By Dawn Smith
Monterey is a city that definitely can hold its own as its bragging points include spectacular coastline views, temperate climate and a food and beverage scene that is stronger than most cities of its size. However, there are bonus reasons the location of Monterey is so special: The proximity of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley. Both are less than 15 miles from downtown Monterey.
Carmel, as it is more typically known, is an idyllic, quaint and bustling village with coastline access that is breathtaking. Travel magazines frequently rate the romantic town as one of the top visited or must see on the California coast. Locals are particularly proud of the fact that Carmel is also regularly voted one of the most dog friendly in the U.S. We often had meals in Carmel with canines as companions.
The village is best explored by foot, as the parking is intentionally scarce and pricey. The streets are narrow and lined with unique boutiques, cafés, award winning restaurants and power house brands such as Tiffany & Co. It also wouldn’t be uncommon to catch a celebrity or two taking in the shopping and sights while taking a quick vacation getaway.
Dining, Shopping and Living in Carmel
Ocean Avenue is one of the main streets through town and ends directly onto the beach. In my opinion, Carmel’s beach is the loveliest in the area as well as the warmest. Views of the golf courses on Pebble Beach and Point Lobos State Reserve flank the family and dog filled wide stretch of beach. It is a very popular place to picnic, surf and relax.
Carmel offers so many outstanding options for food and wine. The restaurants and tasting rooms sprinkled throughout the town are repeatedly recognized for their innovative and locally sourced offerings. Dining in Carmel is not inexpensive, so it is best to do some research up front, chose which establishment seems to fit your tastes and go ahead make the splurge. It’s highly unlikely you will regret your choice. A perennial favorite and tourist go to is Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. We had the opportunity to have a lovely meal here and so enjoyed overlooking the property with glass of California wine in hand. The property boasts both ties to the U.S. military during WWII as an Army and Navy Officers’ Club and a long standing relationship with owner Clint Eastwood.
View from Mission ranch
You will find some military families living in this area because the Carmel Unified School District is excellent and quality of life is high. The rent is elevated as you can imagine for the small cottages that make up the neighborhoods. The commute to The Naval Postgraduate School, The Presidio of Monterey or the U.S. Coast Guard Base from Carmel is often constricted because of two lane highways, fog and tourist traffic. Another note on livability: Residents are wealthy and predominately a retirement age group. Local politics and the preservation of the city’s heritage dominate, and in general nightlife moves at a slow pace.
Driving away from the coastline you will happen upon the rustic, mountainous and unique landscape that leads you into Carmel Valley. If Carmel-by-the-Sea is small and quaint, Carmel Valley is just the opposite as it is expansive and encompassing. The two do share commonalties in the food and wine scene however. Carmel Valley has vineyards, farmland and ranches that provide so much to the local restaurants and resorts.
Food and Wine
The wine. Goodness, the wine. So much wine! What a wonderful place for wine drinkers. I have heard it repeated that the Carmel Valley wine scene is booming so much that industry people liken it to what Napa was 10 to 15 years ago. I personally have had many happy experiences dining and wining there and would hate to see it become more tourist laden. A favorite sipping space of mine was Cima Collina with its precious and welcoming back patio for wine tasting. http://cimacollina.com/
Tasting rooms hosted by regional and national brands line each side of Carmel Valley Road. You can find tasting rooms for Bernardus Winery, Heller Estate, Talbott Vineyards and Boekenoogen Winery as well as many other notable labels. Tucked in between or adjacent are the restaurants that make the trip to the valley doubly worth the drive. We have had several meals out there and one of my beloved restaurants, like so many other visitors, was the Corkscrew Café. The ambiance of the outside seating elevates the already superior meal. I can’t say enough about how excellent the food is at Corkscrew, especially the wood fired pizzas.
Outdoor dining at Corkscrew Cafe
I do want to mention our go to Mexican restaurant as it sits on the verge of the Carmel Valley entrance. Baja Cantina Grill and Filling Station is a perennial favorite with locals as it is situated away from any major tourist attraction. You will find the car racing themed restaurant away from the busy road nestled in with a local vendor outlet.
We never had anything that was short of very good, mostly excellent. They serve, hands down, the best chips and salsa in the area. The thick tortilla chips have a smoky spice blend dusted throughout the basket. The salsa is freshly made and varies in flavor each time you order. Our favorite dishes included the street tacos and Guadalajara Carnitas. The margarita selection is vast and delicious and has been voted the best by local publication, Monterey County Weekly. What makes the cantina extra special is the beautiful outdoor seating area.
Here is another tip from when we were locals. On the way out to Carmel Valley you will pass Garland Ranch Regional Park. Garland Ranch offers a variety of hiking options ranging from 200 to 2,000 feet. The park is filled with local history and its remains. There is a small visitor center where you can ask rangers questions and seek maps of the many trails offered. We would often hike for an hour or two to work up an appetite in Garland before heading further west into the valley to feast unabashedly.
Carmel Valley Ranch
Although we were not lucky enough to have an overnight at this resort, we took a few meals, drank a few cocktails and celebrated Easter with friends at this luxury hotel property. I highly recommend CVR as landing point if you are spending the night out in the valley. Its location is quite convenient to the rest of Carmel Valley and its restaurants and tasting rooms. Meals at the onsite hotel restaurant, The Lodge, overlook a pristine pool and the entrance to Spa Aiyana. The chef utilizes the organic fruit and vegetable garden on the property to provide components for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We even explored the hives maintained for local honey.
Further out in the golf oriented property you will find the Clubhouse Grill that overlooks the 9th and 18th holes of the property’s golf course. We relished the views of the valley and hills from massive windows while enjoying our Easter Brunch. It was a beautiful sight to see our Easter dress clad girls frolic in the flower gardens for their egg hunts. The entire place is so well maintained and visually stunning that I wished we were able to spend more time there.
Carmel Valley Ranch gardens (my photo)
There is so much to see and do on the Monterey Bay Peninsula that often it is difficult to make time for all of the options. Prioritize to make Carmel and Carmel Valley a weekend jaunt at minimum.