When my parents and I moved to Carmel I was already old enough, (13) to understand that I had moved to one of the most sublime places on earth. Not of course just for the most obvious reasons, that it was and is one of the most dramatic meetings of land and sea on earth, but also because of the people, artist, poets, photographers and writers who had lived there and continued to live there! Even my hero, the creator of the comic strip “Peanuts” lived in Carmel for goodness sakes.
My father, a “Renaissance man” in his own right, quickly delved into the milieu when he built our home himself from redwood cut in huge slabs from the Big Sur coast just south of town. And our new neighborhood was peopled with “the amazing”; around the corner lived the scholarly daughters of “Vinegar Joe Stillwell, the commander of the Eastern theater during much of World War II, further down lived Jean Arthur, early star of the silver screen. But when I went to work in a bistro in town, I soon met Robin and Dana Jeffers, grandsons of Robinson Jeffers, one of America’s most reviled and famed epic poets. He had built his stone Tor house a block away in the early part of the century, and soon I was attending parties in its tower and hanging out with the Jeffers boys.
In fact the Monterey Peninsula was in many ways a paradise for boys. My best friend and I loved to sneak into the abandoned canneries of John Steinbeck’s Cannery row. When the sardine fishery collapsed shortly after World War II, these factories had been left pretty much “as is” and were filled with abandoned labels, office junk and spookiness. Monterey itself was still a bit of a seedy warren of crumbling adobes, Sicilian fishermen stalked the working wharf and Doc Ricket’s lab was still there to be explored. Beyond this, there were endless miles of coastline to be seen and out in the valley and in the redwood filled gorges of Big Sur there were miles to be hiked. In Carmel itself there were cool mystical book stores,”secret” gardens and galleries filled with some bad art but many filled with the works of say Cole Weston and Ansel Adams.
A BIT OF CARMEL HISTORY
Well folks, I’m here to say it’s probably still a paradise for boys and just about anyone else for that matter! And part of what makes it amazing is it’s history. For westerners it all started in 1603 when Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino came to a beach and river and named it after the three Carmelite fathers traveling with him. It took two hundred years more for the Spanish, now led by Father Junipero Sera, to return and establish one of his nine California missions overlooking the beach. Then almost another two centuries passed before two developers began to transform this tiny settlement into what we now think of as Carmel. They planted hundreds of Cypress trees and asked designers to build their homes in what would soon become an artist colony.
Carmel’s population got a boost with refugees from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, including world famous authors like Jack London, George Sterling and Robinson Jeffers. Soon other luminaries including Mary Austin, Lincoln Stephens, and Sinclair Lewis would join them. And others, like Robert Lewis Stevenson and John Steinbeck, in taking inspiration from the landscape and writing about the region’s people, continually increased the greater areas fame.
Carmel was one of the first towns in America to enforce strict aesthetic codes. Drawn by this, designers like Hugh Comstock and other talented architects, created a “village” with its own unique quality. Movie Stars also gravitated to this special place too, such as Doris Day, (who one may still see at her Cypress Lodge today), Kim Novak who loved are salsa when Mark and I cooked in town, and of course Clint Eastwood,who was famously Carmel’s mayor for two years and remains a resident to this day.
PLACES TO STAY
Carmel and the surrounding towns of the Monterey Peninsula boast a vast array of great places to stay. Everything from super luxury hotels to quaint inns as well as lovely private homes are available. Here are a few of our favorites.
Our home one block from Carmel and Carmel River Beach, in one of the towns very best neighborhoods is available for rent. With hand built redwood slab walls, cozy wood burning fireplace, chefs designed kitchen a great sun deck, two large private bedrooms and three full bathrooms, it is a great place for two to six people.
Owned by Doris Day, this lovely comfortable establishment is famously dog friendly. The Spanish style inn was originally built in 1929 and has been nicely maintained and updated. The great room is a pleasure to relax in, the bar is cozy and the central patio is a great place for lunch or brunch. On top of this the location in the center of town can’t be beat!
This Relais & Chateaux property set a new standard of service and luxury in the Carmel market when it opened a number of years ago. With recently renovated rooms, complimentary breakfast and a charming courtyard, you will feel cosseted and coddled. Aubergine, it’s on site restaurant serves excellent tasting menu style dinners and has the added advantage of a 2,500 bottle wine list.
The Lodge at Pebble Beach
Okay it’s in Pebble Beach and not Carmel, but it’s been part of the neighborhood since 1919 and is only a short drive from Carmel’s shops and restaurants. The Lodge and its rooms newly renovated in a clean luxurious style overlook America’s most famous golf course. I’m happy to say that Mark and I were married here and the ceremony was at the famed 18th hole. Simply put, the staff here is exceptional, the view astounding and the accommodation top of the line.
Just south of town in the highlands is another of our favorite historic hotels opened in 1917 and now operated by Hyatt. When I lived here as a kid it was a still a family run place with a fairly tattered red plush look. I’m happy to say that the Hyatt group has done a great job of renovating the place. It features 48 spacious newly renovated rooms and 11 suites. The hotel also has essentially two dining venues, California Market and Pacific’s Edge. Everything here has a spectacular view. Even if you don’t stay here, you at least have to go for sunset cocktails!
Ventana Big Sur
About a half an hour south of Carmel, set in one of the world’s most beautiful and dramatic coastlines is this sensationally romantic hotel. Opened in the mid 1970’s and designed in an unpretentious classic California style, Ventana is one of our favorite places in the world to unwind. Walk through a path from your very private room, under the redwoods to the restaurant where our Chef and mentor Jeremiah Tower first presided over the kitchen and helped to bring a culinary revolution to America. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with wood burning fireplaces and private terraces...and the view, the view!
Post Ranch Inn Big Sur
If it’s really time to get away and celebrate, or if money really is no big deal, then consider The Post Ranch. You’ll be likely to spot movie stars and big Hollywood types here lolling about the pool and trying to remain anonymous. This getaway, a short distance from Ventana, is perched high above the sheer Big Sur Coastline. There are 39 high design rooms and a lovely restaurant in the very private setting. If you can’t afford the similarly sheer tariff, try it for lunch, but be sure to make a reservation; they won’t let you onto the property without one.
Bernardus Lodge and Spa
Out Carmel Valley road, and tucked in 28 acres of vineyard and rolling hills is Bernardus. If you are looking for a luxurious and comfortable place to stay with a quintessentially “California” style look no further. The rooms and suites are newly renovated and set in a lovely landscape of pools lawn and gardens. The talented and affable Chef Cal Stamenov, heads up the culinary venues here and you won’t be disappointed with his consistently delicious fare. The wine list in the elegant Lucia restaurant is impressive, but why not just enjoy the great wine of Bernardus?! Carmel Valley Village is a great mini town replete with great restaurants, wineries and good galleries. Be sure to check out the Talbot outlet and The Georis Gallery.
WHERE TO EAT
Owned and operated by our charming friends Chef Emanuel Bortolini (who hails originally from Tuscany) and his lovely partner Anna, La Balena is easily one of the best restaurants in the region. The patio area is romantic, the interior is pleasant and the wine list is great, but the knock out here is the food. Be sure to try the octopus, the whole fish of the day and the traditionally braised veal shank; the homemade pasta isn't bad either!
The sister restaurant to La Balena, il Grillo is a itsy-bitsy place with a cute mini patio. The feel is very “Carmel” and you will probably end up talking with most of the other guests in the place. Carefully made homage pasta is the feature here and it has never disappointed.
Yeast of Eden
Brew pubs usually aren’t our “thing” but, Yeast of Eden is definitely a new twist on this theme. Set in a cool trendy space in the rather generic Carmel Plaza, the restaurant brings a hip new vibe to Carmel. The featured beer is a sour style and while that may not be one’s “cup of tea” there is also a good bar and a decent wine list. What makes the place really fun though, is the great pan Asian/international “street food” menu created by Chef Stephen Paulson an alum of Ba Bar and Elysian Fields in Seattle.
The atmosphere is country French and the place is always packed with locals and visitors enjoying simple French/Mediterranean/Italian inspired food. If you’re looking for a simple place with relatively inexpensive food and pretty delicious pizza look no further than this joint
When I was a kid I worked brunch at this quintessential Carmel institution. My first day was quite an eye opener, as the Chef, trying to light the stove, blew himself across the room and knocked himself unconscious. After he departed for the hospital, our novice staff on its first day did over five hundred “covers! To say the least it was an experience. Later that year this run down and charming place was purchased by the legendary Clint Eastwood and nicely renovated. The setting which is gorgeous with the dining room and patio looking out onto River Beach and Point Lobos and the charm of the piano bar, where all the old locals “hang”, are the principle reasons to come here. Stick to the basics here as Paul Drake would, and order a dry martini and a steak; you won’t be disappointed.
Basil Seasonal Dining
Tucked away in a small arcade off of San Carlos, is this unpretentious restaurant. There is a comfortable tiny indoor seating area and a pleasant patio. basil proudly boast that it is the first certified green restaurant in Carmel and the food reflects this dedication in a happily small menu that is nicely executed. Another plus for this place is that despite being small it does have a liquor license which is rare for a restaurant of this size in Carmel.
One of favorite new spots on the Peninsula is in the the formerly dry and bible thumping retreat town of Pacific Grove. A quick drive over the hill from Carmel, Poppy Hall is worth the trip. It has all the excitement of a new restaurant. On our first visit there we were thrilled to see the Sous Chef showing off his recently foraged mushrooms to the neighbors. That night they were on the menu in the form of a delicious chilled paillard. The dining room is small but pleasantly designed. There is no hard liquor here but the wine list is eclectic and creative. Co-Chefs Philip Wojtowicz and Brendon Esons are creating some delicious food here.
If you want to step out of the “comfort zone”, take the drive to Seaside and visit this great Latino supermarket. Sit at the bar/cafe at the back and enjoy some “real deal” Mexican food. Everyone we’ve ever talked to here has been super nice and the price is super too! Okay, it’s not where you want to go for a romantic classy dinner, but for a great quick and delicious lunch it can’t be beat!
Perched on the cliffs of Big Sur, about an hour south of Carmel, the restaurant Nepenthe is legendary. My first visit to Nepenthe was when I was quite young for a Halloween party. To say the least, it was an exciting one! The hippie culture of Big Sur was still in full swing, and artist authors and others of perhaps far more dubious backgrounds had mobbed the place. The costumes were amazing and the drugs must have been even better. Designed by Rowen Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and commissioned by the Fassett family, the building itself is worth the visit. Nepenthe means “no sorrow”, and indeed when one is there all cares seem to wash away. We recommend the Lolly’s Chicken, (named after the original owner) the three way salad and of course the Ambrosia burger: It’s not haute cuisine, but the food’s pretty tasty all the same!
THINGS TO DO
It’s hard to conceive of not being able to amuse oneself in Carmel and in the surrounding Monterey Peninsula. First off, there is the village of Carmel itself to explore. With its hundreds of shops restaurants and galleries, but that is just the tip of the “iceberg”, because there are sites worth visiting all over the peninsula, and there is always a cool event taking place.
If you’re into cars, there is the Concourse d’ Elegance held each summer at the Lodge Pebble Beach and while that’s going on check out the vintage car races at Laguna Seca raceway. Of course there are races year round at this famed track as well
If you love music, then you’ll be pretty happy on the Peninsula. For over 80 years the Bach festival has been presented in Carmel during the month of July drawing top talent from around the world. And then in late September there is the world famous Monterey Jazz Festival, which for 62 years has been drawing the very best talent from the Jazz world.
in April the most prestigious food event, “The Pebble Beach Food and Wine” is held at, you guessed it, Pebble Beach, drawing the most famous and celebrated Chefs from the United States and abroad. Mark and I are proud to say that we have participated in this event for years, and we guarantee you it’s a four day blast!
PLACES TO VISIT
THE MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM
When I moved to Carmel, Cannery row was just a street along the bay, fronted by abandoned canneries. So, it was pretty amazing that in 1984, Julie Packard, a marine biologist and the daughter of the computer entrepreneur, created and opened The Monterey Bay Aquarium. Unlike most aquariums, this one focuses on the amazing sea life of the surrounding bay. It is well worth the trip just to see the jellyfish, even if aquariums aren’t your thing.
When I was in college, and the bars had closed elsewhere in town, everyone would head to Calisa’s on Cannery Row. There, after 2:00 in the morning you would find a room full of people huddled over “tea”! You didn’t quite know what the “tea” was but it sure had alcohol in it! Calisa’s is gone now, but if you’ve ever enjoyed the books of John Steinbeck, then a least a quick visit to Cannery Row that inspired the book, is in orderer. It’s a bit honkytonk and touristy, but the people watching is fun and Doc Ricket’s lab is still there.
The original capital of Spanish and then Mexican California was Monterey. In fact, when we stole California from the Mexicans “fair and square”, the California State Constitution was signed in Colton Hall. The hall is a great place to start a walking tour of the old adobes of Monterey. Each of these fascinating buildings is marked clearly by signs outside. And while you’re out and about, there are plenty of quaint shops and cafes to enjoy in the town as well.
Nestled between Monterey and Pebble Beach is the nifty town of Pacific Grove. Founded as a protestant religious retreat in the late 19th century it is filled with mini Victorian Cottages and some grand mansions. Just walking on the back streets is fun here and the downtown has a updated “Americana” feel to it with cool stores cafes and restaurants.
A drive on the famed 17 mile drive takes you through this private enclave of privilege (at a price). The scenery is truly stunning and the astounding mansions will impress. If there are golf fans in the group then a round of golf on one of The properties famed golf courses is probably in order; just don’t forget to bring the AMX Black Card!
Built in 1797, Carmel Mission is one of the best restored missions and certainly one of the prettiest. The garden is charming and one can get a bit of a glimpse of what the mission system was all about in the New World.
The dramatic landscape of this peninsula across the bay from Carmel, was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. When you visit, you’ll see why! The landscape, in all its variations, is some of the most beautiful on our planet, really. This is a great place for a pleasant hike and a picnic.
THE TOR HOUSE
One of the most interesting and special places in Carmel, the home that famed poet Robinson Jeffers built early in the last century is a fascinating place to visit. It’s tall rock tower is reminiscent of an Irish castle, and it’s interior is filled with great memorabilia. This place is mostly overlooked by the vast majority of tourists who visit Carmel, make sure you don’t.
Carmel was an artist colony from the beginning and Carmel is awash in galleries. Sadly much of the art in these galleries today is pretty garish, but there are a few exceptions. The Weston Gallery is certainly one of them. Opened in 1975 it features the photography of some of the best including Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, Cole Weston and many more. The Carmel Art Association is the nation’s second oldest artist cooperative and a great place to start your exploration of Carmel galleries. There they will be happy to advise you on some of the better galleries throughout town.
A visit to Carmel really isn’t complete without a drive down the Big Sur Coast, which stretches about 90 miles from Carmel to Cambria and the famed Hearst Castle. Obviously one doesn’t need to drive the entire 90 miles to get a sense of this magnificent coastline, which is without a doubt one of the most stunning on earth. Don’t take our word for it, even writers like Henry Miller and Beat poet Jack Kerouac we’re both swept up by this places sheer beauty. For us, a pleasant half hour drive down to Nepenthe or Post Ranch for lunch is a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon. Another great alternative is packing a picnic and stopping at one of the many beaches or at Pfeiffer State Park for some real old fashioned relaxation!