When it comes to travel and the California coast, most thoughts turn to Southern California and the Bay Area, but it’d be a terrific oversight to overlook the treasures of the state’s Central Coast. Monterey County, in particular, holds special appeal for wine lovers, gastronomes and those who gravitate toward wellness travel.
And with charming restaurants and boutiques in a quaint, walkable downtown and the ocean an easy jaunt up Ocean Avenue, Carmel and Carmel-By-The-Sea have all the elements of a finely curated getaway. Here’s how I made the most out of a recent visit.
[Disclosure: The Monterey County businesses here provided complimentary lodging and/or food to The Dallas Diva. The opinions here are my own.]
Hotel: Vendange Carmel Inn & Suites
Just up the road from downtown Carmel and tucked into a residential neighborhood sits an unassuming B&B-style hotel framed by greenery and crowned with a Spanish tile roof. The Vendange boasts an adorable wine theme, with rooms and suites named for local labels in an homage to nearby businesses that help keep the visitors coming.
Amid the flowers and shrubbery, the property is dotted with cozy outdoor sitting spaces perfect for enjoying the sea breeze that keeps the region enviably cool year-round, and with a recent overhaul of the property in recent years, you can expect to find modern, updated rooms that belie the hotel’s satisfyingly weathered exterior. A hearty continental breakfast is included in the room rate, and I found that the quiches, French pastries, yogurt, fruit and morning beverages were perfect for fueling me up for a day of exploration.
A Wealth of Food …
On my first night, I thoroughly enjoyed the Spanish tapas and wine served up in an intimate, artsy space at Mundaka (above); don’t miss the deviled eggs, the croquetas and the traditional Spanish tortilla, if it’s available. (Insider tip: The bar next door is the only spot in Carmel-By-The-Sea allowed to host live music, so catch a show if you can!) In fact, European-influenced eats are quite popular downtown: La Bicyclette serves up traditional bistro fare in an intimate space; Casanova offers upscale French and Italian cuisine in romantic digs; and Grasing’s spotlights California cuisine with European touches.
While it’s away from the gentle hubbub of the city center, Edgar’s — a restaurant-pub situated at Quail Lodge and Golf Club, a nearby hotel and course — is well worth the short drive. Chef Kenneth McDonald emphasizes local, sustainable and organic ingredients throughout the menu, and I swooned over fried Monterey Bay calamari fried to tender perfection, fresh local oysters (above) and an unforgettable clam chowder. Flatbreads, sandwiches and substantial pastas, seafood entrees and steaks round out the menu.
A Winery Visit!
I took a tour of Folktale Winery in Carmel, which opened last year and won Winery of the Year honors from the California Travel Association this year. The label produces some excellent vino, including a heady sparkling rosé, a zesty pinot noir and a white made of Rhone varietal grapes. The spaces for lounging and sampling wines are rustic, airy and in good view of the surrounding mountains; a few paces away is a lawn furnished with games and room for the live music acts that play weekly.
Another standout winery whose goods I got to enjoy was Tudor Wines (above), which has a tiny, glass-walled tasting room in one of Carmel-By-The-Sea’s winding back alleys off Mission Street. The majority of Tudor’s output is pinot noir featuring grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands, but the label also turns out Rieslings and a Gewurztraminer. If hunger strikes while you’re sampling, Tudor’s wines are also served at Anton & Michel, the low-lit modern American restaurant across the fountain pool from Tudor’s tasting room.
Joggers, power and leisure walkers and yogis alike can score plenty of wellness points just walking along the gorgeous coastlines in and near Carmel. I didn’t get to make it to Big Sur, but that coastal landmark is a huge Monterey County draw. If you prefer to stay in Carmel, just walk west down Ocean Avenue until you hit sand (above); the view is stunning — just make sure to bring a blanket and park in the lot right at the beach, lest you leave your car in the city center and make an uphill climb back … which, of course, might appeal to the aforementioned walkers and joggers!
Another coast to explore that’s near Carmel and not quite as far as Big Sur is the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (above), a protected park area ($10 entry) down Highway 1 that offers hiking trails, stunning views and whale watching at the right times of the year. Look deep into the kelp clusters, and you might even spot a sea otter.
For less wilderness-based wellness, I stopped by The Refuge (below), a (literally) immersive experience. Nestled in the private Carmel Valley Athletic Club, the open-to-the-public facility is one big outdoor spa with a specific path to relaxation: five to 10 minutes in a eucalyptus or dry sauna, then a 30-second plunge in a cold pool outside, then several minutes in warm or hot pools. After an hour-long deep-tissue massage and Thai stretch, another hour spent alternately pool-hopping and relaxing in zero-gravity chairs in a quiet room was a wellness dream come true.
[Ed. note: This post was originally published on my other blog, The Dallas Diva. Check it out!]