What to do in Carmel: By Land and By Sea

Carmel, CA

What to do in Carmel is the first in a series of posts about my recent trip to Carmel, CA.

I’m a Californian through and through. That’s because there is so much to do in this great state. There’s so much diversity and I love it all. Still, when the Carmel Chamber of Commerce invited me to come explore the area, I wondered just what to do in Carmel? Carmel has a definite allure. Clint Eastwood made sure we all know that. But Clint Eastwood is probably not inviting me to dinner at his house (after all I photographed his ex-wife for an icky tell-all magazine– true story). So just what to do in Carmel for someone like me?

What I learned may surprise you. Carmel is certainly posh, but there’s also a definite simplicity I wasn’t expecting. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a village set into the woods of the Monterey Peninsula. From the very beginning it was envisioned as a creative retreat for artists seeking inspiration. Because there’s inspiration everywhere you look in Carmel. From its beautiful beaches and rugged coastline, to its “valley” which rises above the fog and mist. This diversity of climate is part of what makes Monterey one of the 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations in the world, according to Wine Enthusiast.

The homes and businesses in this village are aligned in a simple grid set roughly in a 10x14 square block area. The buildings in the village are rather simple, and beautifully retain their original charm. Most of them are based on the cottage model. None of the buildings has an actual address. So leave your GPS device at home– this is a walking town. To fully enjoy the charms of the village and really understand what to do in Carmel, you need to take the time to explore the streets and their many courtyards, walkways and “secret” passages. Navigating this village is special, slow down and don’t get agitated. Residents and businesses have to describe where they are. I heard one person say they were “4 houses north of Fourth on Dolores, west side.” Another joker told us to “walk east from San Carlos on 5th– until you find it.”

Just because there are no addresses doesn’t mean things are impossible to find. In fact they’ve developed a shorthand that’s quite easy to understand. A good example is the location of the Golden Bough Playhouse: Monte Verde 4 SW 8th. What that means is they’re located on Monte Verde, four structures south of 8th, on the west side.

What to do in Carmel: By Land

If you plan to visit the area I’d recommend staying at least one night. There are many lodging choices in the village, from small Inns and B&Bs, to larger family friendly motels and hotels. None of the choices rise above 2 stories at street level. There’s no neon, no national chains or any large convention facilities in Carmel-by-the-Sea. I was invited to stay at Hofsas House– one of the larger hotels. It has a typical (for the area) bohemian history. The current owner described to me how her grandmother got the place built. It’s quite a story. Both grandmother and granddaughter chose to honor the romantic Tyrolean theme– which defines much of this village by the sea. The building is pink. I think my sheets were pink. I remember pink most fondly.

Once you have a home base, everything else is close by. A short distance from the village is the historic Carmel Mission built in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra. It is one of two Basilicas located on the West Coast and is also Serra’s burial site.

While you’re out of the village exploring the wilder sides of Carmel you can also check out its back roads and trails. Pack a picnic and head to one of the many state and regional parks in the area. Plan a day trip to Jacks Peak in Monterey or Garland Park in Carmel Valley,

Once back in the village, Carmel’s shopping shows its worldly style. If you’re into shopping, allow yourself some time (and then some). Carmel’s charms aren’t for the bargain hunter. However, discriminating shoppers are sure to find something unique in one of the town’s secret alleys or architecturally baroque shops.

Yet, if you know me then you know shopping is not my thing. So my two favorite in town activities can best described as walking tours. Food and Wine tours, of course.

The first is the Carmel Wine Walk. It’s a great self-guided wine tasting experience taking you to nine of Carmel’s wine tasting rooms. It’s fun to roam around at your leisure taking in a tasting or two (or three). It’s a “passport” style program that doesn’t expire until you get stamped at each tasting room. Meaning you can return on a different day and pick up the tasting experience where you left off previously. Which is a good thing, because nine wine tasting flights in one afternoon could lead the average visitor to a little too much inspiration (or too much napping). The passports are a $70 value and are available at the Carmel Visitor Center. They’re also included in many hotel packages.

If nine wineries seems like too big a gulp– let me suggest another option. Carmel Food Tours. This is a gem of an experience that includes a touch of wine and so much more. I loved this tour partly (no mostly) because of the enthusiasm of it’s founder Staci Giovino– with every step she makes you hungry for more. She’ll guide through an ever changing jaunt highlighting the best culinary spots the village has to offer. I bet you’ll find a place or two (or three) to re-visit later in your trip– I did. I’ll have more about this tour (and the places it inspired me to re-visit) in another post in this series. So check back.

What to do in Carmel by land

What to do in Carmel: By Sea

At the edge of the village is the world famous Carmel Beach with its impossibly white sand and sculptured cypress groves. It’s great for a romantic sunset picnic or a family bonfire complete with s’mores . Keep in mind that it’s a leash-free zone. There are many cute canines prancing about; each having more fun than their human counterparts (with all that it entails). Sniff before you sit.

Eco-tourists will love to see Point Lobos State Reserve and Garland Park for hiking. I recommend a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium whose mission it is to showcase and protect the marine animals of the Monterey Bay. It’s where I first became aware of Seafood Watch. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that the sustainability of our delicious seafood choices is a subject I’m passionate about.

Of course there’s more to the ocean than just a pretty view. The Monterey Bay attracts scuba divers from around the world because of the unique bio-diversity of its kelp forests and underwater canyon. I can attest to the particular charms, because I first learned to scuba dive along California’s rugged central coast (many years ago).

However, if you don’t want to go underwater– try something on top instead. Surfing, boating, fishing and whale watching are all available from a from a variety of of vendors. Google it if you don’t believe me.

What to do in Carmel by sea.

What to do in Carmel California? Well now you know. There’s more to come. So check back. GREG