is the one-square-mile village called Carmel-by-the-sea, a name that seems fitting for a place known for its fairy-tale architecture and its popularity with artists. Just 4,500 people live in Carmel, but travelers from all over the world find the town an irresistible tourist attraction.
Maybe it's all the press Carmel used to get when its most famous resident — actor Clint Eastwood — was the hands-on local mayor. Or maybe it's the gorgeous white sand beach that's said to be the best on the Monterey Peninsula. Then again, it could just be all of those storybook cottages — the ones with names instead of street addresses — that make Carmel seem like a storybook village just beckoning travelers to visit.
Judging from our recent visit, the appeal of Carmel is all of the above plus a good dose of California history and an excellent selection of top-notch resorts, hotels and tourist attractions either in Carmel or within a few miles. If you're planning a Northern California vacation, be sure to include a stop in Carmel.
The village itself is located on a gradual slope down to the beach, the trees in this area thick and hearty and adding just a little of that Hansel-and-Gretel forest feel to go with the storybook cottages. This is no ordinary downtown, mind you — there are subtle differences. For example, there are no street addresses or neon signs. A local realtor points out it requires a permit to wear high heels. And it was once illegal to eat ice cream on the street, although Clint Eastwood's administration made our kid's day by repealing that ordinance.
Yet, if you have a canine, you might think the local laws are dog-gone permissive. Dogs are allowed to walk the streets downtown — as long as they have a leash and presumably an owner — and they're free to roam without a leash on Carmel's beach.
Somewhere around 50 inns and 60 restaurants are located in a downtown area that is a trove of quaint shops, boutiques, jewelry stores and more than 90 galleries. It's all easily accessible on foot although climbing back up the gradual grade from the beach will make you feel like you've had your exercise for the day.
After a few hours spent exploring the Carmel shops, we checked into our hotel — in this case a resort in Carmel Valley, just a few miles east of Carmel-by-the-sea. The Quail Lodge is a renowned golf resort that now has become a popular destination for families whether they golf or not. The resort offers a complete set of options for the traveler that allows you to be as active — or low-key — as you want to be. We were struck with how picturesque the resort fairways were as we drove the meandering road that leads through the golf course into the main resort.
This part of the Carmel Valley was once a dairy farm, owned by the brother-in-law of Charles Lindbergh. In 1959, a group of investors bought the dairy and began putting together the Carmel Valley Golf and Country Club — Carmel Valley's first golf course, opening in 1964. Family home sites came next and, in 1967, the hotel opened. Today, the Quail Lodge has grown to 850 acres and includes 97 guestrooms and suites along with two excellent restaurants.
We took a little time to see some of the Carmel-area sights, including the beach and the 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach, where we stopped at the Lodge at Pebble Beach for some shopping and a light meal. It was amazing to see the Pebble Beach golf course up-close and one could sense the thrill it must give a golfer to play the famous course. But we're told playing Pebble Beach is not something you do every day — unless you're a tycoon — as it's one of the most expensive golf courses anywhere.
Another must-see in Carmel is the Carmel Mission, which stands today as a monument to Padre Junipero Serra of the Order of Franciscan Friars. After founding missions in San Diego and Monterey, Serra founded the Carmel Mission on August 24, 1771.
Don't forget that Carmel is adjacent to Monterey — going to prove there really is a lot to see and do in the area — and it's easy to stop by that historic waterfront and soak up some California history while in the area.
Cannery Row — the subject of John Steinbeck's book by that name — still has a bit of that fish factory feel to it, and there are still a few run-down or torn-down buildings that mar what otherwise might be picture-perfect views. But the city has made a lot of effort to create bike paths and walking areas to accommodate the legions of visitors. And there are plenty of reasons to take a walk — the area now is home to more than 200 galleries in addition to a street-full of specialty shops, restaurants, hotels and inns.
The Cannery Row coastline is also a natural habitat for many sea creatures that kayakers paddle out to see. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a 5,300-square-mile area that protects species such as seals, sea otters, shorebirds and many others that are endangered.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in one of the cannery buildings, is a fascinating exploration of the undersea life found near Monterey. The aquarium covers everything from tide pool creatures to sharks and even features a 31-foot high kelp forest that is visible in one of the aquarium's huge tanks. Two-story viewing windows give visitors the feeling they are truly 20,000 leagues under the sea.
Just north of Monterey is the Marina dunes area, a favorite spot for California beach vacations. Stay in one of the resorts along this stretch of sand and you'll enjoy being close to the action — the ocean is right out your door.
Yes, Carmel-by-the-sea is aptly named — the sea will be a big part of this vacation experience, but that's only part of the attraction for visitors.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Carmel-by-the-sea is just south of Monterey, about 120 miles south of San Francisco and 350 miles north of Los Angeles. It's easy to include on any Northern California vacation itinerary.
WHAT: A quaint, seaside "storybook village" with charming accommodations and many tourist attractions in the area.
WHEN: Any time of year. It's definitely cooler in winter, but also less crowded. Look for vacation packages and last minute travel deals in winter.
WHY: The charming combination of shops, restaurants and storybook cottages makes this an unusual destination, even for California. If you're in the San Francisco area, Carmel is a great getaway or daytrip.
HOW: For more information on Carmel, contact the Carmel Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-550-4333 for a free visitor's guide, or visit www.carmelcalifornia.org. Click here for recommended Carmel lodgings.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)