Carmel, California, is not what it used to be -- but it is still Carmel (or properly, Carmel-by-the-Sea). After all, Clint Eastwood was mayor for a while and he is nothing if Mr. Integrity. Just because I knew it one way (back when) doesn't mean that you can't make it your own now. Rather than the haute arts colony of the '70s and '80s, Carmel today seems to waver between tired vintage old money that is so declasse in the post-recession and tacky overpretentious new money that is dreary anytime. Unfortunately I react to Carmel today as just another tourist trap -- but I keep going back because of its extraordinary beauty and surprising charm.
There is nothing like the Northern California coast and its idiosyncratic villages and towns perched on bluffs. I've traveled the East Coast from the top of Maine to Key West, and its welcoming beaches and beach communities are welcoming and intoxicating. The Northern California coast is rugged and makes you work -- and the pleasure is all the greater for the effort.
I was fortunate to be hosted by a dear friend at Pebble Beach late last spring. The weather changes daily on the California coast, and we had fog and chill, so I wasn't motivated to blog about it. What you learn living in California is how counter-intuitive the weather is compared to the East Coast -- in other words, make no assumptions! Now that the late winter is slowly sneaking in some lovely spring days, I'm thinking about Carmel and the California coast again. it's time to see the wild and rangy shoreline before the fog locks it down again over the summer.
Three of us girlfriends/Womantravelers took a 30-minute walk across the renowned Pebble Beach Golf Course (instead of driving along the renowned 17-Mile Drive) through the mist and chill, and layered-up, I've come to enjoy that wintry trek along the Pacific. Carmel's charm, enhanced by bottle-green cypress trees leaning away from the wind and multi-multi-million bungalows, was an eerie pleasure.
Parking in-season is frustrating in Carmel, which clearly would like to remain private, so put on your comfortable shoes and walk. You can pop into stores, walk down the hill to the beach, and you might have an artist sighting in a studio not listed on the tourist map. Inspired by the awesome beauty, the fabric of Carmel artists is happily more resilient than the T-shirt shops.
Here are some things to check out in Carmel:
Shopping: Besides the art galleries every where you turn, pop into the luxury homestore Jan-de-Luz. The owner is French and so are the linens. You can get your tea towels embroidered the same day. Augustina Leathers is not your typical Western leather shop, although their belts and buckles are flashy enough to fight off any Texan. The Carmel Drug Store is a fun and funky modern-day apothecary (meaning, lots of hilarious cards).
Dining -- Cantinetta Luca: antipasti courses, long list of Italian wines by the glass, happy hours that are not called happy hours, and an inventive Italian menu; or the always-delicious high-end West Coast Italian chain, Il Fornaio in the Pine Inn Hotel.
Fine art -- the museum-quality Oliver, Elliot and Sebastian Fine Art is a must-see, but act serious because their clients are.
Golf -- There are public courses in the area, but for special access to the inner circles, try these golf academies: Ben Alexander Golf Academy at Poppy Hills, Pebble Beach, and Pebble Beach Golf Academy.
Lodging: La Playa Hotel down close to the Pacific Ocean is the "grande dame" of Carmel, Mexican-Colonial decor, with balcony vistas and open views. Cozy yet plush rooms, suites and cottages are worth the splurge -- and good deals can be found so take a close look. Inn at Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach -- an indisputable luxury!
Carmel Valley - if you are out there at one of the resorts, Baja Cantina is a lively find - unusual and inventive Mexican dining. Really tasty, reasonable and funky - a great place to hang out!