Monterey may have the aquarium and Morro Bay has sun-lit seafood shacks with great views, but I have rarely seen a town more charming _ and food-, wine- and outdoor-activity packed _ than Carmel-by-the-Sea.
This walkable, 1-square-mile hamlet incorporated in 1916 is home to slightly fewer than 4,000 full-time residents. The dog-friendly local beach is beautiful, if breezy, and small food shops such as the 5th Avenue Deli and The Cheese Shop provide lovely — albeit pricey — to-go provisions. We had quite a feast at a lunch of quinoa salad, chicken samosas and ripe and pungent cheese.
Carmel is multi-dimensional, offering art, food and a small-town experience free of looming big-box stores, says Carrie Theis, owner of the Hofsas House. (You may drive past those big-box stores on state Highway 1, but they will be a distant memory once you reach Carmel.)
The town is full of small, low-key hotels. I have always loved the Hofsas for its old-school European vibe and fireplaces in the rooms. Off-season weekends, and weeknights, offer a lot of deals in the center of the town.
(Point Lobos, slightly south of Carmel on Highway 1, is one of the most beautiful national parks in California. Ocean views are stupendous and full of wind-whipped trees. Hikes are as ambitious as you want them to be, with flat walks of a quarter-mile taking you to water views.)
Have lunch on the beach. BYOB _ your favorite _ or buy a bottle at a local winery or The Cheese Shop. After an afternoon nap or brisk post-lunch walk, you might want to visit one of the town’s tasting rooms. Carmel is the only wine country town that has more than a dozen tasting rooms in a half-mile radius. It also offers the Wine Walk Passport, which costs $65 for nine visits, and the coupons never expire.
Wines poured range from very local (I love the bubbles at Caraccioli Cellars) to small-sized notable locals such as Schied Vineyards. They are all, for the most part, open until 7 p.m. on weeknights. Try visiting the big boys, such as Bonny Doon Vineyards up Highway 1 past Santa Cruz, and you’ll note they stop serving at 4:30 p.m.
As a San Francisco resident, I adore how low-key establishments can be in Carmel. I finished dinner, without being rushed, at one of my favorite restaurants at 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday and went out to a great bar two blocks away. Relaxed, late-night dining is not always so easy in The City.
Because Carmel is a tourist-filled town, you have to carefully choose your restaurants. Many are expensive, serving ordinary food.
Two of my favorites are Yafa and Dametra Cafe. Both are Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eateries run by a Jordanian family. The menus feature kebabs, eggplant and lots of vegetable-rich dishes. They also serve a handful of great Lebanese and Israeli wines. I have long loved Chateau Musar, arguably Lebanon’s top wine estate, and really enjoyed the Israeli Galil Mountain syrah.
Another treat is the swift two-hours-or-so drive back to the Bay Area and the chance, depending on the season, to buy beautiful local artichokes on the way.
Liza B. Zimmerman is the principal of the Liza the Wine Chick writing and consulting business. She has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.