Arriving by way of the 101 to escape the heat waves of L.A., I was startled to end up in front of a pink, Bavarian-style cottage perched on the side of a narrow road surrounded by dark, twisted trees. It felt like I was in Europe again, as if somehow my car had crossed some invisible border from manure-stained middle-of-nowhere California into the quaint countryside of Germany.
Everything seemed smaller. And it is. The town is composed of cottages -- a bulk of them pastel-colored and adorned with wooden plaques. No glaring billboards or abrasive signage in sight. They have rules against that.
The town, called Carmel-By-The-Sea, is a one-square mile block of Monterey County with all the characteristics of an idyllic vacation spot, minus big brand hotels, large parking lots, and even addresses.
It's a pedestrian paradise. Everyone walks and the city is located on a hill overlooking the white sand beach. Wine and cheese are plentiful and, as one of the most dog-friendly towns in California, pooches are welcome to prance alongside their owners on the streets and the leash-free beach.
A bohemian Eden established in 1902 by a colony of artists, Carmel is the original hipster town, if you will. Today, its charm is preserved by a series of stringent ordinances. One of them has residents forced to walk to the post office to get their mail. Addresses, in Camel, are prohibited.
Here's a quick guide to this tucked away town:
They're not hotels: they're inns. We recommend shacking up at one of the town's locally run historic lodges. L'Auberge Carmel is a top pick for those who can afford it. Guest rooms go up to 450 square feet and the property has an in-house spa and restaurant. For a more affordable option, Bavarian-style Hofsas House is a decently priced lodge located in town with an ocean view, fireplace rooms, and kitchenettes. Dog lovers: Monte Verde Inn and Casa de Carmel have pet-friendly rooms for an extra $30 a night.
Hit up La Bicyclette for brunch. They make fantastic thin-crusted wood-fired pizzas. And for dinner, if you want to keep it casual, try Mundaka, a Spanish tapas restaurant with free-flowing sangria and authentic tapas. Dametra Cafe is a Mediterranean favorite with a consistent line outside its doors on weekends, essentially proof that it's pretty good. But if you're aiming for one of the most romantic nights of your life, stop by the dreamy Casanova, which houses a table that Vincent Van Gogh used in France.
There's also a growing and vibrant wine scene in Carmel. Be sure to stop by The Cheese Shop if you need something to pair with your wine. Carmel food tours are available for those who want to sample the culinary fare of the town in the span of three hours.
While you probably won't be lugging back cheap souvenirs by the boatload at Carmel, there's definitely a lot of window shopping to be done. The boutique shops are tasteful and sell everything from vintage guitars from the '50s to high-end jewelry. You can make your own perfume at the Soiled Doves Bath House or buy goodies for your pup at Diggidy Dog, a pet boutique. True to its art colony roots, Carmel boasts a number of galleries. (Art is everywhere at Carmel, but if you want to focus, try walking down Dolores.) While most of the stores are closed by 7 p.m., the window lights are almost always on and the scenery makes for a nice evening stroll.
The Carmel Beach City Park is one of the few leash-free beaches in California. If you like driving, the famous 17-Mile Drive skirts the town, and Carmel is just a few minutes away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Hikers, strap on your boots and try the Point Lobos State Reserve. Sights are abundant, but honestly, the one-square mile charm of Carmel-By-Sea is enough to entertain yourself with for at least a day and a half.