There’s no place like home, but when a trip is ending, I’m always a little sad unless I’ve got the next excursion in mind. Coming home after almost three weeks of having a fantastic time in the Emilia-Romagna and Puglia regions of Italy, I needed to plan a getaway!
I found solace in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
About a two-hour drive south from San Francisco, Carmel is a convenient getaway for area residents or visitors to San Francisco Bay Area. It is a one square mile, quiet village in the midst of a pine forest on the Bay of Carmel. It is home to celebrities such as Clint Eastwood (a former mayor of Carmel) and actress Doris Day, who is an iconic member of the community and partly responsible for Carmel’s pet-friendliness. Golf lovers are familiar with the famous golf course, Pebble Beach, and the scenic 17-mile drive, which are only a few miles away.
You won’t find nightclubs or late-night boisterous crowds. Neon signs are not allowed. There are no street numbers on buildings and no mail delivery service, a tradition that residents embrace. Mail must be picked up at the post office, the goal being to promote a sense of community via this informally designated meeting place.
If you want Las Vegas style entertainment, this is not the town for you. But if you’d like a place to unwind in the upscale, but casual ambiance, while enjoying some of the best in dining, shopping and cultural options with spectacular scenery along the coast, Carmel is an excellent choice. And it also makes an ideal base for exploring the many attractions of the surrounding area, too.
I think that the optimal way to experience this area is to wine, dine, shop, walk along the beach, relax and spend a couple of nights. Thanks to the hospitality of the Hofsas House Hotel, Mr. TWS and I did exactly that.
Settling in at Hofsas House
Owned and operated by the Theis family for over 60 years, the Hofsas House Hotel has a cozy Bavarian ambiance. You first check in at the reception desk in the warm lobby with comfortable chairs, sofa and fireplace. Above the desk is a photograph of the inn’s founder and family matriarch, Donna Theis. The inn is currently managed by granddaughter Carrie whose mother, Doris, also works in the inn and welcomes guests. Carrie especially enjoys meeting with guests during the complimentary continental breakfast in the lobby to talk to them about their plans for the day and offer assistance. She has welcomed guests from all over the world and strives to discover and provide what guests might need.
The mural outside the entrance to the hotel lobby was painted in 1957 by artist Maxine Albro who was a resident of Carmel and friend to Donna Theis. Maxine also painted three paintings in the lobby and a headboard in the hotel’s room 47.
Carrie took us on a tour of the hotel and proudly pointed out the family coat of arms on the front of the building — a nice, personal touch. The plaque reads, “Otium Cum Dignitate,” which means “Leisure with Dignity”, representing the hotel’s mission to provide excellent customer service to all guests.
As we entered our room, we noticed the small kitchenette with a welcome package of cheese, crackers and bottle of chardonnay from Ventana Vineyards, a local winery. It was my first Ventana tasting, and it won’t be the last!
The complimentary continental breakfast served in the lobby includes fresh pastries, juice, fruit and coffee. We liked bringing a tray up to our room for breakfast.
The hotel is in walking distance of shops, restaurants, tasting rooms and the beach making it easy for us to enjoy downtown Carmel on foot.
You won’t go hungry in Carmel.
Dinner our first night was at Mundaka, a fun and lively restaurant,tucked away in a courtyard serving up tasty Spanish style tapas. We tried several dishes, but these were probably my favorites — Hamburguesa (mini lamb burger, pickled cauliflower, truffle fries), Datiles (bacon-wrapped dates, goat cheese, almond) and Sopa (tomato gazpacho, fried artichoke). The menu changes daily to offer fresh ingredients.
For lunch the next day, we tried what is described as a quintessential Carmel spot, the very popular Casanova restaurant, which from the street appears to be a small European-style cottage. Inside, there are several cozy dining rooms and outside, a lovely courtyard dining area where we were seated. Mr. TWS opted for a special seafood pasta dish (reminiscent of the excellent food we enjoyed in Puglia, Italy) with an unusual creamy pesto sauce. I can never resist a Croque Monsieur no matter where I am, so that was my choice — and a delicious choice it was!
On our second night, we had dinner just a short drive away at Fandango in Pacific Grove. The ambiance was nice, but the food and service really distinguished this top area restaurant that had come highly recommended.
Mr. TWS really enjoyed his wild grilled salmon with a butter sauce and my short ribs were a very tender treat for me — real comfort food.
Walk and Sip
Along with fine food, of course, comes fine wine. We loved the Carmel Wine Walk Passport which provides a self-paced tour of nine winery tasting rooms within downtown Carmel, all in easy walking distance of the hotel. There is no expiration date, so you can catch some on a return trip if you like.
In some of the tasting rooms, the owners were pouring and talked about their vineyards and history in the area. It was an informative tour as the owners and servers were especially interesting as they enthusiastically described their wines, the area’s distinct grapes and the history of their wineries. We really liked the personal touch of these intimate tasting rooms.
The photo at left was taken at Galante Vineyards tasting room. The unique cork counter on the right is at Blair Estate tasting room where we talked to owner Jeffrey Blair. Manzoni Cellars was another favorite on the tour as we enjoyed talking to owner Mark Manzoni about his family’s artisan wines.
A nice feature on the wine walk is that there are numerous restaurants (the list is in the tasting rooms) that won’t charge a corkage fee if guests bring in a wine from one of the participating tasting rooms. The general hours are Monday – Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, but there are some exceptions, so check the passport guide to verify. The $65 passport is available for purchase at the Carmel Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center on San Carlos between 5th and 6th streets and entitles you to one $10 flight at each of the participating tasting rooms.
Since the early 20th century, Carmel has had a history of attracting and supporting artists. Over 90 art galleries and studios are located throughout the town, showcasing art of diverse styles with works by over 600 artists. The annual Carmel Art Festival and the associated Plein Air artists’ competition held the weekend after Mother’s Day attract artists and enthusiasts from all over the country.
Carmel offers many upscale shopping opportunities along the main streets of town as well as in secluded courtyards.
We had a lot of fun in The Hat Store where I made a nice purchase. The shop had abundant inventory and a friendly and informative owner who encouraged us to try on many different styles. Mr. TWS looked hilarious in a kind of coachman’s hat adorned with gold chains, but I was advised not to include that photo.
We were very pleased that we stopped at The Cheese Shop. It was an experience in itself with helpful and entertaining service while we tasted diverse (and some expensive) offerings, a number of which were rare and exotic. One that stood out was a cheese that had been encased in tobacco leaves.
Beautiful Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel Mission) was the second of the 21 missions built in California between 1769 and 1823 along El Camino Real (The Royal Road) from San Diego in the south to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Carmel Mission was founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra, who built nine of the missions. The Carmel mission was his headquarters and it’s said that it was his favorite. Father Serra (who died there in 1784) is buried in the mission’s basilica. There is a wealth of historic information, artifacts and art exhibits in its five museums and the basilica.
Have dogs? Bring them along.
We don’t, but it’s hard to ignore the pet-friendliness of Carmel. Population of Carmel: 4,037 people, 847 dogs! Dogs are welcome in many restaurants and inns. Hofsas House has pet-friendly rooms and pet concierge services available. Dogs are also allowed to run and have fun off-leash at the beach.
Head to the beach – day or night.
When we arrived in our room, Hofsas House had provided a special treat. Neatly placed by the fireplace was the the “Beach Fire and S’mores Bundle” that included wood, graham crackers, chocolate bar, marshmallows, and a lighter. We saved that for our second night after dinner at Fandango.
Carrie had directed us to the section of Carmel Beach at the south end where fires are allowed. Fires are allowed here because of the currents that naturally clean the sand of remnants left by the fires.
We arrived at the beach at dusk to the sound of the crashing surf and the sight of a few fires along the wide expanse of white sand. We found a secluded spot near the water where we placed our blanket and Mr. TWS got the fire blazing. A young boy and his father were trying to get a lantern kite to fly and came by to ask for use of our lighter. They tried so hard, but ultimately, it was not going to fly that night. I don’t think it mattered to them very much. They were just having a great time.
Making S’mores was a new experience for me, but with a bit of instruction from Mr. TWS, I managed to create a couple of awesomely decadent (and sticky) treats. Fortunately, our Hofsas House kit came supplied with handi-wipes. After indulging in a few S’mores, we lay back comfortably on the blanket using the soft-sand mattress and gazed at the sky, breathing in the salt air. It was one of those moments that are rare, over too quickly, and that you’re certain will not be forgotten. Following Carmel beach rules, we extinguished the fire at 10:00 and spent a few more minutes enjoying the moment, nearly alone on the beach.
What’s nearby Carmel?
What makes Carmel a great destination are all of the things I just mentioned, plus the many nearby points of interest in the area that make it a convenient central place to stay. In the past, Mr. TWS and I have visited Monterey, another interesting town with the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. The spectacular Big Sur region is 26 miles south of town, making Carmel a nice base for a drive to that area, too.
Instead of heading directly back home from Carmel, we took Carrie’s advice and visited a place we’d never been before. Just three miles south of town on Highway 1 is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, known as the “crown jewel of the State Park system”. There are many hikes for all levels with paths through woods and along the rocky points. We took the Cypress Grove Trail, an easy hike of about .8 miles with spectacular vistas through a cypress forest. Sea otters can be seen floating around the coves and sea lions resting on the rocks not far from shore. If you visit during mid-January through May, your chances of spotting whales are good, too.
With the Carmel getaway now in the past, what’s up next for Traveling With Sweeney? I’ve got an another escape planned and you’ll soon find out about it. Are you in the mood for a getaway?
Disclosure: Our stay in Carmel was hosted by Hofsas House Hotel, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own, as always.
We’re contributing this post to Nancie McKinnon’s Budget Traveler’s Sandbox Travel Photo Thursday. Enjoy other links to photos and stories on her site, too.