When I was a kid, pretty much every Sunday, fog or shine, my family would head to downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea and get in line at the Mediterranean Market. We’d buy deli rolls, sliced meat and cheese, chips, cold Oranginas & a handful of those little boxes of La Florentine nougat, all the same flavor to minimize bloody skirmishes.
Then we’d plunk down in the grass at neighboring Devendorf Park, and have a picnic. The market’s a furniture store now, but plenty of the old Carmel I remember from way back when still remains, and its sedentary pace, old world charm, and infinite supply of hopelessly romantic twinkle-light-lit nooks make it an ideal weekend getaway. Here’s where I like to eat, drink, and stay by the bay.
There’s a terrifically charming inn behind every cypress in this town, but the La Playa’s my one and only. Tucked into an elegant residential neighborhood, two blocks from the beach, this gorgeous grande dame of a historic hotel is one of those places you’re almost sad to check into, because you know how painful it’s going to be when you have to leave. The pink stucco façade, divinely cozy décor, and Monet-worthy gardens are out of a Mediterranean dream.
From the top floor rooms, pull back the white shutters, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the sparkling pool, and beyond that, the deep blue Pacific. Opt for a garden level room, and you can sit on your private terrace and sip bubbles beneath the bougainvillea blooms.
And now, onward to the itinerary…
7am: Get up early, claim one of the hotel’s complimentary beach cruisers, then wheel along one of the most beautiful streets ever, Carmel’s aptly-named Scenic Road. At this time of day, you’ll have the heavily tourist traveled beachfront byway all to yourself.
8am: Back to the hotel for breakfast. Every morning, the La Playa serves a full breakfast with bottomless champagne and made-to-order waffles. You can eat on the terrace overlooking both the gardens and the ocean, and it’s pretty much heaven.
9am: Yes, you’ve gorged yourself on champagne and waffles, but that was just your first breakfast. For a cappuccino, croissant, and hearty helping of European charm, go to La Bicyclette. For 20 different kinds of eggs Benedict and berry blintzes, head to Katy’s Place.
10am: After a walk around downtown and a stop at the Cottage of Sweets for gummies and licorice bridge mix, gather picnic provisions at Salumeria Luca, then hit the road—one of the most famous roads in the world, Highway 1. Whoever’s best with tights cliffside turns and keeping their eyes on the road should drive, with a pit stop at charmingly rustic Big Sur Bakery for fresh-baked pastries and wood-fired bread.
Should you wish to hike and picnic, investigate Point Lobos. Should you wish to snack on your picnic food along the way, then have lunch with a (seriously breathtaking) view, queue up at Nepenthe. Request a seat at the sea-facing bar and once you’re sitting in it, splurge on something from the excellent grower champagne list, dig into a Crab Louie, and marvel at the quality of your life.
If you can’t make it all the way to Nepenthe, have your drink at the Highlands Inn. And if you opt to forgo the coastal meanderings and stay in Carmel all day, have sparkling rosé, a salmon Caesar, and a floating island for lunch, on the patio at affable PortaBella (which is right next to the Cottage of Sweets, just saying.)
1pm: On your way back from Big Sur, detour into the Carmel Valley for ice cream (or a green juice, whatever floats your boat) and a stroll around the snip-your-own herb gardens at Earthbound Farms, then drink wine in the stunning gardens of Georis winery.
En route to town, stop at the historic Carmel Mission for a tour.
3pm: Vacation afternoons were made for wine tasting, and downtown Carmel has a robust network of tasting rooms, all within walking distance of each other. Pop into the Carmel Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center, both for insider touring tips (ask how to get to elusive Pfeiffer State Park), and to buy your Wine Walk Passport, which lets you taste at your choice of nine of the 14 member tasting rooms. Sip sparkling wines at Caraccioli Cellars, spend a couple of hours socializing at well-hidden gem Alexander Smith, and sample Sauvignon Blanc at Wrath, located right in the Carmel Plaza. Post-Wrath, wander into The Cheese Shop, where the infectiously enthusiastic proprietor will let you try anything and everything.
5pm: Take a walk on Carmel’s renowned white sand beach, all the way down to where it butts up against Pebble Beach golf course’s ritzy pastures, keeping an eye out for the occasional lost Dixon Fire golf ball. Speaking of which, The Lodge at Pebble Beach is just the spot for a sunset cocktail, after a slow meander along 17-Mile Drive.
6pm: It’s undoubtedly time for some oysters, so stop into the old school A.W. Shucks oyster bar, a popular haunt right on Ocean Avenue. There’s nothing fancy about this place, but the Gruet flows freely and the bivalves are fresh and plentiful.
7pm: You’ve got a few fun dinner options, so hopefully you’re here for a few nights. My top pick is Casanova, although it can get stiflingly crowded—make reservations, request a seat on the European-style courtyard patio if you’re a people-watcher, and ask for a tour of the epic hand-dug wine cellar after dinner. Dametra is a crowd favorite, with its theatrical mid-meal singing performances, charismatic servers, and solid Greek food. Definitely make a reservation, or you’ll be stuck watching the fun from the sidewalk for quite a while. La Balena is a good pick for a quiet, intimate Italian supper, while Cantinetta Luca’s classy digs will quell your craving for a good bottle of wine and wood-fired pizza. For a serious splurge, it’s all about L’Auberge Carmel.
9pm: With some restrictions, beach bonfires and alcohol are allowed at Carmel Beach, so pack up your bottle of Caraccioli bubbly, buy firewood and S’mores fixings at Bruno’s Market, and don’t forget a blanket to ward off the coastal chill. If you’ve missed the 10pm beach fire curfew, you could roam the dark, quiet streets looking for a somewhat lively local watering hole to patronize (Carmel isn’t exactly known for its night life), but if I were you, I’d just go back to the hotel and have a nightcap on your patio. Then get to bed, because waffles and champagne await, and as this e-card so sagely puts it,