There’s nothing like a road trip to help the stress of everyday life melt away.
I hadn’t been to Monterey County since I was a kid, the happy memories consisting of sea otters in the ocean and bat rays in the touch tanks at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Carmel reminded me of sweets because it’s just one letter away from my favorite candy.
The best thing about this journey is the drive up the 101 along the coast, through Santa Barbara and Solvang, where Sideways was filmed.
So you’re a Sideways fan? Maybe you’ve made the trip to The Hitching Post, done a little Santa Barbara wine tasting, bought your kids wooden shoes in Solvang, fed and been scared of the ostriches. Drive two hours more to Monterey for a familiar, yet completely different experience. Think sweeping ocean views, a cooler climate, art and lots of local wine.
As we hit the open road, my mind wandered blissfully away from pressures waiting back in LA. Counting cows on hillsides is a great form of meditation. We passed the Madonna Inn and stopped for chicken strips and fries at a lonely roadside cafe along the way.
Once we made it to Monterey County, I couldn’t wait to check into our hotel. Doris Day owns the Cypress Inn, a pet friendly boutique hotel with 44 guest rooms. The manager tells me Ms. Doris has such passion for animal rights, you can bring any animal to stay at the Inn.
A llama and a few goats have checked in and I’m happy to report you can’t smell any of them, lest you think it’s like a barnyard. While I was there, the majority of guests were dog people and dogs. At breakfast, most tables had a dog sitting next to a couple. Indoors and out!
For Hollywood history buffs, memorabilia covers the walls and the cozy feel to the rooms that makes it feel like you’re staying at Aunt Doris’s for the night. Apparently Aunt Doris loves sherry. There’s a complimentary bottle in every room. I dare you to make it past a glass.
We wandered the first night, exploring the town Clint Eastwood fell in love with during the Korean War, when he was stationed at Ford Ord a few miles away. He filmed Play Misty For Me in Carmel and eventually became the town’s “nonpartisan” mayor. One of the platforms of his campaign was overturning a law that bans eating ice cream in public. These are the kinds of issues Carmel has to worry about.
Carmel is often referred to as an artists’ community, but who knows how many artists still live here. There’s a healthy number of wealthy retirees and the expensive real estate to match. The artistic spirit remains, particularly when you’re trying to find your destination. You know that saying, “We’ll get there when we get there?” How often do we use the expression? Here, it’s a way of life. For example, Cypress Inn’s address was listed as “Lincoln Street”. Simply that. No numbers. When I googled the address, I figured Ms. Day, being so busy saving animals probably didn’t bother putting an address and sometimes, when you’re right on the water, you don’t need to list a stinking address. You BEGIN the address. That wasn’t the case here.
My GPS accepted “Lincoln Street, Carmel” and took me on a series of twists and turns, up one way dirt roads and dead ends before turning me around again on a trip to nowhere. I cried uncle and begged a local for help. If I had gotten my nose out of the GPS, I would’ve noticed Carmel has no numbered addresses, just streets. I guess you’re supposed to just find and feel your way to your destination. I like to think the artists did this on purpose so everyone would get to know their neighbors and visitors alike, because the townspeople of Carmel were just lovely every time I asked for directions. And when you’re a wealthy retiree, what’s the rush?
My favorite thing about Carmel is the wine. The many many wines I should say. Park your car in front of the Carmel Chamber of Commerce if you can find it, grab a map of the tasting rooms and weave and wind and stumble your way about town. If you get hungry, there are lots of great cafes and a really delicious pizza joint called Little Napoli. This is all within a couple of blocks radius. I’m no New Yorker. I would never send you on a workout.
The next day we drove a couple of miles north to Monterey. The crown jewel is Cannery Row, officially given the title a dozen years after John Steinbeck wrote his famed novel of the same name.
He is celebrated everywhere you go. When we checked into the Monterey Plaza Hotel, we were presented a cheese and fruit plate and a copy of the novel.
The history, oh the history! Monterey was inhabited by Native Americans then settled by the Spanish, it later became home to many Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese immigrants. My father tells me my great aunt (who was Portuguese) used to work in the cannery and by the way he described it, it was the job from hell. This place was booming during the gold rush and two years ago, an excavation revealed a Chinese fishing village from the late 1800’s next to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Cannery Row is about four city blocks long. You can walk it leisurely, exploring over a couple of hours. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is at one end – a must see for the incredible local sea life and touch pools. They were nursing an orphaned sea otter back to life when we were there. Collective awww.
The Monterey Plaza Hotel sits at the other end. It is a big, traditional yet modern hotel that reminds me of The Ritz Carlton Kapalua in Maui, because while you’re surrounded by traditional design, every feature is focused on the ocean.
We spent the morning at the Aquarium and then wandered through town.
There were many restaurants along the water, but we ducked into Cannery Row Brewing Company for a cocktail. The bartender was a local and she directed us toward Fisherman’s Wharf. I’ve heard locals despise it, but what the hey.
We were craving fish and chips, so Fisherman’s Wharf seemed like the solution. It’s a few minutes up the coast, with gorgeous views and a huge public but pay parking lot. The Wharf was a wholesale fish market until the 1960s. It’s now a tourist attraction where you can get fresh crab, fish and chips and clam chowder. Every restaurant hands out samples of chowder, so you can get your fill on samples alone.
If you don’t like fish or want dessert, try the delicate, paper thin crepes at Crepes of Brittany. We dined on casual fish and chips at the fancy Old Fisherman’s Grotto, the perfect spot for dinner overlooking the water.
We had dinner reservations at a fancier joint back at the hotel. Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar is truly a special occasion restaurant.
The view is gorgeous, the service was impeccable and the seafood was fresh. I loved how the menu described the origin of each type of fish.
We rolled into bed, stuffed to the gills and when we woke up to 180-degree ocean views, a sea otter was playing in the surf outside my window and an orange starfish sunning himself on the cliff.
It was paradise. It was a Friday night to a Sunday morning, yet it felt like an eternity of stress had melted away. The perfect weekend getaway.