Carmel-by-the-Sea is located in a unique stretch of California's coastal highway. The town was once a bohemian haven for artists, including photographer Ansel Adams and writers Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis. Over the years, the town took on a more chic vibe as wealthy residents moved in and developed the town even further. Today, this mixed vibe still exists as the small town is packed with pricey shops, various restaurants, elegant inns and inspired art galleries. Somehow, despite all this activity, the town maintains a quaint and welcoming atmosphere.
Adding to Carmel's appeal is the prime waterside location and a lovely beach. The main beach in town is Carmel Beach, located at the foot of Ocean Avenue. With its laid-back style and family atmosphere, Carmel Beach breaks the stereotypes of the California beach scene. A wide stretch of fine powdery sand is framed by majestic cypress trees and gentle sand dunes. This beach is cozier than the wild, black sand beaches in the northern part of the state, and it's more relaxed and genuine than some of its glitzy southern counterparts. You're more likely to find families sharing a picnic than a throng of sunbathing women in tiny bikinis.
Swimming is not permitted on Carmel Beach, which is just fine as the waters are frigid and the surf is rough. But the wide stretch of sand is perfect for picnics and kite flying.
Most Luxurious Hotel
La Playa Hotel and Cottages-by-the-Sea
Web site: www.laplayahotel.com
Nestled between the beach and the village of Carmel, La Playa Hotel and Cottages-by-the-Sea is a graceful hotel with lots of personal touches. Its luxurious rooms look out on either the village or the hotel's elegant gardens. Five airy and spacious cottages are tucked away below the hotel's main garden and provide the prefect accommodations for discerning family vacationers. These cottages include a full kitchen and a garden patio, and some even have wood-burning fireplaces. Add in the full menu of spa services and the Terrace Grill, which offers al fresco dining on the heated patio, and it's clear why La Playa is called the "Grande Dame of Carmel."
Most Romantic Hotel
Highlands Inn, Park Hyatt Carmel
Web site: www.highlandsinn.hyatt.com
Perched atop craggy cliffs overlooking the pounding surf, the scene is properly set for romance at the Highlands Inn. This Hyatt resort exudes an upscale rustic retreat vibe, making it the perfect choice for honeymooners or travelers looking for an escape. The rooms are spacious and well-equipped with all the best amenities. The splurge for the ocean view is worth the additional cost, as the view of the Big Sur coastline from the balcony or patio is breathtaking. If a room with a view is out of your budget, make reservations for dinner at the Pacific's Edge Restaurant and check out the ocean vistas with some dinner and a glass of wine.
Carriage House Inn
Web site: www.innsbythesea.com
The Carriage House Inn is so warm and inviting that it's like visiting the home of your favorite aunt or old friend. Rooms are outfitted with classic Victorian decor, whirlpools or deep-soaking tubs, fireplaces and plush beds with cozy down comforters. It's a good thing that breakfast and the paper are delivered right to your room each morning, because it's hard to tear yourself away from all this comfort. The inn is just steps away from the best of Carmel, from the downtown shops and galleries to the beach.
Best Budget Lodging
Carmel Sands Lodge
Web site: www.carmelsandslodge.com/
Finding budget accommodations in Carmel, or anywhere along California's popular stretch of coast, can be quite a challenge. This makes the Carmel Sands Lodge all the more desirable to budget travelers looking for basic rooms at a reasonable price. The lodge is made up of 38 no-frills rooms with options for a balcony or fireplace for those looking to splurge. This small hotel may be short on luxurious style, but it makes up for that with a friendly staff and a great location just a short walk to town and the beach.
Food & Drink
Flying Fish Grill
Foodies looking for a seafood fix should look no further than the tranquil dining room at the Flying Fish Grill. Owner Kenny Fukumoto puts his own spin on Asian-fusion specialties. For starters, there is a selection of sushi and an Asian-inspired salsa served with wonton chips. Entrees incorporate local fare from the sea, including scallops, oysters, rock shrimp and sea bass. In addition, the menu features the Japanese staple of rare ahi tuna; this version is served blackened with a mustard-sesame-soy sauce.
The Restaurant at Mission Ranch
Web site: www.missionranchcarmel.com
The restaurant at Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch is a Carmel institution, revered for its great views, comfortable atmosphere and tasty food. The Sunday Jazz Brunch is packed every week with locals and tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the man himself. But there's no disappointment if Clint isn't in town. Get there early to get a table - the restaurant does not accept reservations.
Web site: www.clubjalapeno.com
Hidden in a cozy courtyard, Club Jalapeno is home of Carmel's hottest Mexican cuisine. Diners can kick off their meal with chips and homemade fire-roasted tomato salsa while perusing the menu. It might take some time to choose from the extensive list of mouth-watering entrees, including specialties like Oaxacan enchiladas and Baja fish tacos with a lime cilantro dressing. A sweet and salty margarita is a must, and real tequila connoisseurs will be impressed by Club J's bar, which is stocked with some of the best tequila around.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Web site: pt-lobos.parks.state.ca.us
This 1,225-acre reserve features more than 350 plant species and 250 kinds of animals and birds. The stretch of water is home to some of the region's most famous residents, including playful sea otters, fast-moving harbor seals and barking sea lions. During the late winter to early spring , visitors might even catch sight of migrating gray whales swimming along the coast. And that's not all - kelp forests and the eerie Monterey cypresses mark the reserve as an unique natural wonderland.
Chateau Julien Wine Estate
Web site: www.chateaujulien.com/
Napa Valley may be California's most popular wine region, but many of the small towns along the coast get in on the action. Chateau Julien Wine Estate is the prefect place for visitors to create their own wine-tasting adventures. Pack a picnic and head to the tasting room to give your nose and tastebuds a workout distinguishing between the Chateau's varietals. Once you find your favorite wine, pick up a bottle and enjoy an outdoor picnic. Want to learn more about the wine-making process? The staff offers complimentary tours of the vineyard during the week, but reservations are required.
Web site: www.pebblebeach.com
Some visitors are content to simply stop the car and take a peek at Pebble Beach while looping around the windy, scenic 17 Mile Drive. But serious golfers aspire to making a tee time and playing a round at this legendary golf course, which is a quick drive from Carmel. This challenging coastal golf course provides some of the best greens - and views - in the world, with wide stretches of green leading to fairways built right along the rugged cliffs. The best part is that amateur golfers can putt away on this celebrated site. It won't be an easy round and the prices are steep, but the experience for a die-hard golfer is well worth the cost.
The Weston Gallery
Web site: www.westongallery.com
California's north central coast, and Carmel in particular, has been home to many artists. Thus it's no surprise that there is a wealth of galleries in this small town. The Weston Gallery was one of the first photo galleries in the country and continues to display vintage and contemporary photography today. Their collection includes works by Ansel Adams and the Weston family, including Edward, Brett and Cole. The gallery also features rotating shows by emerging artists following in the footsteps of Carmel's artistic greats.