Carmel is for the dogs… and the wine lovers

I’ve always enjoyed the rustic charm and woodsy setting of Carmel. With its country inns, seaside bungalows, Tudor style buildings and ye olde shoppes, it’s like stepping into a Harry Potter story (there’s a wand shop around here somewhere). And at two hours from San Francisco, give or take, it makes for an ideal weekend getaway destination.

The town skews toward the chic and high-end, so you can drop a lot of coin on accommodations. But there’s a range of options if you’re happy with something basic, or not on the main drag. We choose the latter, and stay at Carmel Mission Inn just off Hwy 1 and about a mile from downtown. It’s not the best location if you intend to hang out in downtown Carmel your entire stay, but it’s great if you plan on driving up or down the coast to Monterey or Big Sur. The quaint Barnyard Shopping Village is next door, and the hotel itself is roadside boutique and contemporary with rooms under $150/night.

Since we’re exploring the whole area, location isn’t as important. From our hotel, we hop on Hwy 1 and drive about three miles south to the spectacular Point Lobos State Reserve, a spit of wooded, craggy headland on the southern border of Carmel Bay. The park boldly claims to be “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world,” and while I don’t know about the rest of the globe, I’d say it’s one of the tops in California.

It’s popular but not overcrowded, with short, easy hikes to tide pools and a pebbly beach in a beautiful cove. Bring a picnic, and you can easily spend a very pleasant day here, lounging on the rocks and exploring the many trails.

Of course, Big Sur is always too close and too tempting not to make the 30 minute drive. Foggy and cool along the road, it’s suddenly hot and sunny during our stop at Nepenthe‘s cafe deck. The restaurant and gift shop has been around since 1949, and as one of just a few options, is something of a Big Sur touchstone for us, especially with its stunning views of the Pacific coast.

About a quarter mile south – walking distance if we wanted – we stop at the Henry Miller Library, established by friend Emil White in 1981 (you can read about Emil in some of Miller’s later books). The building is small but the grounds expansive. We browse the small collection of books for sale, help ourselves to tea ($1 donation) and sit on the steps in the cool shade of enormous redwoods while a worker checks the sound for the nights outdoor film fest. The place has become something of a cultural center, with live music, films, workshops and other events.

Back in Carmel, we stroll along Ocean Ave, the main drag, and weave back and forth along its side streets. One thing that stands out: the place has gone to the dogs: people walking dogs, shops for dogs, doggie clothes, dog spas, dog therapists (really). Our hotel was pet friendly, as are a number of other hotels and restaurants in town. And the beaches are open for dogs too. Speaking of beaches, Carmel City Beach at the end of Ocean Ave is wide and picturesque with soft white sand, and rimmed by Monterey Pine and cypress with their permanent bend landward from the constant sea winds.

Another notable feature of Carmel: wine. There’s no shortage of wine bars, wine shops, little markets featuring wine, and a general oenological air about the place. It’s a wine-friendly demographic to be sure… I saw lots of loafers, pressed jeans and expensive sweaters at the bar. But I also got the feeling there’s tremendous pride and appreciation for the great wines being produced in the region, with local wineries like Estancia, J. Lohr and Bernardus prominently featured wherever you go. We opt for a place owned by Clint (as in Eastwood), the Hog’s Breath Inn. It’s an old mainstay, located in a sunken courtyard behind buildings, but with a large outdoor area and good beer (and wine too). The former mayor even put in an appearance… sort of.

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