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Carmel Valley

Carmel Valley is only minutes inland from the chilling fog of the Monterey Peninsula, but it is a sun-drenched haven with relatively few tourists and many hills that beg to be scaled on horseback, mountain bike, or your own two feet.

Carmel Valley illustrated map, image
Photo caption
Carmel Valley offers an inland retreat with sun, wine, and spas.


The weather in Carmel-by-the-Sea did not, as that town's former mayor might put it, make my day. It wouldn't have made anyone's day. So like many others before me I turned hopefully off Highway 1, an Easterner determined to track the sun.

Carmel Valley sounds like something lifted from the game of Candy Land, with a promise of Lollipop Woods and Gumdrop Pass. And the valley did provide a sweet respite from the Monopoly of fog clinging to its coastal kin. In Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Mack and the boys come down from Monterey, make the same turnoff I did, and find that "luck blossomed from the first." They scoop up carrots fallen from a vegetable truck. Their Model T runs over a rooster. They pluck a bay leaf from a tree and turn their quarry into a gourmet meal. Today food remains one of the delights of the valley, from the Covey at Quail Lodge, the award-winning restaurant at the western end, to a clutch of less formal spots in Carmel Valley Village, 15 miles inland along Carmel Valley Road. But it was the sun that provided my first and most welcome sustenance. Steinbeck describes Mack shivering when he first feels its warmth; I simply basked, a heliotrope rewarded at long last.

There's a touch of Europe in the Tuscan ochers and Black Forest greens quilted onto the hills, hills that beg to be scaled on horseback, mountain bike, or your own two feet. The landscape is by turns overgrown and meticulously cultivated. Vineyards bring systematized serenity to great swaths of the floodplain and lower hills, while coastal live oaks reach out from either side of Carmel Valley Road, their branches sometimes clasping one another and turning the backbone of the valley into an arboreal arcade.

When I finally reached the tourist office in Carmel Valley Village, a puckish woman urged me to "go take a hike"—in Garland Ranch Regional Park, with its 4,500 acres of forest, chaparral, and grassland. If I'd bought a tie at the Talbott factory outlet, one of the shops in the village, I'd have soon found myself loosening it, as workaday California is still everywhere in evidence. For each BMW down from Silicon Valley, I spotted a half-dozen pickup trucks. Over breakfast at the Café Villagio, I overheard a smoke jumper talking about where he would be parachuting next.

A kind of shabby luxury marks the restaurants, shops, and hostelries of the village, where the midpriced Hidden Valley Inn and Carmel Valley Lodge may be laid out like motor courts, but provide top-end comfort. Several businesses have set up shop in repurposed taverns, banks, and creamery buildings, the latter re-minding visitors that it was here in the 1850s that Maria Juana Boronda, a mother of 15 children, first whipped up her queso del pais. A Monterey businessman named Jacks brought "country cheese" to a wider market, the locals say, by loaning himself the recipe and immortalizing it with his name as Monterey Jack.

But where once the valley produced pears and cattle along with that legendary cheese, now its gustatory delights come from dishes that match the surrounding landscape. There's Spain in the tropical fruit gazpacho at the Corkscrew Café; Italy only a few steps away at the Sole Mio Ristorante; and Switzerland's Ticino at the Lugano Swiss Bistro, in the Barnyard mall at the mouth of the valley, where you'll run into seaside Carmelites who know that fondue is great fog food.

At my favorite spot in the village, Café Rustica, the fare ranges all over the continent. German chef Paulo Kautz serves flammeküche, an Alsatian delectation, with a California twist (red onions and prosciutto, not white ones and bacon, surmount flat bread slathered with crème fraîche), while a warm brioche bread pudding bathed in apricot and raspberry coulis simply tastes otherworldly.

In an act of good sense, most of the valley's wineries have colluded in locating their tasting rooms within a few steps of one another in the center of the village. This assures that no one, lightheaded from a sip or two too many, should nod off at the wheel as the road twists and turns farther down the valley.

But this is also a welcome convenience to the visitor, who can take in six establishments without having once to get back in the car. I'd heard of pub crawls. In Carmel Valley Village, it's possible to do a room crawl.

Of those six tasting rooms, the most unusual is the most recent to open, Château Sinnet, where I sampled chocolates and olives carefully chosen to complement particular wines. (The garlic-stuffed olive goes with the chardonnay, and the tiramisu chocolate caramel with the cabernet. Or, I'm sure, the other way around.)

Mack's shiver from the sun, perhaps even Steinbeck's decision to pack so much of his characters' good fortune into Chapter 13 of Cannery Row, should have prepared me for all the paradox, misnomer, and odd juxtaposition I found in the valley. At the spa at extravagant new Bernardus Lodge—it's a temple of warming pools, open hearths, and earth tone comfort—the masseuse who somehow knew where to find the very deepest parts of my musculature went by the name Zenith. On a winery tour at Château Julien Wine Estate, I watched red grapes being crushed, only to be told that they're really being massaged, for crushing would damage the must—the pulp, juice, and skin that confer on the fermenting juice its body, flavor, and tannin. And while some jokers may be wild, Joker, my mount for a trail ride in the hills above Carmel Valley Ranch Resort late one afternoon, turned out to be the most acquiescent of creatures.

Joker took me languidly through Garland Ranch Park to Snively's Ridge. From there, looking north over the fog, I could make out a slim line of white: "The waves creaming on the sand," is how Steinbeck describes this very view toward Seaside, just beyond Monterey. My trail guide, Kent Heneks, pointed out an old corral on the valley floor where he had once worked, branding cattle.

"There were ranches where the vineyards are now, and the wine lovers are putting the cowboys out of work," he told me. Heneks grew up inland, in the Napa Valley. "The main difference between here and Napa is that here we've got a hundred different microclimates," he said. "You can grow one variety of grape in one place, and a mile or two down the road you have to plant another."

Some parts of the valley enjoy more than 300 sunny days a year, a figure that must make Clint Eastwood's former constituents terribly jealous. But down at Château Julien, which sat barely beyond our view, fog poaches in from the ocean enabling the vintners to experiment with growing a red specimen called sangiovese.

Up here, the air spilling over from the sea isn't as moist as the coastal fog, but it constantly scrubs the hills clean. So the trees are drizzled with a rare lace lichen, which Heneks called "the canary in the mine shaft for clear air."

Near the end of our ride, Heneks detoured through a grove of live oaks. The horses knew the way well. Low sunlight flattered the autumn red of the poison oak and the tinselly aquamarine of the lichen. As Heneks rode in front of me, the dust his horse kicked up turned the slanting shafts of light the color of . . . well, of caramel. The cleanest air in California may cling to that hillside, but for a moment it was exquisitely befouled.

What's a sun lover to do when even the valley is socked in? I found out the next morning when, after a late breakfast at Quail Lodge, I could see that the fog had no mind to burn off. I headed inland, yet the low cloudiness persisted. Paradox had marked my visit; I would continue on to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a place devoted to making sense of contradiction.

From the turnoff down Carmel Valley Road, it's a sinuous drive up over the Jamesburg Stage, then down through Los Padres National Forest. Heneks had coached me how to make the descent: Stay in low gear and pump, don't ride, your brakes. The hour went quickly, the way an hour might pass for a craftsman whittling a piece of wood. You're kept busy carving each turn out of the mountainside, seeing to it that the washboard surface of the road doesn't jar the steering wheel from your hands, or stealing glimpses of the Santa Lucia hills. You hardly realize how much time has passed before you are deep in a gladed canyon.

The first Zen Buddhist training monastery in the United States upon its opening in 1967, Tassajara now stages traditional practice periods from September through April. During the summer, Tassajara offers workshops on such subjects as "Honoring Each Moment" and "Sit Like a Mountain and Let the River Flow."

But you needn't take part in the formal programs to spend the night in a redwood yurt with a kerosene lamp and no electricity and tuck into three gourmet meals a day—100 percent veggie, even if Tassajara means "place for drying meat." Between early April and Labor Day, anyone calling ahead to reserve a spot and paying a $14 day fee may enjoy the facilities and the calm as one of a limited number of day visitors.

The sun had teased me throughout the drive, but in keeping with that hoary Zen maxim, when I chased it, it moved away. Tassajara offers no food-and-beverage concessions for day visitors besides a communal tea canteen, so I took a seat on a bench, ate the chicken sandwich I'd smuggled in, and, in an act not entirely in keeping with the detach-yourself purpose of the place, unfurled a newspaper.

A woman in sandals and a wraparound skirt shuffled past and threw me a reproachful look. "Is there world peace yet?" she asked.

I felt ashamed—ashamed enough that I resolved to stage my own purification ceremony. Tassajara offers three choices for watery immersion. The Japanese-style baths, fed by hot springs, were too crowded with the cognoscenti. The swimming pool looked far too prosaic, unworthy of the long drive I'd just made. So I lit out for the Narrows, a 20-minute hike down Tassajara Creek.

The trail passed by the han, a wooden block that is struck to call residents to meditation before sunrise each morning. It led over weltering tree roots and along narrow ledges, switching back over the creek again and again. Obligingly positioned logs and rocks kept my Tevas dry. Finally I came upon several great, swollen breasts of stone in the middle of the creek, which channeled water into Tassajara's own water slide. In front of me several people rode a natural millrace until it deposited them into a still water pool—a clothing-optional still water pool, I discovered with a start. I'd come a long way in both distance and dress code from Quail Lodge, where I'd begun the day, and where the Covey had only recently relaxed its rule of jackets for gents.

And there, as Steinbeck might have put it, luck blossomed at the last. Like those bathers shivering in the creek, I did too—from the sun, finally come out. Spend time in Carmel Valley and you'll come simply to accept its paradoxical pleasures, and not care what accounts for them.