Arriving in the Carmel Valley, tree-covered ridgelines lie in the distance while rows of grapevines spread across the foreground and lavender fills the air with the scent of relaxation. Crickets begin to chirp as dusk falls 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: Bernardus Lodge & Spa, a luxurious resort I had been looking forward to visiting for the last few weeks.
Full of excitement about the new adventures ahead, my boyfriend and I hit the road with plenty of plans. We thought we would have ample time to stop by Monterey and see Cannery Row; cruise along the 17-Mile Drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea; see the fields of Earthbound Farms, the world’s largest grower of organic produce; and grab hand-churned ice cream from Carmel Valley Ranch either before or after our stay at Bernardus. Little did we know what was in store.
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 dancing in the car, changing lanes, and feeling warm breezes, 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 have us questioning whether or not we’ve actually left San Francisco, as staples like Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Ghirardelli make us feel right at home. But alas, Cannery Row rises up next to the water, 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 populated coastline of Monterey into the quiet expanse of the Carmel Valley, there is a palpable change: Beaches are replaced by fields, crowded lanes are swapped for open roadways, and fog gives way to blue skies. Though the two destinations lie less than 30 minutes from one another, the vibes couldn’t be more distinct. While there is something 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 as we bound up the front steps, eager to let our stresses melt away. Simply opening the doors and walking inside the lobby feels all too luxurious. Chandeliers adorn the ceiling, wooden floors and a stone fireplace warm up the room, and cheerful employees offer their assistance around every corner.
But it isn’t until we make our way out the back doors that it all starts to set in: We’ve made it. String lights complement the wooden furniture on the cozy hotel patio as Mediterranean tones coat the surrounding buildings and capture the essence of the Carmel Valley. Walking down the pathway toward our villa sets our minds at ease as we encounter a bocce court and croquet lawn to our left and soothing lavender to our right. Before we even arrive at our room, it all seems too good to be true.
Still not quite knowing what to expect, we open the door—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 enliven the space, creating a sort of luxurious jungle I never knew I needed—but will never be able to forget. The beauty is all-encompassing and nearly drives me to tears as I take it all in.
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. A calmness washes over us as we explore the grounds, and there is no hurry for anything. The hours fly by as we relax on the terrace, test out the furniture (which is all absurdly comfortable), and munch on the local fruits sitting on the entryway table. 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 homey warmth as the hanging chandeliers uplift the space with their simple elegance. But the culinary offerings are what put Bernardus on the map—the eatery has served such luminaries as Julia Child and Tim McGraw—and the farm-to-table practices are what draw diners back time and time again. Given the property’s lush garden and nine acres of vineyards, there is no question about the freshness of any dish on the seasonally driven menu. Aside from using an array of organic, home-grown ingredients, chef Cal Stamenov is a gastronomic artist, transforming familiar flavors into innovative dishes—making it extremely difficult to decide on just one item.
Thick slices of brioche sit alongside salted butter and a savory sundried tomato tapenade, showing off the bounty of the region and surprising the senses. 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.
Next up are the chilled Morro Bay oysters. Served atop a bed of ice and garnished with dainty 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 mollusks is perfectly balanced by the ginger-shallot mignonette, though the plump baby oysters don’t really need any accompaniments (driven directly to Lucia from the ocean, these oysters are fresh as it gets). Combine this sea-to-table experience with the exquisite mastery of chef Stamenov, and there is hardly a reason to eat oysters anywhere else in Carmel Valley.
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 and a Calabrian chile compote 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.
Though we are incredibly full after the drool-worthy entrées, there is no way we can leave without trying dessert (and 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 complemented by 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 coats your mouth like a fluffy pudding. Then, the waiter brings over the cutest sea-salt chocolate souflettes. While eating them seemed like an impossible task at first, I took one bite and was hooked: The treats offered the right balance of salty and sweet, light and dense, bringing the meal to a satisfying conclusion.
Feeling like we would have to be rolled out of the restaurant, we managed to stand up and make our way back to our villa, admiring the immense night sky above us. After climbing into pajamas and the comfortable robes, we head out onto the terrace to sit by our private firepit and feel the light coastal breeze blowing in from the nearby ocean. Lulled by the sound of crickets in the distance, we fall into a state of tranquility 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 is so refreshing. The world seems to melt away, and nothing but this peaceful moment matters.
When I go to lay down on the king-sized featherbed, I realize I have never felt so pampered, especially as I watch the flames dance in the fireplace. As the feeling of being exactly where I’m supposed to be settles over me, I pull up the goose down comforter and give in to my drooping eyelids.
Upon waking up, the events from yesterday still don’t feel real. But stepping onto the heated floors of the bathroom, gazing out at the sprightly ferns, and opening the curtains onto the sun-drenched terrace confirm it was not a dream.
I brew a shot of espresso before heading outside to take in the views. The morning is accompanied by a chill, so the firepit is a welcome addition. We then make our way over to the infinity hot tub for a quick soak. There’s nothing quite like enjoying the outdoors from the edge of a steamy tub as the sun makes its way over the ridges and valleys of the mountains beyond. This is the life.
Feeling refreshed, we return to our villa to rinse off before breakfast gets delivered. As I get ready, I can’t help but reflect on the day’s events—none of it feels like real life. A knock on the door snaps me out of my thoughts and reminds me that we’re about to enjoy another incredible meal.
I am very happy with my decision to order the eggs Benedict. The rich Meyer-lemon hollandaise drips down the poached eggs, piles of shaved Caggiano ham, and English muffin halves as perfectly seasoned potatoes and juicy tomatoes sit alongside, providing additional textures and reminding me of just how fresh everything is at Bernardus. 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. As I savor the view, I realize Bernardus is without a doubt the premier hotel in Carmel Valley; its incredible cuisine, stunning scenery, and air of relaxation are unparalleled. I wish there was a way to replicate this feeling in my own backyard.
It all makes packing that much harder. While a part of us feels like we should go to the popular Carmel-by-the-Sea to complete our experience, we want for nothing and decide to head straight home. Leaving Carmel Valley brings a noticeable sadness, and stress starts to creep in once we join the frantic drivers on the seemingly never-ending stretch of the 101. Immediately wishing to immerse ourselves in the feeling of complete relaxation again, we begin dreaming of our next getaway—but we don’t feel anything but gratitude for being able to have this experience in the first place. As it turns out, the tourist destinations along the coast don’t have anything on the Carmel Valley.