A lovely river runs through oaks, vineyards, and a tiny hub called the Village.
The leather of an old saddle, burnished to a walnut glow, is getting a few new hand-stitches on Bob Mattson's workbench. "I guess I'm a link to Carmel Valley's ranching past," says Mattson, who for 16 years has made, repaired, and sold tack in his California saddlery, where a whiff of the air conjures fond thoughts of baseball mitts and penny loafers.
Travelers seeking to make the most of the area can take their cue from Mattson, who straddles past and present with the grace of a cowpoke astride a trusted mount. You might come to the valley to play 18 holes of golf or a game of tennis, or to indulge in spa treatments, top-notch wines, and fine cuisine. But don't miss the old-fashioned pleasures of a trail ride or a walk through historic ranch land as wildflowers are bursting into bloom.
From March through May, you can spot houndstongue, sky lupines, two-tone tidytips, and other spring blooms during free Saturday wildflower hikes in Garland Ranch Regional Park. Walkers note: The docent-led treks last two to three hours. (831) 659-4488, www.mprpd.org.
The valley follows the Carmel River, which rises in the Santa Lucia Range and meanders 36 miles before it meets the Pacific Ocean just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Between winter storms, skies turn crystalline blue and things dry out enough for most outdoor activities. If your visit coincides with showers, toss another log on the fire and console yourself with the thought that you're paying less than high-season lodging prices.
Turning off coastal Highway 1 and heading about four miles down Carmel Valley Road, you'll find Earthbound Farm, a country market and organic café where you can pick up seasonal produce along with sandwiches and warming soups. Farther inland, grapevines surround the turreted, French manor–inspired tasting room at Château Julien, a grower acclaimed for its bordeaux-style wines, especially merlots. In the Mid-Valley area, at a cluster of former ranch buildings called the Farm Center, you can shop for a pair of vintage andirons and other rustic items at Camps and Cottages. Across the street, Paul Wilson creates abstract sculptures out of forest trees downed by storms. Just up the hill at Citronelle, chef Michel Richard's chic new outpost, a recent menu featured duck with black cherry–anise sauce.
Desserts such as Chocolate Three Ways delight diners at Citronelle. 1 Old Ranch Rd., 626-2599, www.carmelvalleyranch.com. One of the valley's jewels is 3,464-acre Garland Ranch Regional Park, whose trails crisscross floodplains, oak woodlands, and canyons of maples and redwoods. For a short walk, try the easy 1.3-mile Rancho Loop.
About 12 miles inland from Highway 1, "the Village" (offcially Carmel Valley Village) serves as the area's sleepy commercial hub. Here you'll find more winery tasting rooms, such as Joullian's in an impressive stone building, Georis's with its whimsical garden, and Heller Estate's homey bungalow, where you can sample organic vintages. Dining options include Taqueria del Valle's made-to-order fish tacos and chiles rellenos; the thin-crust, smoked salmon pizza and other Italian specialties at Cafe Rustica; and naturally raised beef at Will's Fargo steak house.
Beyond the Village, where Carmel Valley Road begins a snaking ascent into the mountains, lies Holman Ranch. The 392-acre spread offers guided trail rides that take you past grazing cattle and venerable oaks. Riding a beautiful palomino is a great way to connect with the area's past, even as the trailside scenery—including the ranch's pinot noir vineyard—whets your appetite for the pleasures of today. It's a perfect experience of the old-new blend that makes this valley unique.
Photography by Kike Arnal
This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.