Set on gently rising bluffs above a sculpted rocky shore, the boutique town of Carmel is well known for its inflated real-estate prices, neat rows of quaint shops and miniature homes along Ocean Avenue, and a largely untouched coastline. Unfortunately, the place also has a thick air of pretension, peppered with tacky middlebrow galleries and mock-Tudor tearooms. Don't expect to see street addresses, mail delivery, or franchise businesses in town: they're all officially banned. Despite the cramped atmosphere, Carmel Mission Basilica, 3080 Rio Rd (Mon– Sat 9.30am–5.30pm, Sun 10.30am–5pm; $5; Web: www.carmelmission.org ), provides a hint of genuine interest as the second of the California Spanish missions, built in 1771. Three small museums in the mission compound trace its history with antiques and memorabilia, while the darker side of the dainty building becomes apparent via the graves of more than three thousand local Indians in the adjacent cemetery.
The town's best feature, however, is the largely untouched nearby coastline. Carmel River State Beach, west of town, is a tranquil cove of blue water near a bird sanctuary and bordered by soft white sand and cypress-covered cliffs, though the tides are deceptively strong and dangerous, so be careful if you chance a swim. Point Lobos State Reserve, two miles south of the Carmel Mission on Hwy-1 (daily 8am– dusk; $10 per vehicle; Tel:831/624-4909), is spread over two square miles, and has more than 250 bird and animal species along its hiking trails, and the sea here is one of the richest underwater habitats in California. Gray whales are often seen offshore - from as little as a hundred yards away - migrating south in January and returning with young calves in April and early May.
Famed as the site of the Pebble Beach Country Club and Resort and Spyglass Hill golf courses, and home to the yearly AT&T Celebrity Golf Tournament (where huge crowds await Bill Murray's schtick), Pebble Beach has what may be one of the finest stretches of coast on the Monterey Peninsula. Craggy shorelines, crashing surf and cypress groves mark the spot where Portola landed in 1769 on his first fruitless expedition to find Monterey. Pebble Beach has long been the enclave of the very top tier of country club society.
Carmel takes quality-of-life matters very seriously, which is why you will see no neon signs, telephone poles or street numbers on houses, and may be scolded by a perfect stranger if you are seen eating in the street. Affluent Carmel preserves its idyllic gracefulness with a stern propriety one might associate with Martha's Vineyard. Known far and wide for exclusive gift shops, award-winning restaurants and secluded resort hotels, the town has been a popular tourist destination for more than a century. The city fathers remain adamantly opposed to the intrusions of the late 20th century (to say nothing of the 21st), which has inevitably brought them into conflict with the interests of development-minded area businessmen. It was just this that swept Mayor Clint Eastwood into office (his intent on loosening the stricture over business permits of the sort needed for his now-closed Hog's Breath Inn restaurant). Mr. Eastwood has served his term and stepped away from Carmel politics, although he remains a Carmel resident.
The 1771 Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, or more succinctly, Carmel Mission , is Carmel's biggest single attraction. A handsomely preserved piece of Spanish colonial history, the mission's bell tower was not the one that starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. That was a bit of movie magic Hitch added when he found that the actual tower was not up to his cinematic standards.
If possible, Carmel Valley is even more laid-back than Carmel. Perhaps it is the rustic isolation. Carved from the original rancheros in the area, it still looks very much as it did when Spanish dons owned the rolling green hills. Driving along Carmel Valley Road, though, one will find more than cattle and horses grazing picturesquely if precariously on the hillsides. Golf courses such as the Rancho Canada Golf Club offer a somewhat more affordable alternative to courses along the Pacific.
Shoppers will find much to delight them in Carmel Valley with the upscale Barnyard on the border between Carmel and Carmel Valley, as well as the tiny but chic shops that dot the area. Elegant vinyards, such as Durney Vineyards at the Heller Estate also appear throughout the Valley.
The ranchero tradition has not died out entirely here. If you want to explore the area in a more up-close-and-personal way, the expert guides at Holman Ranch can arrange tours on horseback to suit your expertise level, horse-sense and your schedule.
San Francisco may grab California's culinary spotlight, but local food partisans are quick to point out that celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower (of Stars in San Francisco) roasted his first bell pepper at Big Sur's Ventana Inn. The fires of the California Cuisine revolution were stoked on the shores of the Central Coast. Carmel is blessed with a year-round cornucopia of fresh local ingredients, Pacific Rim flavors carried in by the ocean breeze, and a host of creative chefs who know what to do with both.
It's hard to go wrong with seafood here. The Central Coast yields a bounteous harvest of such delicacies as Monterey Bay king salmon, abalone and the delicate Monterey spot prawn. Restaurants offer seafood in a spectrum of styles: Italian, Mediterranean, Californian, Asian, and Pacific Fusion. The area also features noteworthy steak houses, cantinas and barbecue joints, and green veggies are incredibly fresh. Monterey County grows and ships much of the country's best artichokes, broccoli and lettuces. Heirloom varietals from local organic farms can make even the humble Brussels sprout a star.
Pebble Beach, site of the AT&T Celebrity Golf Tournament, is one of the most beautiful and exclusive settings for golf in the world and is priced to match--just a fair warning before entering the casual elegance of the Bay Club at the Inn at Spanish Bay , where Northern Italian cuisine riffs on local ingredients like Dungeness crab and Castroville artichokes. Another great choice is Roy's Pebble Beach , which brings you Hawaiian-style Pacific Rim cuisine with a California twist in an informal setting. The posh Club XIX , which overlooks the 18th hole of the Pebble Beach golf course, is likely the most chic, elegant setting on the entire Monterey Peninsula. Hubert Keller, chef at San Francisco's renowned Fleur de Lys, has joined the kitchen there to successfully wed Club XIX's staunchly American menu with lighter, more contemporary fare. The prix fixe menus are a good strategy to take here. Dinner jackets are required for men at dinner.
Carmel and Carmel Valley
Carmel, with its quaint appeal and high per-capita income, is blessed with a variety of first-class restaurants that cater to its constant stream of visitors. Most of the restaurants are found on Ocean Avenue and the cross-streets to the south, as well as some notable restaurants along Highway 1 south of town.
The Court of the Golden Bough arcade offers the dog-and-kid-friendly PortaBella . Its Mediterranean cuisine has garnered praise and awards from publications like the New York Times.
For pure romance, head to Casanova Restaurant . Choose from the Harvest Room, the Milagro Room or the pepper tree-shaded patio, and rest assured that signature dishes like Grilled Veal Chop with Sauteed Mushrooms and Pan-seared Fillet of Salmon with Pasta do not disappoint. The wine cellar is stocked with more than 30,000 bottles.
Two blocks north you'll find La Boheme Restaurant, a tiny Parisian bistro with a delightfully nostalgic setting complete with Paris Match magazines scattered about and a prix fixe menu of one entree nightly. Nearby, the family-owned Tutto Mondo Trattoria serves Italian food at very reasonable prices. The setting is simple and rustic, but what they've saved on decor has gone into the food (pizzas, pastas and bisteccas) and delicious home-made ingredients. The house olive oils and salad dressings are sold at the door. A block up on Sixth Street Grasing's Coastal Cuisine has garnered awards with its exceptional and reasonably priced California Mediterranean fare.
At Carmel's Barnyard Shopping Village , the Lugano Swiss Bistro offers delightful Alpine comfort cooking like Veal Schnitzel with Capers and the Mountain Sausage Platter. It's all delicious and comforting--picture red-and-white checked tablecloths aglow from the flames of the rotisserie. The Rio Grill is situated South of Carmel on Highway 1. It sticks to its specialties: grilled entrees served with a Southwestern twist. The cuisine wins awards, and the service keeps locals coming back.
Don't forget breakfast, often touted as the most important meal of the day. There are few better places to fuel up for a day of sightseeing (or relaxing) than Katy's Place or the Cottage Restaurant , which offer hearty morning meals. Both places are informal, and a friendly way to start the day.
Continuing past The Barnyard on Carmel Valley road brings you to Marinus , a wonderful place to stop while visiting the area's vineyards, shops or golf courses. The cuisine, created by French-trained Bay Area native Cal Stamenov, blends Gallic preparation techniques with the area's fresh produce. A more informal stop would be Will's Fargo Dining House and Saloon , a steakhouse that serves Porterhouse steaks second to none, as well as such California-style treats as Lamb with pesto. The saloon offers a tame homage to the area's rowdier days.
Whether enjoyed during the clarity of a summer's day, the grayness of a mid-winter storm, or amidst the fog-shrouded, otherworldly sensation that can creep into the city at any time of the day or night, visitors to this area will revel in the diversity of Carmel's splendor.
Highlands Sculpture Gallery Downtown Carmel is filled with things to do. Amsterdam Fine Art gallery, Highlands Sculpture Gallery and Gallery Twenty-one are all located close to one another. Browse the shops at the Barnyard shopping center, then dine at Anton & Michel .
Carl Cherry Center for the Arts Also downtown is the Weston Gallery and the William A. Karges Fine Art gallery. The Carl Cherry Center for the Arts hosts local performances and exhibitions. Take in the view from Tor House , then dine at Katy's Place .
Château Julien Wine Tour Carmel's wine country, with stops at Château Julien Wine , Galante Vineyards and Durney Vineyards--Heller Estate . Hit the links at Carmel Valley Ranch , then dine at Citronelle , famed for its French creations.
Sunset Center The Yon-Ka Signature Day Spa is the place to go for some pampering. Sunset Center hosts frequent performances, while the New Masters Gallery has sculpture and paintings on display. Nearby Pacific's Edge Restaurant and Casanova Restaurant never fail to please guests with their fresh, contemporary cuisine.
Carmel Mission Admire the architecture at Carmel Mission , browse the collections at Conway of Asia and the Gallery Americana . Grab a bite to eat nearby at Rio Grill or Grasing's Coastal Cuisine .
See Carmel's marine life through a diving mask, ride in luxury on an air conditioned bus or walk it, the choice is yours.
Walking Tours Carmel Walks ( +1 831 642 2700/ http://www.carmelwalks.com )
Bus Tours Diana's Charters and Tours ( +1 831 394 6541/ http://www.dianascharters.com/ ) Del Monte Express Tours ( +1 831 647 1234 ) California Bus Associates ( +1 831 633 1755/ http://www.cbabus.com/ ) Monterey Bay Scenic Tours ( +1 831 372 6278/http://www.mbstours.com/ )
Train Tours California Rail Tours ( +1 831 443 4277 )
Fishing Tours Randy's Fishing Trips ( +1 831 372 7440/ http://www.randysfishingtrips.com/ )
Diving Tours Monterey Blue Diving ( +1 831 601 4170/ http://montereyblue.com/ )