photos by Sue De Lapa
A trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea is something like going to a Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff (oops, Doris Day) comedy.
It’s a charming, fun escape and you leave happy. And, if you get very, very lucky in Carmel, you just might spot Doris at her Cypress Inn, or out at the Quail Lodge, where you can spot her home on a hill high above the 18th green.
Partly through animal-lover Day’s influence, dogs are lovingly pampered in Carmel and welcome just about everywhere, including hotels, and likely to be underfoot but well-behaved in restaurants and bars.
Let the rest of the world be 2008, Carmel seems to want you think the year is still 1925. It’s cottagey, low profile, neat and clean without being cutesy: a Northern California Solvang it is not. Tourists love it. It’s everything they don’t have at home. No loud joints with ear-splitting music. No trucks parked on lawns. Drivers actually stop at stop signs and give way to pedestrians.
No parking meters, stop lights, franchise food outlets, neon signs, multi-story condos or street addresses. There’s nothing much to bug you (just as long as you obey the parking laws). I didn’t see one homeless person or a cop.
But you’ll eat like a king and want to hang around restaurant bars right out of San Francisco or Tuscany, relax with your mate and knit that ragged marriage or relationship back up. You’ll talk to one another because you won’t know anyone. And because of the parking shortage, you’ll do a lot of walking and window-shopping.
Speaking of parking, it’s mighty scarce in the summer, when thousands of cars a day try to squeeze in. But I had no trouble in February, when the restaurants, B&Bs and hotels had plenty of space. Speaking of hotels, they tend to be in beautifully restored 1920s buildings, like Doris Day’s Cypress Inn, where they serve afternoon tea every day and locals gather in the green-tinted bar for afternoon drinks. If you want multi-story luxury, head four miles south on Highway 1 to the Highlands Inn. It boasts one of Carmel’s best restaurants, Pacific’s Edge, and a view out to where the restless sea crashes wildly against the rocks at Point Lobos.
Highlands Inn is pretty sedate. Just the opposite is movie star Clint Eastwood‘s Mission Ranch restaurant, also just outside city limits, where the good times roll around the piano bar after 8 p.m. Regulars take turns singing into the mike and some are darn good. As the evening wears on, people start dancing with whoever’s around and no one’s a stranger anymore. One young woman was screaming with delight the night we visited.
The food’s good too and there are rooms for rent around the compound. When Clint learned that the old dairy farm was earmarked for condo-ization in 1986, he bought the place and spent many dollars renovating it with loving care, hiring artisans to match the style of the original ranch buildings.
If nothing else, it’s a great spot for coffee or a sunset drink out on the deck, gazing over a meadow where sheep graze. The Camel River is beyond that, and Point Lobos.
Carmel can be pricey but not necessarily a budget-buster. You can nail a room in Clint’s 1850 farmhouse for $120 or a double at the excellent, century-old, full-service La Playa Hotel for $185.
Sue and I spent one night at the Highlands Inn, one at the B&B-like Colonial Terrace, dating to 1929, and two at a cottage saved from the wrecking ball by caring folks at La Playa Hotel. Our cottage, one of five, had a king bed, full kitchen and living room with a flat-screen TV and wood-burning fireplace. At 75-room La Playa we were greeted by genial general manager Tom Glidden, former manager at Santa Barbara’s El Encanto Hotel.
The most stylish place we found was the upscale L’Auberge Carmel, in a building dating to 1929, where doubles start at $325 and chef Timothy Mosblech‘s fixed price dinner costs $85, served by white-gloved waiters. The wine cellar holds 4,500 bottles. But at the bustling, far less formal Casanova, chef James Romeo whomps up a romantic dinner of French country and Italian cuisine for two for $100 and you select wine from the 30,000-bottle cellar. By special arrangement you can be served at “Van Gogh‘s Table,” supposedly from a hotel where the painter lived in the south of France. Paella Valenciana is the dish to order at Portabella (which means open door in Italian, not mushroom). Hungarian-born restaurateur Csaba Ajan holds forth in a 1925 building where you can sit at the same table where crooner Bing Crosby and his golfing buddies ate and drank. Bouchee, devoted to French cuisine, is like the old joke about divorce: it’s expensive but it’s worth it. Ask for a booth near the open kitchen. A top dish here is the French classic, boeuf bourguignon, followed by the blood orange, tangerine, and pineapple sorbet. You’ll think you’re in Italy when you sit down to lunch at Al Fornaio, with its wide wooden floors and servers in white aprons. Pizza Capricciosa (mozzarella, ham, artichokes, olives, mushrooms, and fresh basil) goes for $13. You can’t have more fun than dinner at Clint’s rustic Mission Ranch, where dinner for two — maybe prawns with tagliarini pasta or short ribs ossobuco style — will set you back about $75. (A burger costs $10.65.)
Then there’s Doris Day‘s Cypress Inn, where her movies are shown on request in a room off the bar and her music fills the place. Afternoon tea costs $18 in Terry’s Lounge, named for her late son. Dinner for two costs about $75. (More if you opt for the $70 caviar.) A drive out into the country on Carmel Valley Road takes you to one of the many country clubs and wineries. The Covey restaurant at the Quail Lodge is a formal dining room with top-quality food.
What to do, besides eating, art gallery-crawling, antique- hunting and window-shopping? Well, there’s the beach, of course. The classic Seventeen Mile Drive, from the edge of Carmel to Pebble Beach, takes you on a winding cruise past cypress trees, dashing surf, and sumptuous homes looking out at the sea. Cost: $9 per car. Point Lobos, just a few miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, is a series of rocky points jutting out into the fierce sea, and quiet coves where sea lions and otters swim. The Whaling Station Museum tells a sad tale of the days of the slaughter. The Carmel Mission on the edge of town is open to the public. Fr. Junipero Serra, who founded the California chain of missions, is buried there. Poet Robinson Jeffers‘ stone Tor House and Hawk Tower stand on a knoll overlooking the ocean. You must have reservations: Tel: 831-624-1813.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns for Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column for Thursdays.