Local's Guide to a Weekend in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Arts & Culture
Food & Wine
When I have that rare, precious day to myself, I typically find myself headed, camera in tow and windows down, to Carmel-By-The-Sea. The vibrant fluorescent succulents along the coast almost look like a new-age rendering of a Kincaid-esque cottage scene painted on a velvet canvas and hanging on the wall of a backwoods café. The coast itself is a rugged, light-toned, craggedy tan, brushed up next to the deep, foggy blue of a never restful sea.
Carmel is quintessentially quaint, indeed Kincaid’s perfect plein-air inspiration (and yes, there is a namesake gallery there, if that’s your cup of tea). The whole town is only a few miles across. One end is lined with art galleries, locally-owned shops (no national big brands!) and restaurants; the other is a rejuvenated wildlife refuge, nestled in an inlet of the finest, white sand I have ever felt, where turkey vultures air their wings, and seals and otters poke their noses out of the water. If you love a morning jog, wind your way down to the beach, around the coast, and back through the cobblestone streets of unaddressed, and often cloyingly named (“Dream Come True”, “Chardonnay House”, “Anything Goes”), multi-million dollar “bungalows”. The whole place verges on being Disney-cute, though it doesn’t go as far as the Shirley Temple with a cherry on top.
The turn of each corner pulls you onward toward the discovery of a hidden garden, a Bilbo Baggins-style cottage, rolling roof and all, or a breath taking, glass-walled dream home, perched on a rocky overhang. Truly, no matter how many times I go, I make a new find, something else that makes me whisper ,” awwww”, or “wow” or “click”. These days, Carmel Valley is not to be overlooked either — replete with a scenic, winding drive to some beautiful, and welcoming wineries.
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Where to stay
A romantic, French chateau–inspired inn with an award-winning restaurant located just a stroll away from Carmel's notable shops and art galleries.
La Playa Carmel
History and art meet at this romantic, renovated boutique in the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Bernardus Lodge & Spa
A true Wine Country escape in Carmel, with oversized suites and standalone villas, plus a lauded farm-to-table restaurant.
$100 USD equivalent Resort or Hotel credit to be utilized during stay
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Things to do
Below is a list of some of my favorite Carmel haunts:
Walk through town, nay, stroll. Don’t miss the perpendicular side streets — some have galleries with museum-quality paintings of new and old California artists. (Mind you, some have glass jellyfish, and lone pine renditions that will make you smirk, but the eclectic mix is what makes a quality gallery discovery so fun!) And the shops are a similar mix of t-shirt shops and higher-end garden wares and apparel.
Don't miss the beach — it is some of the bluest water and finest white sand you may ever feel. You will never see more happy dogs in your lifetime!
I recently discovered the New Masters Gallery on Dolores b/t Ocean and 7th, when I happened upon their front window, rightly flaunting an original 4ft x 5 ft Ken Auster oil. A meander through their four rooms revealed an interesting mix of skilled and creative works. I liked the collection. They are one of two galleries in Carmel hosting Auster’s work, the other is the Jones Terwilliger Gallery on San Carlos b/t 5th and 6th.
If you like photography, don't miss a gander through the closet-sized Weston Gallery on 6th Ave displaying original Westons, Adams and more, it's always worth a stop-in.
And if you have an extra day, I highly recommend a morning (or day) at Refuge Spa (in Carmel Valley). Hot and cold pools, a stunning setting amidst the hills, sauna and massage treatments — an incredible corporal experience.
You can always do a little wine tasting in the Valley — see below for my recommendations.
Day Trips from Carmel
Wineries (in Carmel Valley):
Georis (sister to Corkscrew Café).
Bernardus Lodge: Lovely grounds for playing boule, or sitting outside to have a wine and cheese tasting, or snacking on a larger lunch plate in their small dining room.
Chateau Julien: Beautiful grounds and garden for sipping.
Places to eat & drink
Aubergine: The accolades on the wall as you enter, Wine Spectator, Forbes Travel Guide, James Beard, among others, should give you some indication that you are in for something special. However, try not to read too much about this place before you go —and I will try not to be a spoiler. But do go! In spite of a rather conservative dining room of earthy hues and pastels, expect a sense of playfulness, brightness and unique flavor expressions, nay explosions, from the 11-course tasting menu.
Like the atmosphere, the staff is buttoned up, which is why Chef Cogley, tanned and tussle-headed, is all the more a pleasant surprise in person. The printed menu is delightfully simple and non-descript, but the food is precise, fresh, complex and esthetically presented on unusual ocean-themed ceramics, adding texture into play. Each dish seemed to dive deeper into new flavor profiles, starting with oysters and caviar, light and slightly sweet with a seawater gelé, finishing with a wagyu beef and broth that nearly had me licking the plate with its concentration of flavors.
In between, Chef will delight you with combinations of textures and wallops of flavor you, like me, might dream about for nights to come (his peach oil and lemon verbena soup, or his salmon with potato croquette that presents as a piece of art or his simply ingenious way of serving foie gras.) Our only head scratchers of the evening were some of the wine pairings — they could have wowed by elevating the marriages of wine to food, but merely passed with a B- on the marriages. The entire experience was full of beauty, exuberant flavor combinations and seasonal freshness nonetheless; entirely joyous. Do go. Do! Menu: 175 dollars per person, Wine Pairings: 145 dollars.
Casanova: Note, there are two restaurant owners/ management companies in Carmel that own several restaurants each. Casa Nova is a sister to La Bicyclette, and Corkscrew — hence the similar websites and marketing materials — but their chefs are different and the good things carry through each of them.
Casanova has long been my favorite place to come for dinner in Carmel. Over the years, I have shared the experience with friends, parents and children. It is a special place. I have always found the food to be above expectations, the setting a bit magical and the service attentive and kind. My visit with girlfriends one recent weekend was no exception. Comments from my well-travelled, foodie friends were,” This is the best gnocchi I have ever had!” and “Best meal of the trip”.
While our server did not know every answer to our deeply prying questions about the food, he was quick with his wit and a smile and made our large, oddly-timed order flow as smoothly as their Bechamel sauce. (One down note: the wine list is overpriced, so go in prepared if you are a wine drinker, but don’t let it spoil an otherwise memorable evening.) This restaurant feels a bit like a maze, with small private rooms, off-shoots and cozy areas downstairs. I like the upstairs, main room best, but all are cute.
If you have kids, and need a little sweet stop, the Cottage of Sweets is just the ticket. Think back to when you were a child and dreamed of a sweets, maybe the Hansel and Gretel cottage made of nothing but candy, or Willy Wonka's chocolate fountain room where everything is sight was edible... this is how it feels to step into this sweet little shack. Anywhere else, its Disney-esque look would be out of place, but here it's just another adorable Carmel delight. The shelves are stocked with old fashioned sweets you might not have seen since the 60's, the counter is full of chocolate, marshmallows, and of course, CarAmels.... if you take your kids in with you, be prepared to come out lighter in the wallet!
La Bicyclette: While I mourn the loss of my very favorite pilot and plane shop in this space, I can’t whine too much about a new French bistro! La Bicyclette is a 10-12 table space with high ceilings (yes, it’s a tad loud) warmed by copper and chalk-board appointments and a wood-fired oven, as well as a not un-Paris-like hustle and bustle. Service is nice and the food a happy surprise. The Carrot Veloute with apple and curry made me want to run my finger around the last vestiges in the bowl. The beet salad with buttermilk dressing gave an otherwise trendy dish a welcome twist.
Corkscrew Café: This is my favorite sit-in-the-garden-and-pretend-I-am-in-southern-France place. From the moment you step through the door of this wisteria-covered, Provençal hidden gem, the smell of fresh-baked bread, displayed before you, envelops your whole being. If it is a nice day, which likely it is, walk through the room of crooked wooden tables, the display of old corkscrews, cowboy hats hooked on wine racks to the outdoor garden, now neighbor to their sister winery and garden, Georis. The lunch tables, helplessly wobble on the pebble covered ground, throw me back to the Luxembourg gardens in Paris where I remember my father taking a tumble right off his precariously perched chair. Sit and linger over a sunny rose (I kept the bottle it’s so pretty.) The place serves fabulous charcuterie and cheese plate, pate including pickled treats, a broiled and gorgonzola filled pear.
Katy's Place: Carmel has a nice choice of breakfast spots (including a secret right-out-of-the-fryer beignet hidden doorway), but Café Katy is my go-to. Don’t linger in bed too long as it can get crowded, but the outside, crooked-plank deck is the place to be. It is elbow to elbow seating, for only 5-6 tables’ worth of lucky people outside under heat lamps and shady pines, but the inside is a darling farmhouse kitsch, including little games they give to kids to bide time while awaiting food. It is a huge menu of typical and not-so typical breakfast items. Don’t miss the specials board! And if you like seafood, there is usually a shrimp (or similar) egg dish that is a lovely brunch fix.
A.W. Shucks: From the front this looks too touristy to venture into. However, the promise of martinis and oysters was too tempting to pass up and so in we went. Happily, in this dark, little, ocean mural hole in the wall we found a blend of locals, wide-eyed tourists like us, friendly local-grit staff and my new discovery— an organic, local vodka that was just barely sweet and perfect martini fare! Oysters were fresh and deelish (though I would have loved a little variance to the dipping options, but I am a snob that way.)
Need to Know
Carmel is a dog town, a shorts and cute flats kind of place, though, be warned: if you have a twinge of art buying hanker in you, you might easily walk away several thousand dollars lighter. In spite of the new, modern homes in development, it feels old, loved, lived-in.
For more California travel tips, check out my other California guides: Pacifica: Where to Stay, Eat & Explore in Pacifica, California, Yountville: Wine & Dine in Yountville, Napa Valley and San Francisco: Local's Art & Culinary Guide to San Francisco.
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