There is no shortage of things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and if it is your first escape to this lovely town, the choices may seem overwhelming. Obviously, you can’t see everything if you are only there for a weekend, but you can get a sampling of fantastic food, wine and sights while still leaving a little bit of time to soak in the atmosphere (and enjoy any last second discoveries you make).
You checked into the Hofsas House Hotel on San Carlos Street the night before, and now you are ready to bound out of bed and hit the streets. But first, open up the top of your Dutch door and breathe in the ocean air. It’s the best way to center yourself for the busy day ahead.
You can go a couple of ways here. Hofsas House offers a free continental breakfast in their lobby from 8am until 10am. It’s a good way to jump start your day, and if you are traveling on a budget, the complimentary aspect means saving some cash for other splurges later. It’s also a great way to meet people. With so many international travelers, particularly in September and October, the lobby becomes a fun place to mingle.
If you want to head out the door and start exploring the local scene, your first stop should definitely be the Friar Tuck’s Restaurant on the corner of 5th and Dolores. It feels like a local joint (possibly because it’s right next to the post office where everyone in Carmel has a box) and the owner will definitely bring a smile to your face. Portions are large, and it’s very reasonably priced. We went the bacon and eggs route, and it was a perfect start to the day.
Carmel closes early and wakes a bit later than you’d expect, with most shops not opening until 10:00am, and many of the wine tasting rooms don’t start jumping until the afternoon. Not to fear—this is the perfect time of the day to get a feel for the town.
Head over to Ocean Avenue. Not only is Ocean Avenue the central street for shopping, galleries and restaurants, but it’s beautiful. The tree-lined atmosphere of the side streets carries over here, and you can enjoy the cottage architecture as you head to the beach. That’s right—you are heading downhill toward the sand.
Once you hit San Antonio Avenue, you’ll see the dune project, and beyond that is the water. Rain or shine, the white sandy beach and the extraordinary colors of the water are something to see. We had both the winds of the coming rain and a morning in mist, and I loved seeing it both days. If you are visiting in warmer weather, head down the sand toward the water line and soak in the beauty of the place. The sand is soft and clean. Even on rainy days, you will see people walking or running along the shoreline, but it’s rare to get big crowds.
Actually, it’s fairly difficult to get lost in Carmel, but it’s worth putting away the map and just wandering on your way back from the beach. While Ocean Avenue feels like a more gentle grading, some of the paths back to the hotel can be steep, so keep that in mind of if you have any physical challenges. If you are up for some walking, wander north on San Antonio and then follow the streets east back to the hotel. Not only are the homes lovely, but the stone work on the stairs and the pedestrian walkways is definitely Instagram worthy.
12:00pm: Wine Tasting 1
Several of the tasting rooms do open at noon, and you’ve long heard about the delights of the locals wines. A great place to start is the tasting room for Silvestri Vineyards on 7th Street between San Carlos and Dolores. I had a great time talking to the woman doing the pours, and the wines were delicious. The owner is a composer, so you’ll be doing the tasting to his tunes, and they add to the fun atmosphere of the place.
You’ve wined and now it is time to dine again. Because it’s your first day, and you may not want to spend time inside, try out the Salumeria Luca deli. It’s very close to Silvestri—just a quick skip over to Luca located on Dolores between 7th and Ocean. We grabbed the Sicilia sandwich, some water and wandered over to the commons area. We just kicked back on one of the benches and enjoyed the food as we people watched and plotted our next moves.
2:00pm: Wine Tasting 2 or Gallery Hopping or Both
As you undoubtedly noticed while walking into town from Hofsas House, there are a lot of art and sculpture galleries in Carmel. Even if you are only a casual art lover, wander a bit and check out the local and the wider-sold artists. You’ll also notice just as the streets are dotted with galleries, they also have a healthy sprinkling of tasting rooms. It’s easy to combine both, and in the case of the Winfield Gallery, you can literally do this, as the Figge Cellars tasting area leads you through gallery prints and into the main exhibition area. Figge was actually closed when we tried to visit (it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays), but we did have a great time checking out the gallery.
As you’ve probably noticed, all of the first day activities can be done without ever getting into your car. Carmel is a walkable town, and staying at Hofsas puts you in close proximity to anything you’ll want to do in town. This includes your first night’s dinner at The Grill on Ocean Avenue. As the name implies, you’ll be heading the few blocks back to Ocean to enjoy a fabulous meal. This is a fantastic date spot. Comfortable, intimate and beautiful, it’s easy to just relax and give in to the culinary delights. We had a fantastic waitress named Terry who happily answered all of our questions about the area.
Tip: Definitely make reservations! By 6:30pm the place was packed, and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to indulge here.
Hofsas House does offer flashlights for guests should dinner take you into the darker hours. While many of the galleries are still lit up, most of the shops are closed by early evening. The heated pool at the hotel is open into the night hours, should you want to work off some of dinner, or just amble back to the room to relax and gear up for an adventurous tomorrow!
Waking up with a world full of energy and optimism, you want to head out for an early breakfast. Depending on how early you want to start, you may have to improvise. But if you can wait until 7am (or later), you can embark on a short journey toward Em Le’s Old Carmel Restaurant. This storybook charmer is part of Pantiles Court on Dolores between 5th and 6th Streets. The restaurant began in 1955 as a chocolate shop, but eventually came around to being a full service restaurant. Also a “locals” favorite, the breakfasts are plentiful and wonderful. We could have spent all day there enjoying the food and the atmosphere. As a bonus, the walls are covered in photos of the town and surroundings in the early years.
Serious exploration time! Just a quick jaunt down Highway 1 (yes, you will need your car for this one) is Point Lobos. The Point Lobos Natural Reserve is not only a breathtaking series of pathways along the ocean, but a wonder of trails through cypress trees, pine forests and wildflowers. When a storm comes in, the winds can be quite strong, so be sure to bring along a sweatshirt (or something like it) just in case. Entry into the park is $10 per vehicle, and it’s well-worth the admission fee. Most of the trails are well marked, and even terrain. Some of the trails do involve stairs and can involve some scrambling over rocks, if you are adventurous. Trail maps are available at the main information stand. There are docent-led walks most days, often in the morning, should you want additional information on the wildlife, the birds, and the history of the park.
After all that walking, climbing and adventuring, it’s time to head back into town to try another of their more than 50 restaurants. This time, it’s Carmel’s Bistro Giovanni. The bistro is just a couple of blocks from Hofsas House and is located on San Carlos Street. They describe the cuisine as California-American-Mediterranean. I enjoyed not only their flatbread pizza (a single order is 8 pieces, so feel free to order one and share), but also the colorful murals of Italy on the walls. It is a comfortable spot to relax and review your plans for the rest of the day.
2:00pm: Wine Tasting
Although you’ve tried two spots the day before, give the place with the reputation for sparkling wines a go, and set off for Caraccioli Cellars on Dolores Street (close to Ocean Avenue). The people working the tasting room are full of information about life in Carmel, as well as the wines. On our trip, we tasted a combination of their Cuvee wines and capped it off with a Pinot Noir.
5:00pm 17-Mile Drive
Before you know it, it’s time to change for dinner. Consider combining a trip up the famous 17-mile drive and bailing out in Pacific Grove just in time for a sunset dinner. The scenic drive takes you through the private areas of Carmel along places like Pebble Beach, past the Lone Cypress Tree, beyond Bird Rock and the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Give yourself enough time prior to your dinner reservation to enjoy the trip and the stops along the way. You can pick up the drive at the gate off of San Antonio, and drop off of the drive at Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. There is a per car fee at the gate, but if you spend $30 or more at any of the shops or restaurants in the area, they will refund the fee.
Finding yourself in Pacific Grove means you have the opportunity to try out the Beach House at Lovers Point. Right on the water, you would be hard-pressed to find a more scenic dining spot. They have a heated patio that allows you to take in the entire bay and shoreline. It’s a casual dining place with a very comfortable vibe. If you can swing it with your schedule, try to get in for their Sunset Specials. Arrive at 5:30 and order by 6:00pm, and there are special prices (under $10) for their standard-size entrees. There are also special prices on drinks. So, not only will you get a chance to enjoy the rosy glow of the sun setting, but you’ll have your own rosy glow of getting to enjoy it all for a very-budget friendly price. While I really enjoyed my Rigatoni with Basil Cream dish, I must admit that I’m very curious about the Bacon Wrapped Meat Loaf. If you go, please order that and then make me jealous!
(This article was originally posted on Examiner.com. Due to that site’s closure, it has been republished here).