Overview

Carmel, California, is the kind of place where a person might hand you a poem in the street. It's where at dawn you can get a strong cup of coffee in hand and take a long walk down the beach. You can learn anything you want about dogs, have an authentic Ayurvedic massage and watch the setting sun go flat as a disc on the ocean horizon, then turn around and observe waterfowl leaving skims of silver wake on the Carmel River before daylight disappears.

At night you can stay up late singing to a crowd at Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch piano bar, catch a new play in a small theater, cuddle around a beach campfire and stroll back to your hotel along sleepy streets under the stars. You can spend a lot of money in glitzy boutique stores or spend very little at Point Lobos State Nature Reserve.

A place of romance, beauty and culture, Carmel was developed in the early 20th century by artists, poets and visionaries, and its residents have retained its friendly, small-town, sophisticated character. You might even be inspired to write your own verse—and share it back.

Carmel is located at the southern end of Monterey Peninsula, just a few miles/kilometers south of Monterey. The town's refreshingly calm atmosphere results, in part, from strict zoning laws that ban neon, traffic lights and other trappings of urban development. (The town also seems to have banned empty parking spaces: Expect to spend some time searching for one.)

The residential district has no sidewalks or streetlights, and there is no mail delivery. Homes are known by their names rather than addresses. Carmel received a lot of press in the mid-1980s when Clint Eastwood was its mayor.

Geography

Carmel lies immediately south of Monterey, separated by the hilly Monterey Peninsula. The southern half of the peninsula is famous for the 17-Mile Drive, which loops through the Pebble Beach golf course and along the rugged shore, past Seal Rock and the much-photographed Cypress Point.

To the south of Carmel lies the diverse wildlife habitat of Point Lobos. Beyond, the dramatical coast of Big Sur lures visitors along one of the most scenic coastal highways in the U.S., Highway 1.

The town itself is actually a village laid out in a neat grid that slopes downhill to Carmel Beach City Park and Carmel River Beach, where waves crash ashore at the southern end of Carmel Bay. Carmel lies to the west of Highway 1. East of the highway, Carmel Valley Road leads through the eponymous valley where deluxe spa hotels and ranches enjoy bucolic settings. Carmel Mission, which gave rise to the town's name, is just outside the entrance to the valley.

History

The first Native Americans who lived in the Carmel area were Esslen. Around the sixth century, the Ohlone people came and drove them south to what is now Big Sur.

The first Europeans to land on present-day Carmel arrived during an expedition led by Sebastian Vizcaino, a Carmelite monk, in 1602. He named the Carmel Valley for his patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The town of Carmel evolved around Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1770 in Monterey, and moved to the north bank of the Rio Carmelo in 1771. Although Carmel was the second of 21 Spanish missions established in California, it was Serra's favorite. He died there in 1784 and is buried beneath the church floor at the foot of the altar.

In 1775, nearby Monterey was named the capital of Spanish California. That year, Serra enforced virtual enslavement of indigenous peoples, to be converted to Christianity. Some 4,000 indigenous people were converted between 1770 and 1836. Most died of European diseases, malnutrition and overwork.

In 1821, the region became part of Mexican territory upon Mexico's independence from Spain. In 1848, Mexico ceded Carmel to the U.S. following the Mexican-American War. The area that was to become Carmel was called Rancho Las Manzanitas. In the 1950s, Honore Escolle, a French businessman bought the land.

In 1905, the Carmel Arts and Craft Club was formed. The earthquake in San Francisco the following year sent a huge influx of artists, writers and musicians to the area. The new residents could get a home lot for a US$10 down payment with little or no interest. They were allowed to pay whatever they could monthly.

By the mid-19th century, the town evolved as a gathering place for artists and other bohemians. It has continued to draw creative people, including such luminaries as writers Sinclair Lewis, Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson, and photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Resident actor Clint Eastwood served as mayor for one term 1986-88, bringing newfound celebrity to the town. Carmel remains a community of artists and intellectuals, but also has a strong golfing and retiree presence.

Sightseeing

Travelers are drawn to Carmel for its old-world atmosphere and picturesque streets lined with cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops. A fun day can be filled just wandering the cottage-lined streets festooned with bougainvillea and other tumbling shrubs. Let serendipity be your guide.

Take time to stroll the shoreline. The full length of Carmel Beach City Park will take a good hour at a brisk pace, but you'll want to linger with your shoes off on the sand enjoying the informal dog-walking parade, the elegance of surfers catching waves, and the coastal beauty that has inspired so many painters and poets.

Carmel River State Beach is a quieter stretch of sand where dogs must be leashed. It provides an exhilarating contrast of pounding surf next to the serene waters of a protected estuary where birds and other wildlife thrive. Walkers can visit both beaches on an extended stroll along Scenic Drive, which connects the two. Sunrise and sunset are ideal times to enjoy the atmosphere, but others will also have the same idea.

The famous 17-Mile Drive takes visitors along a wild, scenic coastline past the golf courses of Pebble Beach. There is a US$10 toll per car to enter. Allow at least three hours with stops to photograph Seal Rock and the Lone Cypress Tree. The route winds through the Del Monte Forest and Pebble Beach, and along the wave-washed shoreline.

East of California Highway 1, you can escape the town's bustle for a day with a bicycle ride or drive up pastoral Carmel Valley.

Be warned, Carmel is busy on weekends, and finding parking can be difficult. The cottage inns and historic hotels can run US$250 and more. But the higher prices are worth it for the unique delights of Carmel's eclectic dwellings, range of art galleries, fine restaurants and inspiring beauty.

Nightlife

Ever since the live music ban in places serving alcohol was lifted in 2006, Carmel has been flexing its wings as a nightspot. Nowadays you can even have a bit of a pub crawl without having to drive at all, if your hotel is close to Ocean Avenue. Most bars stay open until 10 pm, and a few stay open until 2 am.

Dining

Carmel is nirvana to gourmands, and its restaurants are guaranteed to provide exceptional dining experiences. The bounty from the sea and fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs of the Carmel Valley and fertile Salinas Valley (the "salad bowl of California") offer the tastiest and freshest of ingredients. Of course, seafood reigns supreme: Expect to see abalone, mussels, scallops, salmon and other treasures from King Neptune's larder still dripping with brine from the sea.

It is no surprise that visitors to Carmel are spoilt for choice. There are many options, including world-class restaurants run by master chefs and restaurateurs from around the world and quirky, laid-back joints where patrons can relax and kick back with friends. Expect everything from California nouvelle and Cajun to Italian and Asian cuisine. Each venue is unique in its character and ambience. And while dinner prices lean toward the high end, you can still get a delicious lunch for about US$10. Several restaurants also have casual cafes sections or late-night wine bars.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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