“We love the things we love for what they are.”
~Robert Frost, Hyla Brook
I first fell in love with Carmel-by-the-Sea after being swept off my feet by the movie Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s suspenseful thriller set in the idyllic town on the California coast. It was 1971, and my teenage self was smitten – somehow managing to compartmentalize the film’s rather terrifying plot, and instead becoming enveloped in its heady scenery of moody beaches, verdant forests and a thunderous, spinning ocean.
If such a place really existed, I remember writing in my journal that wintry Minnesota night, then I would have to travel there one day to see it for myself.
The Carmel that danced in my young imagination turned out to be surprisingly true to life. From its picturesque location along the southern edge of the Monterey Peninsula to its official, most poetic name of Carmel-by-the-Sea to its one-square-mile of charming cottage-style architecture, Carmel is a romantic sort of place. “A village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach,” as the town’s general plan proclaims.
I hadn’t been back to Carmel since our family lived in the Bay Area some twenty years ago. We’d typically make the two-hour drive as a day trip, sometimes combining it with a stop in nearby Monterey or the Point Lobos State Reserve. But no matter the itinerary, we’d always try to fit in a walk down Ocean Avenue to Carmel Beach.
Carmel has been on my mind these past months as the pandemic has turned our travel thoughts a little closer to home. I’ve wondered if it would still spin the same magic – the same special beauty – that it did all those years ago. It can be risky to return to a place we’ve held in our hearts for so long. But this time I was in search of the why. Why did I feel the way I did about a place I had visited a mere handful of times?
While doing research for our journey back to Carmel, I found a tour that I thought might offer the insight I was seeking. The Carmel-by-the-Sea Classic Food Tour bills itself as a chance to explore the town’s history, culinary culture and hidden passageways, with stops along the way to sample local cuisine. Tours run once a day at 11am, Thursdays through Saturdays. I was intrigued, and truth be told, the tour’s description had me at “hidden passageways.”
But First – Carmel Beach
Before the tour started, Herb and I headed down Ocean Avenue for an early morning walk along Carmel Beach. Carmel’s main street literally spills into the sand, offering a grand entrance into a stunning scene of a cerulean blue ocean, foamy white waves and evergreen-covered bluffs. A small wooden ramp leads to a lookout spot marking the beach’s place on the California Coastal Trail, a “braided trail system” that runs 1,200 miles from Oregon to Mexico.
“Carmel Beach is famous for its white sands, fabulous sunsets and frolicking dogs. This unique pocket beach, with no sediments from creeks or other shores, is a natural jewel.”
~California Coastal Trail Sign at Carmel Beach
Carmel Food Tour
Back in town, we found the Sunset Cultural Center, meeting spot for our tour. Our guide Bonnie checked us in and asked what kind of sausage we would like – Italian or Polish – for our second food stop. There would be seven stops in all. I was picturing tapas style sausage portions, and Herb was imagining appetizers with toothpicks. “Oh, no,” Bonnie laughed. “You will be getting a whole sausage!”
As we began our walk, Bonnie pointed out various landmarks and regaled us with stories about the town’s history. Carmel was built as an artist community, she told us. Residents adorned their houses with clever names instead of numerical addresses, and mail is still delivered to the local post office rather than to individual homes. That made sense to me, after walking by Bluebird Cottage, Xanadu and Ocean’s End on our way to the beach!
Carmel is also known for its quirky laws. High-heeled shoes are illegal – possibly because of the town’s abundance of cobblestone streets and its lack of streetlights, which are also prohibited. Ice cream was illegal on city sidewalks, Bonnie explained, until Clint Eastwood abolished the law when he was mayor.
First stop on the tour was Anton & Michel, an elegant restaurant with an equally elegant address on Court of the Fountains. Our group of six was seated at a round table in the dining room set with a shimmery champagne-colored tablecloth and wine glasses. Large windows overlooked a beautiful patio with a fountain-filled pool and gazebo.
Our tasting was as delicious as the setting – a naan “pizzetta” topped with portobello mushroom, tomato, avocado, halloumi cheese and basil pesto and paired with a rosé wine. For me, it was a perfect little lunch, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to follow it with a sausage course!
When we arrived at our next stop, the owner of Nielsen Bros. Market & Deli was busy grilling sausages on the front patio. Our group spread out at small tables and waited for our orders to be ready. As I watched the locals stopping by to shop or order lunch from the grill, I got the feeling that the market is a bit of a gathering spot. And like Carmel itself, everyone seemed to know each other.
The tour continued with another food and wine stop and an interesting honey tasting. By the time we arrived at Pescadero Mexican Restaurant, it felt as if we had been spending the day with good friends. Enthusiasm for the moment bubbled over from one person in the group to another. It was one of those serendipitous experiences where everyone simply gels.
Pescadero’s manager seated us at a long rustic wooden table in a private room just off the patio. As she talked about the restaurant’s history, a server brought a tray of margaritas and chicken tinga tostadas, freshly prepared “from scratch” with organic ingredients. I had to smile when I remembered the tour description describing the three-hour tour as “enough” for lunch.
Before our final stops for dessert – a bakery and a chocolate shop – we walked through one of the hidden passageways I was hoping to discover. Bonnie told us there are at least 35 passageways and courtyards in Carmel. This one is aptly named The Secret Garden and serves as a shortcut between Delores and San Carlos Streets. We headed down a narrow walkway off Serena Court into a garden filled with Asian-inspired decor, plants and fountains and a bookstore called The Pilgrim’s Way.
Carmel’s Fairy-tale Cottages
It was early afternoon when the tour ended and we said goodbye to our food group companions. Armed with a map and a list of house names, I was eager to explore the neighborhood where Carmel’s “fairy-tale cottage” architecture began.
As the story is told, these homes were the vision of Hugh Comstock, who set out to create a studio for his wife’s doll collection business in the early 1920s. Comstock had no training as an architect, but was inspired by English illustrator Arthur Rackham’s children’s books. His “Hansel” creation, with its steep flared roof, irregular stone chimney and arched door became so popular that other residents asked Comstock to design their homes. The result of Comstock’s influence is the whimsical Tudor-style look that mixes with the Spanish-Mediterranean architecture woven throughout the town.
Herb and I walked a few blocks and began our Comstock search. We found Hansel and its companion Gretel right away, but both were undergoing extensive renovation. I poked my camera around the construction fence, attempting to get a feel for what it might look like.
As we walked along our route, quite a few houses were easy to recognize – with several displaying their original names. I was enchanted by these streets, as if I had entered another world, like a child bursting through the magical wardrobe into Narnia. Yet at the same time, I kept reminding myself that these were people’s homes, that I should keep my distance. And use my zoom lens.
Comstock’s only commercial imprint on Carmel is The Tuck Box, an English café and tea room on Delores Street. Built in 1927, the building was transformed into a tearoom in the early 1940s by two sisters from England who named their business after the trunks used by British children to carry and store their food.
That night we headed back to the beach, retracing our steps down Ocean Avenue to watch the sunset. Only a few wispy clouds washed over the sky, a good omen for sunset-gazing. Herb and I walked up the wooden ramp to the lookout deck where our day had begun. People and their dogs were claiming their spots along the beach and bluffs. A bagpiper was playing “Amazing Grace” as he stood in the sand.
The sun set quietly, as if not wanting to disturb the momentary mood of peace and calm. It wasn’t lavish or loud or even spectacular. It was lovely. Perfect in its presence. Just like Carmel-by-the-Sea.
* * * * *
Although this marvelous sojourn in Carmel gave me greater insight into the history, charm and character of the town, I didn’t come away with any lightning bolt revelations about why it so deeply captures my heart. And maybe that really doesn’t matter. Maybe loving a place is the same as loving a person. We can understand a person’s history and recite a long list of their unique and precious qualities. But the intrinsic reason of why we love them remains a mystery, an intangible feeling that we can never fully explain.
We simply know that we do.