Established in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra, the Carmel Mission marked the first European settlement of Carmel-by-the-Sea. While the region is wildly popular today, the area struggled to attract new residents until 1906. The earliest residents included Sinclair Lewis and Jack London, who fled post-earthquake San Francisco in search of a bohemian lifestyle and were captivated by the beauty of Carmel’s rugged coastline. American poet Robinson Jeffers arrived shortly after the first wave of visual artists and began building Tor House, where he lived and worked for much of his life. Carmel continues to draw artists today, particularly with the opportunity to photograph Point Lobos State Reserve, endearingly called "the crown jewel of the California State Park system". The rich history, slower pace, and gorgeous landscape of Carmel-by-the-Sea may also inspire you to spend a day (or three).
Upon arrival, stroll down Ocean Avenue past English cottage–style Comstock homes, high-end boutiques, and dozens of parked cars until the powdery white sands of Carmel Beach lure you toward the azure blue waters of the incoming tide as it mixes with the turquoise depths of the Pacific. This luxurious view is only surpassed by the oranges and reds that fill the evening sky, as if transporting beachgoers into an Expressionist painting as the surfers drop in to the cresting swell. Just past the sand’s edge lie the quaint villas housing the town’s art galleries, bistros, hotels, and esteemed wine-tasting rooms. Enjoy live jazz on the patio as you indulge in decadent mouthfuls of stuffed mushrooms and shrimp scampi, before tucking in for the night and reminiscing about the day’s simple elegance.
Getting an early start rewards adventurous souls with uninhibited views. Those brave enough to take a bike ride along the rocky coast of the infamous 17 Mile Drive—which extends from northern Carmel through Pacific Grove—gain an incredible workout and are treated to sweeping coastal vistas. Lone Cypress, the region’s iconic 250-year-old cypress tree, grows in isolation off the cliff’s edge and should not be missed. For a brief rest after an eventful morning, spend time in Carmel Plaza, grab lunch at one of the many distinctive restaurants, peruse the specialty shops, and treat yourself to some retail therapy.
Round out the day with a visit to Carmel Mission, whose fountains, courtyards, and artifacts are reminiscent of the fascinating history that enabled Carmel-by-the-Sea to develop into the vacation destination that it is today. Walking the grounds transports visitors to a faraway time before artists occupied the land and creates an appreciation for the foundation built several centuries ago.
With this newfound knowledge of Carmel’s history, walk by the 100 galleries, studios, and antique shops clustered within a single square mile to view local, national, and international artworks created in a multitude of styles. This concentration of art galleries is one of the highest in all of the U.S. and serves as a direct representation of what put Carmel-by-the-Sea on the map. Finish the day with tapas overlooking the water, followed by a scoop of ice cream to savor as you walk down the cobblestone streets—an activity that only became legal in the town in 1986, when Mayor Clint Eastwood reopened the public ice-cream debate.
The final day in Carmel-by-the-Sea can often prove bittersweet. As the vacation time winds down and the coastal air blows in a salty sentimentality, visitors often wonder why they have yet to make this relaxed compilation of beachfront homes and cottages their permanent residence. While it may make driving home into the sunset even more difficult, the best way to combat the nostalgia is to spend the day tanning, kayaking, birdwatching, or surfing at Carmel River State Beach. Here the greens and blues of the deep ocean waters stand in stark contrast to the beige sands and rocky outcroppings of the curving coast. The ocean mist provides a rejuvenating release from the day’s warm temperatures, while the beauty of the panoramic view inspires photographers of all levels to revel in the moment and pick up a camera. A tour at Tor House, a quick stop on the way out to admire the architecture of Sunset Center, completes the third day’s explorations. Until next time, Carmel.