Carmel-by-the-Sea, often referred to as simply Carmel, sits gracefully on the Monterey Peninsula, known for its natural beauty and artistic history. Today, it attracts artists and tourists alike, with its world-class galleries, high-end boutiques, specialty shops and fine restaurants. Add a few hidden courtyards and storybook architecture and this enchanting town will steal your heart (and your pocketbook, if you’re not careful!). Don’t worry; you’ll discover plenty of free activities in the area as well. Nature lovers will enjoy walking among the cypress groves at Point Lobos State Reserve for a stunning view of the central coastline.
Even though Carmel is a sophisticated town that appeals to adults, kids will enjoy it too. If the day starts to bore your wee ones, take a rest at the children’s library, eat gelato, make sand castles on the beach, visit Thinker Toys, search for the Hansel & Gretel cottages or collect their (your) favorite candy at Cottage of Sweets. The town itself is only one-square mile, so you can walk just about everywhere.
Hit the road and drive up the 101 North for about five hours and then take CA-68 west towards Monterey. Carmel is only about 10 minutes from Monterey and is also accessible via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train.
Where to Stay
The Vagabond’s House
4th & Dolores
Carmel, CA 93921
The Vagabond’s House is one of my all-time favorite bed and breakfasts, reminiscent of an English Tudor Country Inn. Built in the late 1920’s, the cozy inn, which was named after a best-selling poem by Don Blanding, was originally designed as an artists’ retreat. Today, it remains a special and inspiring place.
Each evening between 4 and 6 p.m., guests can partake in complimentary wine and cheese in the lobby and courtyard and chat with the friendly innkeeper, who gives great suggestions. Many of the guest cottages have fireplaces (and kitchens), so you can get toasty by the fire while sipping sherry provided in each room. You’ll become so comfy and relaxed you won’t want to leave.
To help ease you into the day, a lovely extended continental breakfast is delivered to your room. Another plus, the Vagabond’s House is very pet-friendly. Your pet can stay with you for an extra $30/day, so you don’t have to leave Fido at home.
Ocean Avenue & Monte Verde Street
Carmel, CA 93923
The Pine Inn was the first hotel built in Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1889 and was originally located four blocks up the street. As the town grew, they decided to relocate a bit and rolled the main building along pine logs, down a dirt road to where it resides today in the heart of town on Ocean Avenue.
A complimentary full American breakfast buffet is served Monday through Friday. On weekends you can purchase breakfast downstairs at Il Fornaio or grab a latte and a morning pastry to go.
Another great option for lodging is La Playa Carmel, a historic luxury boutique hotel, just two blocks from the beach. Their signature gourmet breakfast buffet is excellent and included in the room rate. A dazzling display of fresh fruits, pastries, breads and cheeses, homemade granola and cereals, hot entrees, omelets and waffles are offered, not to mention fresh-squeezed juices and champagne (think endless mimosas!).
What To Do
Lincoln & Ocean Avenue
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921
A great way to get an overview of Carmel-by-the-Sea and learn about its fascinating history is to go on a walking tour with Carmel Walks. Tour Guide, Gael Gallagher, will take you on a leisurely two-hour walk through secret pathways, hidden courtyards and fairytale cottages. You’ll learn about the local lore and favorite haunts of famous artists, writers and more.
Along our tour, we visited the Hog’s Breath Inn, formerly owned by the famous Clint Eastwood, who served as Carmel’s mayor from 1986 to 1988. During his campaign, Clint promised to overturn one of the town’s unusual laws, which prohibited the selling and eating of ice cream on public streets. Thank goodness Clint showed them how to “make my day” and let the people have their frozen treats. And thank goodness for Salumeria Luca, which has the best gelato ever (including Italy, IMHO).
After the tour, grab lunch at the Cypress Inn (Lincoln & 7th Avenue), co-owned by Doris Day, and watch the old movies she starred in while eating crab cakes, burgers or Doris’ favorite chicken salad.
Ocean Ave and Scenic Rd
Carmel, CA 93921
Carmel Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in California, with a clean and pristine sandy beach, a backdrop of cypress trees and scenic bluffs that make it postcard perfect.
Ideally located at the end of Ocean Avenue and an easy walk from town (though it’s an uphill walk back to town!), the beach is known for good surfing and is very dog friendly (dogs can run around off-leash). I had to practically drag my kids away, as they were totally content digging in the sand, splashing in the water and playing tug-of-war with a pile of seaweed on shore.
After sunset, you can make a bonfire, but it must be put out by 10 p.m. You can even pick up a bonfire kit nearby at the Lamplighter Inn & Suites.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Point Lobos State Reserve, named after the sound of the sea lions from the offshore rocks (Point of the Sea Wolves), has often been called “the crown jewel of the State Park System.” The area has spectacular views of the shoreline, trails that lead to hidden coves, headlands and rolling windows. Visitors often spot seals, sea lions, sea otters and migrating gray whales (December through May).
One of the most scenic trails is the Cypress Grove Trail, a 0.75-mile loop, that winds through one of the only two cypress groves remaining on Earth and offers tree-framed views of Carmel Bay and the Monterey peninsula. The trail winds through The Pinnacle, the northernmost point in the reserve, which can be extremely windy. The wind-sculpted trunks and foliage give the cypress their fantastic shapes.
You’ll notice an orange-colored “velvet” growing on the north-facing tress and rocks, which are actually green algae. The orange color comes from carotene (like carrots) and doesn’t harm the trees, but makes stunning photos, as it contrasts with pockets of turquoise water below.
Directions to the trailhead: Point Lobos State Reserve is located three miles south of Carmel just off Highway 1. Both Cypress Grove Trail and North Shore Trail depart from the northwest end of Cypress Grove parking area.
7250 Carmel Valley Road
Carmel Valley, CA 93921
A stop at Earthbound Farm’s Organic Farm Stand is a great opportunity to teach kids where their food comes from and to grab a healthy and satisfying lunch. For more than 25 years, Earthbound Farm has been committed to organic farming (which is healthier for our bodies and friendlier to the environment) and is now the country’s largest grower of organic produce.
All the food in their café and store is prepared with certified organic ingredients, including fresh soups, a salad bar, baked treats and frozen yogurt/ice cream. The dishes we tried were all fresh, seasonal, healthy and delicious.
After lunch, kids will enjoy exploring the alphabet garden (each plant begins with a letter of the alphabet) and the walking through the labyrinth. The farm stand is open year-round and is just 3.5 miles east of Highway 1.
Where To Eat
Ocean Avenue between Lincoln and Monte Verde
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, 93921
PortaBella specializes in Mediterranean cuisine and features dishes from France, Italy and Spain. The food at PortaBella is excellent and the service is impeccable.
Begin your meal with the warm wild mushroom napoleon (a stack of deliciousness) or a bowl of the ever-popular roasted corn and crab bisque, followed by a salad of baby spinach, red grapefruit, apples and spiced pecans, tossed in a red onion vinaigrette. Entrees include local dishes, like the Monterey Bay sand dabs with lemon capers, seasonal vegetables and mashed potatoes and European classics like Coq au Vin, a chicken breast with applewood bacon and cippollini onions in a Pinot Noir sauce. Even the bread is delicious, crunchy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside.
Finish off your meal with a warm apple tart, topped with roasted almonds, ginger caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream.
Dogs are welcome at PortaBella and will also receive great service with their own bowl of water, served on a plate with a linen napkin!
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill
6th Avenue & Dolores
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921
A local favorite since 1975, Flaherty’s Seafood Grill specializes in fresh fish (mostly caught wild) of the highest quality and has been practicing sustainability for more than 30 years. The atmosphere at Flaherty’s is family-friendly, casual and comfortable.
The choices on the menu seem to be endless. Start with a sourdough bread bowl of their famous clam chowder, a fire-roasted artichoke or baked brie with roasted garlic. Maybe a classic dish of oysters Rockefeller or their signature crab cakes with a corn and black bean citrus relish will entice you. Entrees include a wild halibut encrusted with cashew nuts, served with wild mushrooms and a basil-cream sauce. Vegetarians will enjoy the fire-roasted polenta with seasonal, local and organic vegetables.
Kids will be entertained watching all the colorful reef fish swimming about in the large saltwater aquarium.
For dessert, we couldn’t resist one more trip for gelato at Salumeria Luca, which is also a great place to stock up on picnic goods as you explore the surrounding area or buy some gourmet gifts to take home and remember your trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Liz Laing is a writer, web designer and photographer who lives in Los Angeles. Her latest projects may be followed on Liz Laing.