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California’s Epicurean Capital – Carmel-by-the-Sea

Latitudes is a NEW monthly column where travel writer Debbie Stone takes readers to destinations and on excursions around the world.

California is a state with many coastal cities, but Carmel-by-the-Sea stands out. It is only one square mile on the Monterey Peninsula and the town is better viewed on foot than by car. And the minute you begin walking around this tony enclave, you’ll immediately notice a few things. There are no addresses, no parking meters, no streetlights, no sidewalks outside the downtown commercial area, no chain restaurants and no chain stores. It feels like a tiny town, but it looks like an epicurean capital. In fact, it has become the place to visit for art, theater, music, luxury travel and gourmet gastronomy.

Refreshingly Unorthodox

The European Village in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

If you’re a traveler with a GPS or smartphone maps you’re out of luck. Tourists will find those things hard to use here. In fact travelers are given directions based on cross streets and descriptive landmarks with legendary names adorning buildings. And ladies wearing high heels need a permit. City law requires you to get a permit from City Hall to wear heels higher than two inches or heels with a base of less than one square inch. This rule isn’t enforced by police, but exists due to the uneven, cobblestone pavement and as a possible protection against lawsuits. And up until the late 1980s, there was even an ordinance prohibiting selling and eating ice cream on public streets. You can thank former mayor Clint Eastwood for overturning this one. Eastwood no longer serves in this political capacity, but the Oscar-winning entertainer still maintains a presence in town as one of the owners of Carmel Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant.

Photo courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

Courtyards Galore

One of the things I love about the town is the way it’s laid out. It’s a maze of meandering passageways and hidden courtyards – 42 in total. This too was purposely done by design. Developers James Franklin Devendorf and Frank H. Powers wanted to create a bohemian village that would act as  a retreat for artists, writers and professors, and that was pedestrian friendly.

Statue in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Photo Credit: Debbie Stone

Each of the passageways and courtyards has its own distinct personality and special flair, adorned by wrought iron railings, lanterns, intricate woodwork and Spanish tiles. Some that standout are: La Rambla Court, a 1920s stucco building with wooden stairs, handsome wrought iron light fixtures and iron grillwork at the windows; the Tudor-style Court of the Golden Bough, the former site of the Golden Bough Theatre and current site of Court of the Fountains – a mecca of antiques, art, restaurants, spas and stores surrounding a lovely central fountain; and El Paseo Courtyard, – an enclave covered in terra cotta tile where you’ll find a whimsical sculpture of two figures curtsying and bowing to one another. But my favorite passageway is Secret Garden. It’s filled with stone statues, wind chimes and an array of plants. And the best part is that you enter on one street and come out on another, facing the town’s cherished community bookstore, Pilgrim’s Way.

The Secret Garden in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California Photo Credit: Debbie Stone

A Tour to Remember

If you’re like me and love hearing about the city you are visiting, you’ll absolutely love the Carmel Walks tour. This highly acclaimed guided walk takes you through various pathways, award-winning gardens, historical buildings and enchanting storybook cottages. This is where you’ll learn all about Carmel’s roots and quaint customs.

Fountain Court in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

Architectural Haven

The city is also considered an architectural jewel with French, English, Austrian and American Craftsman influences. Visitors are often enamored with Hugh Comstock’s “Dollhouse Tudor” homes, which feature rolled eaves, steeply pitched roofs, rounded doors and elfin stone chimneys. There are even notable gingerbread cottages like the often photographed Tuck Box teahouse and the iconographic Hansel & Gretel House. Back in the 1920s when Michael J. Murphy built these landmarks and many homes, they sold for about $100, lot included. Today, they’re worth millions.

Cottage Shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Credit: Debbie Stone

Renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Wynkoop made their mark on Carmel. Wright’s Clinton Walker House is built on a ragged jetty on Carmel Beach and resembles the prow of a ship. The house known as his “cabin on the rocks” is wrapped in indigenous Carmel stone, and its terrace and living room face the scenic Carmel Bay. The Butterfly House, designed by Wynkoop, is also perched on the rocks almost at the water’s edge. Located on Scenic Drive, both homes resemble a postcard complete with a pristine white sand beach, craggy cliffs and gnarled Cypress trees.

A Sanctuary for Artists

As a longtime art colony and haven for artists, the town is a magnet for art aficionados. It even has an art association. The Carmel Art Association remains the second oldest art cooperative in the country. Founded in 1927, it showcases the work of hundreds of professional local artists.

Art Gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

And there’s the Carmel Sunset Cultural Center – a state-of-the-art performing arts center presents a wide range of world-class music, theatre and dance productions. The center, which began as a public school in 1926, is notable for its stunning Gothic architecture and incredible acoustics.

The Culinary Scene

A Meal from Little Napoli Restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

When it comes to dining, Carmel-by-the-Sea is heaven for gourmands and for those who simply appreciate a great meal in a great environment. A wide range of international, regional and local restaurants are just a stones throw away. You’ll feast on the freshest ingredients due to the proximity of both the Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley.

Dusk at Casanova Restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

One of the best ways to get a feel for the culinary scene is to join one of the food and wine tours. And Carmel Food Tours’ guided culinary and wine walking experiences is a great place to start. Owner Staci Giovino, a self-confessed foodie, started the company in 2012 with the desire to help visitors and Carmel residents alike enjoy the best “off-the-beaten-path” food and wine experiences possible.

A dish from Pèpe’s Vesuvio Restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

On Giovino’s Food Tour, you’ll sample specialties from seven unique eateries, gourmet food stores and wine tasting rooms. You’ll also get a chance to interact with chefs, restaurant owners and wine specialists. I got a chance to sample the following dishes: braised Kobe beef and polenta cake from the legendary Anton & Michel; caprese salad at the rustically chic Affina Food and Wine, spinach gnocchi from Casanova which is considered Carmel’s most romantic restaurant with its authentic van Gogh table; and North African lamb meatballs at Terry’s Lounge at Cypress Inn.

At Trio Carmel, you’ll learn about oil and balsamic vinegar. And that’s where my taste buds really came alive. Cinnamon and pear infused balsamic with a blood orange oil and mushroom balsamic with mushroom and sage oil were just a few of the items I tasted. The final stop on the tour was Lula’s Chocolates, known for its sea salt caramels and other decadent delights.

Wine Time

Wine Tour in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

If wine is your thing, make sure to take the self-paced, self-guided Wine Walk. You’ll hit up 14 wine tasting rooms. You start by grabbing a wine passport from the Carmel Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center. The passport allows you up to four one-ounce pours of your choice at nine of the 14 establishments. Most of the wines you’ll sample come from small lot estates which are family run and sustainably operated wineries in the region.

Health & Wellness

It’s easy to unwind in this village by the sea. So a trip to the day spa for a relaxing massage or body treatment is ideal. You can’t go wrong at the top-rated Kush Day Spa – a tranquil haven tucked away in one of the town’s most serene courtyards. I highly recommend the warm stone massage, where heated stones are incorporated into the massage technique. My masseuse, John, did wonders for my “travel knots.”

R & R

Cypress Inn in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

Options are plentiful when it comes to accommodations. There are more than 40 boutique inns, B&Bs and hotels available. From the Cypress Inn co-owned by the legendary Doris Day; to the Eastwood owned Carmel Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant to the regal Pine Inn Hotel, every haven has a unique history and charm.

The lobby of the Pine Inn Hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Canine Country

Dog in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Photo Courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

This central California coastal locale was once rated number one as the most dog friendly town in America. Pets and their owners can dine together al fresco on many of the local restaurants’ patios, and numerous stores have water bowls for pets. And shopkeepers happily dispense doggy treats to well-behaved dogs. At Carmel Beach, you and your pup will have more than enough space to roam, sans leash. And hotels are also canine friendly. At Cypress Inn, for example, which is partly owned by ardent animal lover Day, pet owners can bring their furry pals into their hotel rooms, and enjoy happy or “Yappy” hours. Doggy turn downs and high tea in the lobby is par for the course. It’s a veritable who’s who of breeds, sizes and personalities. And surprisingly both the four-legged and two-legged creatures share the town harmoniously!

If you go: www.carmelcalifornia.com