Rediscovering Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

categories: USA Travel

In the 1980s movie “Seems Like Old Times” bank robbers kidnap Chevy Chase and force him to rob a bank in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California but are nearly foiled when he can’t find a place to park. I thought that was hilarious when I first saw the movie as it echoed so many trips I had made to Carmel… except with less larceny.

Seems Like Old Times movie poster

Seems Like Old Times Movie Poster

Carmel turns 100 years old this year and, since I grew up locally, I have been traveling to this “village in a forest by the sea” for over half that time, but oddly in all of those years I had never stayed in Carmel. Like Chase I had just come in, found a place to park, walked around for a while and made my escape. When I was offered a weekend stay at the Hofsas House (the pink hotel) in Carmel, I leapt at the chance.

My impression was that I knew Carmel like a local. I had favorite restaurants and shops. I know the quick way in the truck route (take the Carpenter exit from highway 68) to avoid what can be long delays coming in the main drag (Ocean Avenue) in the Summer. But, parking the car for a weekend and exploring Carmel on foot, turned out to be a very different experience, and a pleasant one.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

A Village Resistant to Change

Carmel seems to me like a village that hasn’t changed as long as I have been coming here. That is to say, while shops and restaurants and art galleries have come and gone the town still appears the same to me. This isn’t by accident. The city has been resistant to change since the beginning. In 1922, the residents were divided whether they should pave the main street or hang onto the “good old days”. The city still has no mail delivery, no addresses, no stop lights and no parking meters. My host, Carrie Theis, grew up in Carmel and serves on its city council. She told me that the town tried to put in parking kiosks last Summer and while the system worked well, residents could not get over the sight of the kiosks, so they had to go.

Looking closer the town has made some changes. It still does not allow big box stores, chain hotels or Starbucks, but it did recently decide that live music and serving alcohol would be allowed in the same establishment. There is even now, almost unthinkably, a rooftop bar as Carmel looks to extend its appeal past the “newlywed and nearly dead” that it has been accused of appealing to historically. These days half the homes in Carmel are second homes so not all of its residents grew up here like Theis did, whose grandmother built the Hofsas house in 1957.

Carmel Bay Company

Carmel Bay Company

Carmel has long been known for its cute shops. The hat I am wearing in my picture on the Amateur Traveler home page was purchased at the Carmel Hat Company. My wife’s anniversary ring was purchased at a local jewelry company. One of our favorites, the Carmel Bay Company is still a great place to browse or buy.

I remember when iconic shops like the Mediterranean Market and local men’s clothier Dick Bruhn’s lined Ocean Ave (coincidentally Mr Bruhn and I both graduated from Rensselaer in upstate New York). In these days of Amazon.com, retail shops have a harder time making a go of it, even in Carmel. But a new feature of the Carmel landscape is wine tasting rooms which offer an experience that Amazon can’t.

De Tierra Wine Tasting Room

De Tierra Wine Tasting Room

Wine Walk

Jack Galante, a grandson of one of the founders of Carmel, opened the first tasting room Galante Vineyards in 2004. The idea proved a popular one so 13 other vineyards have also opened and Carmel now has an integrated Wine Walk (carmelwinewalk.org). For $65 you can get 9 tickets for  tastings (usually a flight of 4 wines) at any of the 14 tasting rooms. More than one person can use the tickets.

We sampled wines at the Blair and Shale Canyon tasting room which is shared between the to vineyards (with my wife trying the flight from Sale Canyon and me the flight from the Blair). We also visited the beautiful De Tierra tasting room. Somehow we still have 7 more tickets for our next trip because we got tickets back after purchasing wine. Most of the wines being featured were grown in Monterey county, in vineyards that were all planted since I grew up there.

Both wine tasting rooms we tried, as well as much of Carmel, were dog friendly. It is a common sight to see Carmel shops and restaurants with water bowls and free doggy treats outside.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Exploring on Foot

It was nice to park the car and not have to worry about when we would need to move it (parking near the downtown is usually limited to 2 hours). We strolled around looking at the menus for a number of restaurants for dinner before choosing one. We poked our heads into different art galleries with sculpture, photography or paintings. Carmel even has one gallery dedicated to the art of Dr Seuss.

We looking in the windows of the various real estate offices to see what you can buy with a million or two in the area.

After dinner we strolled down to the white sands of Carmel Beach in the moonlight (bring a flashlight as Carmel is not a big believer in street lights either). I enjoyed seeing the parking at the beach empty instead of full for a change.

5th Avenue Deli

5th Avenue Deli

Picnic at the Point

Our stay included a $30 gift certificate for the 5th Avenue Deli & Catering Company so on Sunday we bought the makings of a delicious picnic (the deli has great hot and cold food, sandwiches, desserts and even half and quarter bottles of wine) and headed to the local Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos (photos), the locals will tell you, inspired Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. More than one place claims that credit, but Stevenson did live in nearby Monterey for a time and Point Lobos will inspire your exploration. Get there early if you want to drive into the park. People who don’t show up until after brunch (like us) have to park out on Highway 1 and walk into the park. The park is not huge, we walked in from the highway all the way to the far end of the trail system and back and got just over our 10,000 steps for the day.

Point Lobos is rocks and surf, sea air and pine trees. It is a perfect little get away only 4 miles south of Carmel. If you are in a driving mood you can continue on from there to Big Sur and one of the prettiest drives in the world down Highway 1. Both Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (trees, hikes and a waterfall) and Andrew Molera State Park (beach) are a great destination for a day out from Carmel.

Restaurants

There are a great many restaurants in Carmel, not even counting nearby Pacific Grove and Monterey. We enjoyed Italian food at Bistro Giovanni, mediterranean wraps at Mediterranean, and brunch at Friar Tucks. We also popped over to Pacific Grove for one dinner but that’s another story.

Hofsas House

As I mentioned, our home base was the Hofsas house which is in easy walking distance from downtown. The half-timbered pink hotel has been a Carmel landmark for as long as I have been going to Carmel but the rooms were updated and modern. I still wonder why I want a dutch door on a hotel room, but I really did appreciate the heated floor in the bathroom. We had a wood fireplace in our room on the 4th floor although most of the floors have gas fireplaces. We did not try out the heated pool or the sauna. To really enjoy your experience, ask Carrie for ideas as you would be hard pressed to find a better ambassador for Carmel.

Conclusion

Carmel, as I have mentioned, is a city that resists change. It is today what it was intended to be 100 years ago when it was founded, “a village in a forest by the sea”. It is a village that invites you to slow down, breathe the pine scented sea air, to get out of your car and walk. I am not sure why it took me over 50 years to spend a weekend there, but my wife and I agreed that it won’t take us another 50 to do it again.

A Weekend in Carmel, California

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by Chris Christensen

I am the host of the Amateur Traveler. The Amateur Traveler is an online travel show that focuses primarily on travel destinations and what are the best places to travel to. It includes both a weekly audio podcast, a video podcast, and a blog.



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