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Storybook charm on the coast

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Tucked along Highway 1 as you travel down the coast, it would be easy to miss the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The traffic from Monterey to the wine tasting rooms of Carmel Valley and the rugged coastal views on the drive to Big Sur passes by the turn off for Carmel-by-the-Sea at a hurried pace, but take a turn on Ocean Avenue and you’ll be glad you did.

Things are done a little differently in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The first being the lack of addresses, which threw my friend, Barbara Keck, spinning as we departed from her San Francisco home and she was unable to use her navigation system. Although I assured her we would find our way, she asked me three more times on the drive to Carmel if I was sure that there were no street addresses.

The town is situated between Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean, making the lack of addresses only a minor issue. Directions are given in reference to Ocean Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and the best way to explore Carmel-by-the-Sea is on foot.

My previous visits to Carmel consisted of short shopping jaunts to Carmel Plaza with family that live in the area. Great shops, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. Not so after this visit. Carmel Plaza is filled with amazing upscale shops, art galleries and wine tasting rooms, but, this is not the heart of Carmel.

Step down the street and enter the small boutiques, delicious restaurants, galleries and gardens that meander throughout the 42 courtyards and passageways in this charming town, and you’ll discover the real charm of Carmel. Storybook architecture mixed with a relaxed, casual atmosphere and über friendly locals are the real draw at Carmel, where dogs are welcomed almost everywhere and high heels are banned by town ordinance.

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European influence
Mixed with the storybook architecture made famous by Hugh Comstock, is the markedly European influence in Carmel, particularly at the Hofsas House, where we stayed during our trip. We easily found Hofsas House just blocks off Ocean Avenue and checked in just in time to take our wine and cheese plate up to the third-floor deck to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean and were thrilled by the added treat of spotting migrating whales.

Innkeeper Carrie Theis runs the European-style inn that has been in her family for more than 60 years. Along with the welcoming charm of Hofsas House, it’s also the proud home of some of the work of artist Maxine Albro, including a beautiful Bavarian-style mural completed in 1957 that welcomes guests. Many visitors will recognize Albro’s work as she also created several breathtaking murals at Coit Tower in San Francisco in the early 1930s. For an added treat, book room 47, which features a headboard painted by Albro (although Carrie says that there’s a waiting list during peak times).

After the sun set, we grabbed our jackets and walked a few blocks to one of Carmel’s many amazing eateries – mundaka. An ever-changing menu of Spanish-style tapas creations are the star at mundaka with delights from fried garbanzo beans (truly addictive) to tortillas and bacon-wrapped dates prepared for sharing or enjoying all on your own. Add the house-made sangria to make this dinner complete.

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History paired with wine
The next morning we enjoyed the continental breakfast at Hofsas House, before heading out for the day. Following the historical walking tour that we picked up at the visitor center, I was on a mission to explore. We meandered down to the ocean with stops at historic shops, houses and fire stations, past the Church of the Wayfarer and the Carmel Roasting Co. (a local purveyor with cafes sprinkled throughout the region.) It was time to take off my shoes and get in some time on the sand at Carmel Beach, with breathtaking views of Pebble Beach to the north and Point Lobos to the south. As Carmel is dog friendly, so is the beach, where dogs and kids frolic in the surf for as far as you can see.

Wine tasting and lunch were on our minds as we headed back to the heart of Carmel, although we decided that meandering through the streets was the best course. Veer a few blocks one way, and then the other, over, up and down, and you’ll discover storybook architecture on every block along with breathtaking gardens.

Caraccioli Cellars was our first tasting room stop. Known for its sparkling wines sourced from grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands, the 2007 Brut Rose was my favorite. You can stop by any of the tasting rooms in Carmel to enjoy a glass or a flight, but the best way to enjoy them all is to purchase a $70 Wine Tasting Passport from the visitor center. The passport includes a $10 flight at each of seven tasting rooms in town. (Read more about Carmel wines in Barbara’s column at TheTahoeWeekly.com.)

Fresh, local ingredients are the backbone of the menu at Grasing’s, where we enjoyed lunch. Samantha Cesmat from Caraccioli’s tasting room recommended starting with the Crispy Goat Cheese and I’m glad we took her advice. Melt-in-your-mouth balls of goat cheese breaded and fried and served with oven-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, capers and olives. A wonderful start to an excellent lunch where I enjoyed the Grilled & Marinated Vegetable Salad with the Grilled Bistro Skirt Steak for Barbara.

We worked off lunch with a stroll through the many boutiques and shops and then headed to Carmel Plaza for some shopping before meeting friends for coffee at Carmel Roasting Co. Afterwards, we headed upstairs to Wrath’s tasting room at the Carmel Plaza where I enjoyed a yummy Chardonnay.

We capped off a great day with a walk to the Hansel & Gretel Houses built by Hugh Comstock, who built these storybook-style houses throughout Carmel. His unique style adds to the charm of Carmel, with his influence found in modern-day homes and buildings throughout the area.

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Hidden Carmel
I awoke early the next morning to the scent of the fresh ocean breeze and decided to do some more exploring before breakfast. I grabbed a coffee and hit the streets determined to find more of the hidden passageways and courtyards before our departure at lunchtime. I wandered through the streets, taking every stairway, alley and passageway that I saw before heading down to the beach for a respite, and then continued on my mission. I was not disappointed. I discovered courtyards with galleries, shops and tasting rooms, lush gardens concealing quaint cottages and passageways to local restaurants.

After my walkabout, I was ready for breakfast and we headed to Carmel Belle where I had eyed the hot polenta on the menu during my walk. I dove into the bowl of hot polenta topped with truffled mushrooms and creamy goat cheese and enjoyed it with toast topped with locally made peach jam, while Barbara enjoyed the open-faced egg, bacon, arugula and avocado breakfast sandwich. It was the perfect end to our weekend in Carmel.

One visit isn’t enough to enjoy all that this hamlet has to offer, which is why I’ll be returning for another visit this fall.

For more information on Carmel, the restaurants, wine passport and other great things to do, visit carmelcalifornia.com.

By Katherine E. Hill

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