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Carmel: A Coastal Getaway

A bewitching village on the Pacific promises fairy-tale cottages and a sea of trees.

Carmel-by-the-Sea's storybook PortaBella restaurant
Photo caption
PortaBella serves Mediterranean food in a storybook cottage on Ocean Avenue.

Looking for things to do in Carmel, California? Carmel-by-the-Sea is best surveyed on foot, especially in late fall and early winter. When the days are short and crisp and nights heavy with the scent of piney woods and the sound of crashing waves and crackling hearths, it pays to forget scenic drives—17 mile or otherwise. Instead, curb your car for the weekend to explore the meandering trails and streets of this misty village just south of Monterey.

It’s a time to walk through back-alley curio shops and courtyards and to ramble along rocky bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. Or to walk in Mission Trail Nature Preserve, the same woods where Father Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish priest and founder of California’s missions, strolled to reach Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo.

Stop at the Cheese Shop for over 300 cheeses and 850 wines. (800) 828-9463,

A docent-led tour can help you get your bearings. The Carmel Heritage Society offers 90-minute walking tours on some Saturdays. You’ll learn, among other things, about George Sterling, the San Francisco poet who drew literary pals Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis to Carmel in the early 1900s. They came at first for beach feasts of abalone and gin and later took up residence after San Francisco’s 1906 quake and fire.

Along the way a volunteer docent may point out one of the few remaining "milk shrines" that were once positioned every two blocks along Ocean Avenue, the main drag. In the early 20th century, residents left cash and dairy orders in the open hutches to be exchanged every day for fresh butter, cheese, and milk. Now, as in those early days, neighbors gather at the post office to gossip. Most houses in the mile-square central hamlet are named, not numbered, and everyone who is able picks up mail from a warren of boxes on Fifth Street. The city delivers to the homebound.

Carmel photographer Gale Wrausmann leads another popular walking tour Tuesday through Saturday that covers similar ground but emphasizes the intersection of art with the town’s idiosyncrasies. For example, you’ll learn that the only grave allowed by law within city limits belongs to a dog, Pal. The wayward mutt was buried in a redwood casket near the entrance to the Forest Theater in 1943. The Forest hosts films and live productions—often accompanied by picnics in summer—at its venerated outdoor stage, as well as community theater productions year-round at a more intimate indoor venue. Each of Carmel’s four playhouses is tucked into a different residential neighborhood and is worth walking to. But bring a flashlight at night; there are few streetlights and local law prohibits neon signs. Even the Shell station has a carved wooden sign.

During the day, you can check out the art scene at Carmel’s multitude of galleries—64 in all. Peruse landscapes by early California masters such as Edgar Payne at James J. Rieser Fine Art or photography by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston at the Weston Gallery. Or start with the Carmel Art Association gallery, a 79-year-old cooperative that mounts exhibits and sells affordable pieces by 120 regional contemporary artists.

The Harrison Memorial Library, designed by Bernard Maybeck and opened in 1928, has comfy chairs you can pull up to a fireplace on cold days. Patrons with a $20 monthly pass can check out books, videos, and DVDs. On Ocean Avenue at Lincoln Street.

In a small courtyard off Ocean Avenue, you’ll find the gallery of painter Thomas Kinkade with his trademark depictions of glowing English cottages. Long before Kinkade found an adoring public for his painted fantasies, early-20th-century architect Hugh Comstock was building the same sort of fairy-tale structure. Pitched gable roofs, crooked stone chimneys, and hand-hewn wood trim around elfin windows and doors typify the Comstock cottages, which are scattered throughout town.

More beguiling than storybook cottages are the city’s trees. Some 31,000 of them form a sheltering canopy of pines, giant cypresses, and live oaks that rustle and sway with the softest breeze. Many of the largest trees in the urban forest were planted in the dunes more than 100 years ago by early townsfolk who understood the allure of nature and art.

Photography courtesy Carmel-by-the-Sea

This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.