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Driving through the Carmel Valley is a one-of-a-kind experience, Tree-covered ridgelines make up the landscape in the distance and rows of grapevines spread across the foreground. Lavender fills the air with a refreshing scent that’s perfect for putting you in the holiday mood. As dusk falls, the crickets chirp, and the stars emerge in an unimaginable brilliance, unlike any suburban night sky. Tucked away in an inland region that often gets overlooked by its coastal neighbors, the Carmel Valley holds a hidden gem: Carmel Valley, a quirky high-end resort town in the Santa Lucia mountains and a top California holiday destination.
Full of excitement about the new adventures ahead, my boyfriend and I hit the road with plenty of plans. We made sure we had ample time to stop by all the cool things you can see on the way to Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The cruise along the 17-Mile Drive towards Carmel-by-the-Sea is filled with all sorts of interesting sights. One thing we knew we had to do was stop by Monterey along the way and see iconic Cannery Row. We also made sure to stop by the fields of Earthbound Farms, the world’s largest grower of organic produce, and get some hand-churned ice cream from Carmel Valley Ranch.
The drive down from the Bay Area isn’t exactly what you’d call entertaining; pavement stretches out before you as yellow rolling hills blend into one another, making it difficult to tell if you are still in Pleasanton or have made it as far as Gilroy. And yet, I can feel the butterflies start to flutter in my stomach as we get closer to our destination. After nearly two hours of driving, we finally see Monterey Bay peek out between the dunes, its thick blanket of morning fog welcoming us to the Central Coast.
Signs for Fisherman’s Wharf leave us questioning whether or not we’ve left San Francisco, as staples like Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Ghirardelli make us feel right at home. But alas, Cannery Row eventually emerged over the horizon, proving without a shadow of a doubt that we’ve arrived at the shores of Monterey. We feel the temperature dip as soon as we open our car doors, and then our vacation truly begins.
Sailboats glide across the open water as red seaweed and kelp wash ashore between the rocky outcroppings. As beautiful as the bay is, the children’s splashing and my own anticipation for getting to the Carmel Valley make it hard to relax along the water’s edge. So, though it would be easy to spend the day admiring the ocean, playing a round at the iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links, and seeing all of Monterey’s popular attractions, we continue our drive inland to a more tranquil place.
Traveling from the populous coastline of Monterey and into the quiet expanse of the Carmel Valley, there is a noticeable change. Beaches are replaced by fields, crowded expressways are swapped for open country roads, and fog gives way to the blue skies that are so characteristic of Carmel Valley’s weather. Though the two destinations lie less than 30 minutes from one another, the change in character couldn’t be more distinct between the Monterey and Carmel Valley. There is something quite captivating about the undulating dunes and crashing waves along the coast, the meandering roads, lush orchards, and charming communities of the valley allow us to slip into a different mode of relaxation.
When we pull up to the cobbled roundabout driveway of Bernardus Lodge, we are instantly transported into a world of opulence. The valet greets us with a smile and takes our car keys and we bound up the front steps, eager to let our stresses melt away. Inside the hotel lobby, chandeliers adorn the ceiling, hardwood floors and a stone fireplace warm up the room, and every part of the place exudes quality and luxury.
We’ve stayed in many different places during our trips to Carmel Valley. The first time we came for a weekend getaway in Carmel Valley, we decided to spend the night at Carmel Valley Lodge, a rustic resort complete with a swimming pool perched in the verdant valley. This hotel’s affordable rates were great for our budget and the rooms were pretty good value, and the hearty free breakfasts were truly delectable. Plus, we were just thirty minutes away from all the major landmarks in the area, including Point Lobos State Natural Park, Bixby Creek Bridge, and the many Carmel Valley golf courses.
Another great and characterful place we’ve had the pleasure of staying in was The Hotel Carmel. While this place is technically not in the Carmel Valley, you can’t go wrong with a classy spot like the Hotel Carmel. Situated not far from Ocean Drive, the hub of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s farmers market, shops, and restaurants, this luxuriously renovated hotel is just perfect for a quick weekend getaway.
We loved the hotel’s glorious outdoor firepit, perfect for a night of relaxation and storytelling with your fellow travelers. When it was time for dinner, we were happy to find that the hotel offers a wonderful dining experience at Brophy’s Tavern, the Hotel Carmel’s in-house restaurant. Perfect for brunch in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the tavern is one of the best restaurants in Carmel Valley and an ideal spot to enjoy delectable classics such as English fish and chips, and a gloriously decadent Reuben calzone. Truly, there are so many great Carmel Valley Hotels that you’ll never be left without a nice place to stay when you come here.
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On the inside, this place is beautifully decorated with rustic woodwork and ranch styling, and the hotel’s amazing restaurant, lobby, and common areas are beautifully appointed with high-quality materials, comfy furniture, and even fireplaces. As we receive the keycard to our room and head on over to get settled in, it all seems too good to be true.
Still not quite knowing what to expect, we open the door to our room—and are instantly stunned. The foyer opens up to a comfortable living room, but it is the view that truly catches our attention. Acres of vineyards stretch out in front of us and meet the tree-covered Saint Lucia Mountains in the distance, rows of lavender and patches of grass dot the landscape, and a chair swing and firepit adorn the terrace.
Just when we think it can’t get any better, we find our way into the bedroom, walking through the beautifully tiled bathroom, past the copper soaking tub, and outside to the outdoor shower. Ferns and ivy grace the garden space, creating an intricately ornate and perfectly manicured backyard.
We had initially planned on leaving Bernardus and touring the Carmel Valley after checking in, but now that we were on the property, we found ourselves wondering how we could retire here and never have to leave. So, we decide to stroll around the croquet lawn, the pool, and the gardens. There is no need to feel rushed in this wonderfully serene space. The hours fly by as we relax on the terrace, test out the furniture (which is all absurdly comfortable), and enjoy some fresh local fruits in the lobby. Before we know it, it’s time to iron our evening wear and head to dinner at the award-winning on-site eatery.
Much like the rest of the premises, the terrace dining room at Lucia Restaurant & Bar is stunning. The firepit and wooden floors provide a homely warmth and the modern layout is graced with simple elegance. But the culinary offerings are what put Bernardus on the map. Lucia’s Restaurant & Bar strives to embody farm-to-table practices ensuring that only the best locally–sourced ingredients make it onto your plate. Aside from using an array of organic, home-grown ingredients, chef Cal Stamenov is a consummate gastronomic artist, transforming familiar flavors into innovative dishes that reimagine what good food can be.
It can be tough to choose between Lucia’s many delicious offerings, but you’ll have time to think it over while indulging in their fresh bread with some hand-churned salted butter and a savory sundried tomato tapenade. The bread’s fluffy yet dense insides are complemented by the rigid crust, creating an interesting balance and offering a unique twist on a classic Caprese. All of the ingredients are from the valley, so you know that you’re getting the best in fresh organic flavors.
We decided to order some chilled Morro Bay oysters. Served atop a bed of ice and garnished with fresh kelp and lemon wedges, these locally sourced oysters are almost too pretty to eat—almost. The salty brine of these immaculate, melt-in-your-mouth oysters is perfectly balanced by the ginger-shallot mignonette. Of course, these plump baby oysters don’t need any accompaniments since they’re shipped directly to Lucia from the ocean and are as fresh as it gets.
While the appetizers hold their own, the elegant plating and complex flavors of the main dishes take the experience to a whole new level. Slices of pristine pork come draped across a medley of carrots, cippolini onions, and marble potatoes as a decadent corn emulsion surrounds them adorned with a Calabrian chile compote that provides a bright burst of flavor.
But it is the ultra-tender Prime Angus filet that wins my heart, with its ever-so-slightly crusty exterior and accompanying creamy potato purée, wild-foraged mushrooms, and impeccably roasted carrots. Truly, dining at Lucia’s is one of the main attractions of the Bernardus Lodge, and after coming here we can scarcely imagine dining anywhere else. And this is Carmel Valley we’re talking about, a seaside hub of upscale dining and gourmet international cuisine.
There was no way we weren’t going to try a sinfully sweet dessert from Lucia’s (we are on vacation, after all). I decide to order s’mores—but of course, at Lucia, innovation is a way of life, so these are unlike any s’mores I’ve ever tried. A smooth, milk-chocolate panna cotta is topped with bruléed marshmallow crème, house-made graham crackers, cocoa-nib brittle, and toasted-marshmallow ice cream in a deconstructed plating that resembles a work of art.
The ice cream gradually melts on the plate to encompass the other elements in a moat of decadence, while the luscious panna cotta is like a fluffy pudding. As Bay Area pastry aficionados, we just had to try their sea-salt chocolate souffle. I took one bite and was hooked. The soubrettes offered the right balance of salty and sweet, light and dense, and were the perfect way to cap off this majestic meal.
Our appetites sated, and we headed out onto the terrace to sit by our private firepit and feel the light coastal breeze blowing in from the boundless Pacific Ocean. Lulled by the sound of crickets in the distance, we found ourselves at peace in a way that simply can’t be found between the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area lifestyle. Taking some time to breathe in the fresh air and feel at peace seems so foreign yet so refreshing. The world seems to melt away, and nothing but this peaceful moment matters.
When I go to lie down on the king-sized featherbed, I realize I have never felt so pampered, especially as I watch the flames dance in our beautiful fireplace. As the feeling of being exactly where I’m supposed to settle over me, I pull up the goose-down comforter and give in to my drooping eyelids.
Starting the day with a premium espresso at Lucia’s is always such a wonderful treat, and that’s exactly what we do before heading out to take on the day. Mornings in the Carmel Valley can be kind of chilly, so the restaurant firepit is a welcome addition. Before we know it it was time for breakfast, and were about to enjoy another incredible meal.
I am very happy with my decision to order the eggs, Benedict. At Lucia’s this dish comes with rich Meyer-lemon hollandaise sauce, piles of shaved Caggiano ham, and perfectly seasoned potatoes with juicy tomatoes. Much like their dinner’s breakfasts at Bernardus are chock full of fresh local ingredients of the highest quality. It’s hard not to get lost in thought as we stare out the window during breakfast, but as soon as we’re finished, we relocate to the terrace.
Before we know it we have to start heading back so we can get ready for the new work week ahead of us. Our time in Carmel Valley was magical and needless to say we were quite sad to leave. As we made our way back onto the freeway into San Francisco, it was safe to say that we both wanted to come back to the Carmel Valley one day soon. Indeed we couldn’t wait for our next trip to Carmel Valley, CA since we knew that some of the best restaurants in Carmel Valley, and the best Carmel Valley hotels awaited us on our return.
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