California's Carmel: Just Spoiled Enough

There's a downtown that doesn't rise above two stories, but also haute cuisine and Pebble Beach.
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CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. (TheStreet) -- For most Americans it's synonymous with the iconic Pebble Beach Golf Course, home to five U.S. Open golf championships, but there's another side of Carmel. A popular weekend destination for Sacramento Valley and San Francisco residents, Carmel-by-the-Sea became an early 20th century hangout for bohemian writers and artists. Jack London wrote about it and Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and Ansel Adams came to stay in its scattered bungalow-style cottages, which remain free of tedious bureaucracy such as streetlights, parking meters and even actual street numbers. But the spotlight shone even brighter when Tinseltown invaded -- Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby and then Doris Day, and later Clint Eastwood, who famously occupied the mayoral post in the mid-80s.

Much of Carmel life revolves around its Ocean Avenue downtown, where the signature Spanish architecture and terra cotta roofs never rise above two stories and a crackling fire at sunset -- battling the infamous canopy of foggy weather -- is never unseasonable.

Carmel Plaza

is an outdoor mall at the center of town that in recent years has attracted a more haute roster of shops, including

Tiffany & Co.

(TIF) - Get Report

,

Louis Vuitton

(LVMH)

and

Bottega Veneta

. It's little wonder Carmel is often compared to East Hampton, but with a local second-home market even pricier than its East Coast competition.

Luckily weekend visitors have hotel options galore.

The Cypress Inn

not only oozes storybook charm, but is pet-friendly -- like much of Carmel itself, including its famous white-sand beach. The inn, walking distance from the main village, is tucked behind a regal white facade with interior courtyards lined in Mexican Saltillo tiles and and a Hollywood-inspired drinking lounge covered in vintage Doris Day movie posters. The posters aren't a coincidence; the inn is owned and operated by Doris Day and Dennis LeVett, who have made it a four-star refuge for travelers with felines and Fidos in tow.

Carmel-by-the-Sea has an unspoiled white-sand beach not far from premium accommodations.

A quirky landmark, the hotel attracts a mature crowd of dressy guests that converge on weekend live music jams in the main bar, called Terry's, that doubles as the in-house restaurant. There's an impressive tapas menu and affordable dinners: $25 steamed lobster tails, $20 grilled sand dabs and $26 filet mignon with brandy-peppercorn sauce. A cozy collection of rooms was recently updated with iron canopy beds and such animal-friendly amenities as private streetfront entrances and large verandas, ideal for those with 120-pound four-legged friends.

From Hollywood royalty to chocolate aristocracy:

La Playa Hotel

is in an upscale residential enclave a slightly more ambitious walk from downtown, but closer to the beach. The hotel was designed and built by Norwegian-born artist and owner Christopher Jorgensen as a gift to his bride and former-student, Angela Ghirardelli, heiress to the San Francisco chocolate fortune. The hotel maintains the largest and oldest swimming pool in Carmel, as well as a newer collection of freestanding cottages that offer VIP guests a private villa experience with such amenities as full kitchens and formal outdoor spaces.

Days in Carmel are spent one of two ways: on the golf green or strolling the galleries downtown. One of the oldest and most famous of any public golf courses in America, Pebble Beach also remains one of the priciest. Course fees start at $495 (including a cart). More affordable links can be found at Pebble Beach-owned Spyglass Hill and The Links at Spanish Bay, which are around half to three-quarters the price with better availability. A decent set of

Callaway

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clubs can be rented for an additional $90, which is ideal given the small planes that connect Monterey to larger California airports. Afterward, tee up to a martini lunch at the

Stillwater Bar & Grill

overlooking the 18th Hole while feasting on chilled seafood towers, lobster bisque and Monterey Bay Red Abalone.

Located 10 minutes inland,

Carmel Valley Ranch

is preparing for a September unveiling resulting from a a venture between

Hyatt Hotel

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heir John Pritzker and San Francisco-based JDV Hotels, of Hotel Adagio, Angeleno and Hotel Vitale fame. The resort has been through a $20 million remodel of its spa and guest rooms and is home to its own Pete Dye-designed golf course.

Carmel Valley, home to the

Bernardus Lodge & Winery

, is a popular daytime getaway. Amid a spectacular setting of rolling hills and manicured vineyards, this 57-room lodge is a home to Marinus, which is run by chef chef Cal Stamenov. The formal dinner-only dining room of French revival decor offers a foodie a whirlwind of locally sourced seafood and vegetables from the lodge's two-acre garden.

If winding country roads isn't your thing, downtown Carmel is full of venerable restaurant treasures.

L'Auberge

is a cozy 12-table restaurant just off the main drag that offers chef Christophe Grosjean's farmer-fresh three-to-five-course tasting menus of plum foie gras tourchon, fava bean risotto with black truffle and braised kobe beef cheek with bordelaise jus. Best of all, the restaurant collection of 5,000-plus bottles of Monterey County, California and French wines means an impromptu late-night tasting scene of neighborhood locals complaining, "Carmel isn't nearly as small-town as it was once upon a time." But maybe that's not a bad thing.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.