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.