Visit Carmel, artsy, pricey, beautiful, scenic and beachfront

In Big Sur, land and sea meet in the most amazing ways. Meanwhile, just down the road in Carmel, nature meets art, cars, charm, golf and money.

It's hard to look away. And once you're there, it's hard to leave. At least that's how it seemed a few weeks ago when my wife and I stopped by.

Neither of us had seen Carmel in a while, and I suspect that's true for many in Southern California, especially since last winter's storms forced the indefinite closure of Highway 1 in Big Sur, near Lucia.

But Highway 1 was always the slow road from LA to Carmel. The faster way hasn't changed: spend 5.5 hours racing on I-5 and US 101 and, boom, here you are in a remote civilization with a rocky coastline, immaculate cottages, Dutch doors, pampered dogs with unleashed beach access, a coastline full of wind-bending cypress trees, and (is this the weirdest part?) up to two hours of free on-street parking.

Mission Ranch, in Carmel, includes a sheep pasture and beautiful sunset views.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

We arrived on a sunny autumn day. The summer crowds were gone, but there were plenty of well-heeled visitors browsing the boutiques of Ocean Avenue.

As we walked, we gradually realized that thousands of Porsche drivers were gathering for a convention, one of the many luxury car events the area hosts each year. In every parking lot and intersection, Boxsters, Cayennes and Spyders of every vintage and hue multiplied like intricately designed bunnies in spring.

“Hey,” said a wiseguy as he stepped through a bunch of car people on the patio of the Mission Ranch. “Is this the Ford Fiesta group?”

Lincoln Green Inn (and the guests' Porsches), Carmel.

Lincoln Green Inn (and the guests' Porsches), Carmel.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Even for a few Angelenos who have seen many bizarre landscapes and economic extremities, the situation of beauty and wealth was striking. This makes choosing a restaurant or accommodation difficult. But the quality is high. And you don't have to be rich to enjoy Carmel.

In fact, it may be easier to get into the ecological rapture of the waves, birds, sand and driftwood at Carmel River State Beach if you're on foot or on two wheels. And you'll definitely have to leave most of your belongings at home if you want to hike the 2.2 miles to Inspiration Point in Palo Corona Regional Park.

You can watch the artists and their easels on the beach at the foot of Ocean Avenue – or ignore the artists and enjoy the sand, surf and cypress trees turning in the wind.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

If you're in the area on Thursdays between 10am and 2pm, you can grab berries or hummus or cheese or dumplings and listen to a busker in the two blocks Carmel-by-the-Sea Farmer's Market on 6th Avenue between Junipero and Mission streets.

If you're in the area on a weekday, you can pop into the Harrison Memorial Library on Ocean Avenue, admire architect Bernard Maybeck's 1928 Spanish eclectic design, then do a puzzle. There is always one in the reading room, open to everyone, and on cold days the librarians light the fireplace. (But the building is closed on weekends.)

Instead of spending $350 a night for a hotel room easy to do, we booked a “glamping” tent at the newly renovated Carmel River Inn for $226 per night. When we saw the shabby state of the inn's office, we were tempted to run, but once we reached our tent – ​​one of many introduced this year – it had electricity, a king-size bed , a big screen, half kitchen and private spacious bathroom with solid walls, all within a few minutes' drive from the center of town. Thumbs up, especially when the weather is warm.

If we were going to sleep a little more luxuriously, I might have gone into the village to book Le Petit Pali on 8th Avenue, which opened in June. Instead, I took my time to tour the 24 elegant, understated rooms and suites, which start at about $350 on fall weekends. (Its sibling, the 34-room Le Petit Pali on Ocean Avenue, a few blocks away, is also nice, but the hotel on 8th Avenue is on a quieter street with a larger patio.)

And here's a footnote for the big spenders: if we were really going to splurge on accommodation, I'd have the Villa Mara Carmel, which looks like a single house in the mostly residential Carmel Point area. If you look closer, you will see that it is actually a luxury accommodation. It accepts children aged 21 and over, with 15 rooms and a cottage, but no pool. It opened in 2022. Nightly rates for fall weekends rarely dip below $600. A Conde' Nast Traveler reviewer called it “the quintessential Northern California barefoot bougie experience.”

Carmel has not always been so rich, but it has always been so beautiful and artistic.

Mission Ranch, in Carmel, includes a sheep pasture and beautiful sunset views.

Mission Ranch, in Carmel, includes a sheep pasture and beautiful sunset views.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

“Carmel is not so much an art colony as a work of art,” wrote historian Carey McWilliams in 1930. He called the landscape lovely, surprising and unforgettable. And then, as you can read in David Kipen's just-published collection of diary entries and letters: “Dear California,” McWilliams warned that Los Angeles Realtors would soon come and ruin everything.

“Carmel has become a wonderful experience in the lives of many Western artists,” McWilliams wrote, “and they will view its desecration with unspeakable horror.”

So welcome, I think, to the strangest desecration you'll ever see.

Officially called Carmel-by-the-Sea, the town measures about 1 square mile – a village, actually. Most homes and businesses are wedged onto small lots; the buildings are often designed with fairytale details, as if commissioned by hobbits with trust funds.

Despite a modest population of about 3,800, Carmel is home to about 60 restaurants, about 40 hotels and inns, dozens of galleries, and 18 tasting rooms.

The Pilgrim's Way Books in Carmel include a "secret" garden at the back.

The Pilgrim's Way Books in Carmel has a 'secret' garden in the back.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

There are no address numbers within the city limits (as it is customary for locals to collect mail at the post office) and many homeowners have given names to their houses, like yachts on land. Short term rental are forbidden (although they are allowed in adjacent areas).

The city emerged in the late 19th century as a wooded refuge for bohemian types. Their headliner for many years was poet Robinson Jeffers, who built a stone house near Carmel Point, Tor Housethat you can tour on Saturdays.

Photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams came later, as did many painters, sculptors, poets, architects and actors – including some best known for work done elsewhere.

Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

The city has never had a reputation for diversity (and remains 90% white), but black poet Langston Hughes did spend a year in the city in the early 1930s. He subsequently published a collection of short stories called 'The Ways of White Folk'.

Although I always thought of Greene & Greene architects as Pasadena people (and pioneers of the Craftsman bungalow), I learned better on this trip. The older brother, Charles Sumner Greene, eventually left Pasadena and spent more than thirty years in Carmel.

He built one of his masterpieces in Carmel Highlands – a stone-walled house on a cliff called Seaward – and built a more modest place for himself on Lincoln Street, using recycled bricks and tiles from other projects.

Storybook architecture is prominent along Ocean Avenue and Carmel's residential streets.

Storybook architecture is prominent along Ocean Avenue and Carmel's residential streets.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Clint Eastwood, who was mayor for a brief period in the 1980s and owned the Hog's Breath Inn, still lives here and owns the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. We had an aperitif there, looked at the sheep and saw a beautiful sunset on the other side of the meadow.

The closer you look, the more Hollywood names you see. Betty White owned a home on Ribera Road until her death in 2021. Doris Day, longtime co-owner of Carmel's Cypress Inn, died in 2019 at her home in Carmel Ranch.

Oh, and Brad Pitt last year bought an architectural landmark in the Carmel Highlands that he'd been eyeing for years: Charles Sumner Greene's stone-walled Seaward house on the bluff. Sale price: $40 million.

We had delicious lunches La Bicyclette (European country cuisine and a wood-fired pizza oven) and Anton & Michel (modern European menu with a cozy courtyard), both of which have been in town for years.

Restaurant La Bicyclette, Carmel.

Restaurant La Bicyclette, Carmel.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Our most memorable meal was an amazing splurge dinner on the patio of the bag, which opened during some of the worst days of the pandemic — the summer of 2020 — and thrived anyway, serving steak, seafood and Italian fare. We sat outside by a fire pit.

The only gallery in town I'd call mandatory is the spacious Carmel Art Assn., a nonprofit organization that showcases the work of more than 100 local artists and keeps standards high. The association, which dates back to 1927, has weathered the pandemic remarkably well.

“We have not seen a decline in sales here,” said Grace Aniela Wodecki, the gallery's sales, design and marketing officer. “We imagine that many people who don't normally spend much time in their second home are spending more time in their second home” – and redecorating.

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Watch LA Times Today at 7pm on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News app. Viewers in the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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