Carmel, California: It has been called “heaven designed” and deemed “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.” And who are we to disagree? While much/all of the nation swelters under a heat dome or is washed away in flooding, Carmel CA temps are in the high 50’s, practically begging us to come out and explore.
Exploring is best done with friends, and our niece, Tristan, and her husband Jon and son Jack joined us in Carmel in their RV. It’s always fun to have adventure buddies!
Carmel is so fancy that it has a “proper” name: Carmel-by-the-Sea, kind of like Prince Harry’s daughter Lili, who is actually Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor. It has lots of visitors speaking foreign languages, a semi-European vibe, and we watched stupefied as a guy engaged in serious discussions to buy a $14,000 e-bike labeled as “Bespoke.” All these fancy goods come via old, or made-to-look-old, shops on Ocean Road, the main drag.
Everything here is expensive, including a pie at the farmers market for $26. Our boutique RV park cost $840 for 6 nights, with cutesy names like Wine&Dine and Lovers Point for each site, instead of plain ole numbers. This price is despite having no laundry room, and certainly no laundromats to be seen in town. Maybe Carmel people just throw their clothes in the trash and buy new ones, instead of doing laundry.
The park’s bucolic location in Carmel Valley (5 miles outside town), however, had us watching pigs eat strawberries (possible in advance of becoming crispy pork belly at a local restaurant), and beekeepers infusing their honey with botannicals and readying it to go into designer containers to be sold at $25/ounce.
Even driving here can cost money, and I’m not talking about gas prices. The signature “17 Mile Drive” is accessed only by paying $11.25 at an entry gate, though well worth the cost as it winds through gorgeous properties, preserved forests and wildlife areas, and 6 or 7 golf courses, including the famed Pebble Beach course, where this weekend the LPGA championships were being held, thereby further increasing the quota of wealth in this zip code.
No less than Jack Nicklaus has said if he had one more round to play, he would choose Pebble Beach. It’s arguably the best public golf course in the U.S., and anyone can play it. All you need is (1) a reservation, possibly up to 18 months in advance, (2) $675 fee + $55 cart + $150 for a caddy + tips, incidentals, and appropriate clothing, and (3) lots and lots of extra golf balls, because most of yours are probably going into the ocean, on this difficult but oh-so-scenic course.
Other notable delights on the 17-Mile Drive, which takes a couple hours if you stop at each of the dog-friendly sights and overlooks, include landmarks like “The Lone Cypress Tree” on its barren rock point, windswept beaches, lovely picnic points, and all the free emerald-green water and crashing surf you could ever dream of.
Clint Eastwood was Carmel’s mayor for a time, and he and Arnold Palmer co-own the Lodge at Pebble Beach, plus one of the many mansions lining the 17 Mile Drive, but neither one lives there, oh noooo, they just use it for holidays and events. Even this simple shack with storybook pastel roof will set you back many, many, many million$. But oh … the views!
Because rich people are generally silly (hellloooo, Elon Musk vs. Mark Zuckerberg), Carmel has active laws on the books that men cannot wear non-matching jacket and pants, and women are banned from wearing high-heeled shoes in city limits. But if you packed only $1,000 Louboutin stilettos, don’t fret — you can get a waiver/permit for them at city hall to stroll the streets of this charming, semi-European hamlet. (I’ve been waiting for the right moment to throw the word “hamlet” into a blog, and here is that moment.)
Stilettos not recommended for riding the rails — in a handcar, that is! We were tempted into this adventure by an Instagram story showing lovely ladies, their hair gently flowing in the breeze, cruising casually down the tracks while barely getting even a moist brow. Reality check: it was hard work. Like, really really hard work, and with mostly not-so-scenic views mostly of Highway 1 right next to us.
A full hour of hard pumping uphill, however, led us to gorgeous bay views, and the necessity of 3 extra-strength Tylenol and a long nap afterwards. It was all made worth it by the smile on 13-year-old Jack’s face and this hilarious, NON-sped-up video of the 10-minute downhill whiz back to the station.
An extremely well-traveled friend, who has been to well over 100 countries, recommended we try the restaurant Casanova, a fairly non-descript-and-therefore-charmingly-romantic restaurant, which happens to have “Van Gogh’s Table.” Wait, what?? Van Gogh was recently in Carmel?
Turns out that the famous artist took his daily meals at this very table while boarding at the Auberge Ravoux in France, circa 1890, and during which stay he created more than 80 paintings and 64 sketches. Unclear how exactly Casanova came to be in possession of this table, and we did check underneath for Van Gogh’s gum wads, but finding none, we just had to take their word for it.
Feeling creatively inspired and stuffed with clams, we toured the unusual stone house and tower of another artist, the poet Robinson Jeffers. Looking a little out-of-place amongst the Carmel mansions, this English-inspired property is called Tor House (Tor means rocks … lots of ’em) and Hawk Tower. Jeffers was “the guy,” the poetry guy anyway, and he even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1932. Here in their home, they entertained hundreds of well-known artists and intellectuals visiting Carmel.
The tour included little snippets of his poetry, which often related to the area. Against the outcrop boulders of a raised beach, We built our house when I and my love were young, All that we saw or heard was beautiful, And hardly human. Etc. etc. Cue the country hicks in us to do lots of thoughtful nodding.
Here they lived a life of simplicity and artistic creativity as they raised their family, on land purchased for $200/acre when Carmel was NOT yet expensive. On the tour, you can even sit in his writer’s chair (the comfy one, not the skinny one) and see if creative inspiration is “catching.”
Hawk Tower on the property was his wife Una’s little “she shed.” She would go there, undoubtedly, to get away from their twin boys. Besides outside steps, a narrow, enclosed “left-handed” inner stairway leads to upper levels of the tower … so-called left-handed because you have to lead with your left shoulder, leaving you unable to effectively wield your sword against enemies lying in wait above, with your (most likely) non-dominant hand left.
If you’ve got only $10 left in your pocket after renting overpriced accommodations, however, you can still enjoy Carmel. There are plenty of beaches, parks and open spaces in which to frolic. A perennial favorite, not to be missed, is Point Lobos Nature Reserve, an unspoiled state park amongst the Monterey cypress trees, with trails and sights that are easily accessible and — dare I say it? — almost magical.
This unique outdoor refuge boasts over 300 plant and 250 animal species, and eagle-eyed visitors are likely to spot sea otters and sea lions down below the high rocky cliffs. If you harken back to high school Spanish class, “lobo” means “wolf” and thus this park is named for the off-shore residents, the sea lions, whose loud, echoing cries reminded early Spanish settlers of wolves barking: “lobos marinaros,” or “sea wolves” … hence, Point Lobos Nature Reserve.
Noted author John Steinbeck, who penned Cannery Row and other classics while here, noted that if Carmel’s founders were to appear in town today, they would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported back over city lines. Indeed, the local census includes a grand total of 6 transients. Even poor people probably find it too expensive to stay here.
Nearby Monterey is perhaps best known for the Cannery Row tourist area, but we weren’t there long before wanting to escape the hordes of people and $31 for two simple ice cream sundaes. We happily returned to the (free) simple pleasures of our campground: homemade brick-oven pizza at the campsite, walking the dogs down flower-lined country roads, and nightly firepit conversations, at which we solved all the world’s problems.
And so, in the midst of all this expensiveness, we were again reminded that the best things in life are FREE: good times with good people, meandering conversations, glowing sunrises and misty sunsets, and the joy of mixing equal parts of lazy days and spirited adventures! Leaving Carmel, Tristan/Jon/Jack turned south, and we turned north to San Jose, where we will next explore the mysteries of the Winchester Mystery House!