Like most popular sites, Carmel-by-the-Sea presents a tale of two cities: the expensive, flashy and booked-up hot spot versus the low-key, fairy-tale village.
Ocean Avenue and its satellite streets deliver the shiny shops and trendy trattorias, like lively Dametra Cafe at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Street, with long lines out the door.
If you wander off the touristy track, though, you’ll run into a quaint, enchanting town full of English-style cottages, a place where Snow White might live. With a Mediterranean climate that supports thriving plants and flowers, “living here is like living in a vase,” according to Carmel resident Diane Whitacre.
Originally built by Illinois native Hugh Comstock (1893-1950) in the 1920s through the 1940s, the cute-as-a-button houses sport names like “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Doll’s House.” Comstock began his career making dollhouses that resembled cottages painted by the British native Arthur Rackham for his wife’s “otsy-totsy” rag dolls.
Many Comstock cottages dot Carmel’s Sixth Street residential area – the Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center on San Carlos Street distributes maps listing their exact locations. An architectural treasure trove, Carmel has been home to Jack London, who wrote about the town in “Valley of the Moon,” and Robinson and Una Jeffers, who built the stone “Thor House.” Dozens of other artists brought theater, the symphony and art galleries to town.
Secret paths meander delightfully past shops throughout Carmel, including the historical Court of the Golden Bough on Monte Verde Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, which delights with its unique stores. The White Rabbit, an Alice in Wonderland-themed shop worth the steep stair climb, sells watches with the hands running counterclockwise. PortaBella restaurant downstairs serves formal Mediterranean cuisine indoors and out.
The cartoonish building next door houses the Cottage of Sweets, which sells maple fudge, licorice and old-fashioned delicacies.
Walk through the path in back and you’ll find Jane Austen at Home, purveyor of silverware and other goods you might have found in Austen’s era.
American Crafts & Jewels features unique items, like the Carmel charm and beautiful swirled-glass plates. Mon Amie consignment boutique, which sells women’s clothing, is tucked in back.
To discover additional secret passages and walk to individual cottages and other historical buildings, sign up for Carmel Walks (carmelwalks.com), run by longtime guide Gael Gallagher. The two-hour strolls have been written up in Sunset Magazine, Frommer’s travel guidebooks and Coastal Living, among other publications.
Gallagher took over the business two years ago from the late Gale Wrausmann and regularly shows travelers the town’s nooks and crannies.
“I urge people to look up, down and all around them as we walk through secret passageways and award-winning gardens,” she said. “I urge then that whenever they find one of the two dozen enchanting courtyard or passageways, to try never to go out the way they came in. Visual treasures – happy spaces and places – abound off the beaten path.”
Gallagher has been a professional tour director for nearly three decades and also runs Gael Gallagher Tours. Her enthusiasm for her job is contagious.
“A good tour director should enhance your visit while introducing you to the area in a way that will help you understand what is so special here, reminding you why you chose this world-class destination while sharing the passion we have for living here,” Gallagher said.
Carmel Walks cost $25 per person and take visitors through gardens, historical buildings and the former homes of writers and movie stars. The company accommodates scooters and those with special-assistance needs. Service dogs and pets are also welcome.
Inn with a view
Carmel has its share of expensive lodgings, but during a recent stay, I tried the moderate-by-Carmel-standards Pine Inn at Ocean Avenue and Monte Verde Street, run by John Lloyd, who also manages the newly refurbished Tally Ho Inn. (Full disclosure: I received a media discount.) Rooms start at $179.
The Pine Inn, Carmel’s first hotel, was constructed with wood from the old Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco circa 1889. City founders Frank Devendorf and Frank Powers established what was then called Hotel Carmelo as an “elegant country inn,” according to the hotel’s literature.
Local contractor Michael Murphy enlarged the building with a sunroom and stables and opened it in 1903. Murphy built most of Carmel. Present owners Richard and Mimi Gunner have renovated the Victorian-era living room and dining parlor. The color red predominates downstairs.
My king room on the third floor boasted antique furnishings and a faraway view of the ocean – nice to wake up to. A black-lacquer Chinese chest decorated with carved exotic birds contrasted with Pierre Deux upholstered fabric chairs.
There’s plenty of closet and drawer space, and the room was absolutely spotless. The shower water pressure was good.
On the con side, the stairs are steep and there’s no elevator.
Lloyd said the most coveted rooms are the suites in the penthouse, which include patios and start at $329 for a king one-bedroom. Ask for rooms 62 through 70.
Guests at both hotels receive a free breakfast during the week at Il Fornaio, located downstairs at the Pine Inn. The sunny, covered porch makes for a cheerful morning, and breakfast is the full American bacon-and-eggs variety, with no skimping.
Immediately adjacent, Il Fornaio Panetteria is a local hangout that serves good coffee and excellent, fuss-free salads and sandwiches for lunch. The baked goods were off-limits to me but extremely tempting. Wi-Fi is free.
The courtyard around the Pine Inn counts as one of those secret passageways, wrapped around winding brick stairs. Shops include Lush fresh cosmetics and elizabethW, an organic toiletries and knickknacks shop.
Yafa restaurant, at Fifth Avenue and Junipero Street, a newly opened Mediterranean eatery, was much quieter than expected. The meal was moderate but good, with the chicken kebab special quite sufficient. It included rice, a thick whole-milk yogurt cucumber sauce and tabouli on the side for $22.
The watermelon-feta salad that neighboring diners ordered looked delicious, as did the butternut squash ravioli, but we settled on a hummus plate served with plain pita and nut bread. The establishment, owned by a father-son team, has a varied wine list, with varietals from Sonoma, South Africa and Italy.