San Francisco

14 Reasons to Drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea

And none of them involve Big Little Lies.

Just 125 miles south of San Francisco is an enchanting European-style seaside town you've probably heard of, but may have forgotten about (until you binge-watched HBO’s Big Little Lies that is). Carmel-by-the-Sea (or just “Carmel” if you’re speaking aloud) is famous for its white sand beaches, fairytale cottages, village charm, battered bluffs, and dramatic views. The picturesque beach destination has no chain restaurants, street addresses, parking meters, or street lights in effort to maintain its small-town charm. And the good news for those in the Bay Area—it’s only a short, two-hour drive away. Whether you enjoy hiking through nature, spending an afternoon wine tasting, drinking beer, and playing pinball, or taking in spectacular views (and sunsets), a road trip to Carmel checks all of these boxes. Not just you but also your dog—who can absolutely come with since Carmel is the most dog-friendly town in America. Now remind us again why we sit in ten hours of Tahoe traffic instead of spending a magical weekend in Carmel? Yeah, we can’t remember why either.

China Cove, Point Lobos State Park
China Cove, Point Lobos State Park | Flickr/Jay Galvin

Kayak around a magical protected reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, long called “the crown jewel” of California’s 280 state parks, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places in the Golden State. White sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, emerald waters, wildflowers, tide pools, sea lions, Monarch butterflies … this park encapsulates everything enchanting about the California coast. Hiking is one of the best ways to experience this amazing area—if you have to pick one trail, the Cypress Grove Trail is very easy, but delivers on views as it takes you along the coast to a canopy of Monterey Cypress, one of just two native stands in existence, and is also close to the much-photographed Old Veteran Cypress, a several hundred-year-old Monterey Cypress that clings to a cliff in defiance of erosion and gravity. You could spend days just hiking around, but if you want to get a different perspective, go on an open coast kayak tour where you’ll find crystal-clear water, sea lions, sea otters, hidden coves and caves, and more.

Bring your dog with you almost everywhere you go

Carmel is one of the most dog-friendly places one can travel to in the U.S. The shops offer water and biscuits. The restaurants offer custom doggie menus. There are over 25 hotels and inns that welcome furry friends. And there are hikes and beaches where dogs can play off-leash. There’s even a Fountain of Woof, a drinking fountain just for dogs, in Carmel Plaza.

Windy Oaks Estate | Photo courtesy of Visit Carmel

Sip your way through a wine walk

Monterey County may not be the first place you think of when you think of California wine, but the climate (hot sun and cool fog), soils, and geography actually make for some really interesting wine-making grapes, including a lot of Chardonnay and pinot noir. Taste your way through some of the region’s best wines on the Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Walk, a self-paced and self-guided tour using a mobile app.

If, after that, you’re still craving more wine tasting, head inland to Carmel Valley Village, a downtown area with over 20 tasting rooms all within walking distance of each other. Cowgirl Winery, housed in an old redwood barn, is always a hit with its very drinkable pinot noir, country music, cornhole, bocce, and free-roaming chickens. Twisted Roots, a small lot winery specializing in handcrafted wines, is also popular and has a stylish tasting room and an outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables. Bernardus Winery was at the forefront of making this area a wine-tasting haven; it was the first tasting room in the area to open and is known for its flagship Bordeaux blend, which is absolutely worth a try (or a bottle).

Take Refuge at a relaxing outdoor spa

Refuge is a two-acre silent, “hydrothermal facility” with views of the Santa Lucia Mountains, a Himalayan salt wall cedar sauna, two eucalyptus steam rooms, Nordic cold plunge pools, six hot pools with thermal waterfalls, and the option to get a massage. The spa is known for its Thermal Cycle, a journey of hot, cold, and relaxing experiences designed to help your body eliminate toxins, improve circulation, and reduce stress, which is something we could probably all use.

Play a round at a legendary golf course with dramatic ocean views

Pebble Beach Golf Links is the number one public course in the U.S. not only because it boasts greens that hug oceanside cliffs, staggering views, and the most famous 18th hole in the world, but because it is a course that requires strategy and skill … and a $575 greens fee. Still, if you can afford it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that’s unlike any other golf game you’ll ever play. Don’t play golf, but still want to see what this beloved course is all about? Make a reservation for lunch or dinner at The Bench at the Lodge of Pebble Beach, an open-air and glass-enclosed restaurant that overlooks the 18th hole.

Photo courtesy of Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant

Eat a meal at a ranch owned by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel for two years in the ‘80s, during which time he made it legal to eat ice cream on city streets, which seems like one of the best things one could do as a mayor. These days, he’s the owner of a working ranch outside of Carmel with a restaurant where meals are accompanied by views of grazing sheep. In normal times, the Restaurant at Mission Ranch is best known for its very popular live jazz buffet brunch and live music nightly in the piano bar. Hopefully, those will both return soon, but in the meantime, you can still enjoy a very satisfying meal (our favorite order: the slow-roasted prime rib with a twice-baked potato and pecan pie for dessert) with a tranquil view.

See a giant octopus, bat ray, sevengill shark, and African penguins

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an oceanside aquarium with over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals. Sea turtles, sea otters, jellyfish, barracuda, clownfish, leopard sharks, leafy sea dragons—spend an afternoon at this enormous aquarium (once the largest in the world), and you’re sure to discover fish and plants you didn’t even know existed.

Enjoy a pint and play some pinball

Carmel Craft Brewing Company, a small-batch brewery known for its Mad Otter Pale Ale, has a brewpub in Carmel where you can taste through flights (they have 12 of their beers on tap), listen to live music on the weekends, enjoy a pint and a pizzetta, and play endless games pinball. So basically another small slice of heaven just a few miles from the coast.

Watch the sunset from a white sand beach

Carmel Beach is a mile-long white sand beach bordered by cypress trees and coastal bluffs. It’s the perfect place to settle in with a blanket and a bottle of wine to watch the sun sink below the horizon. The beach is popular with dog owners (dogs are allowed to run free) and surfers willing to brave the cold water for waves protected by the cove. (Like most Northern California beaches, the water is not safe for swimming because of strong rip currents.) But it is also a popular spot for locals and tourists to gather before dusk. Can’t tear yourself away? There are also fire pits if you want to keep your evening on the beach going a little longer.

Coast through the most scenic drive of your life

The 17-mile drive in a gated Pebble Beach community has been causing jaws to drop since it first opened to horse-drawn carriages in 1881. Plan to spend about half a day doing the coastline drive (you can also bike if that’s more your speed) so that you can enjoy all of the stops and maybe a meal. Along the way, you’ll pass more photo-worthy views than you ever thought you’d see in one day, including a huckleberry-covered hill that Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck supposedly enjoyed visiting, a beach where Spanish explorers camped in 1769 (complete with picnic tables if you want to stop for a snack), the site of an 1800s Chinese fishing village, a rock that doubles as a hangout for seals, the oldest Monterey Cypress tree grove in existence, the famous Lone Cypress that stands alone on a rocky cliff above the Pacific, and more.

Cottage of Sweets
Photo courtesy of Cottage of Sweets

Eat homemade fudge from a British-style sweet shop

The Cottage of Sweets is a “sweet shop” inside one of Carmel’s 1920’s whimsical fairytale cottages that you can still find dotted around town. It will lure you inside in a very “Hansel and Gretel” type way, but instead of being pushed into an oven by an evil witch, you’ll find hundreds of candies to take home, including British favorites that are hard to find stateside.

Discover secret passageways and courtyards

Downtown Carmel is home to 41 “secret” passageways and courtyards, all of which offer something unique to discover. Find a hidden bookstore and garden, a tiny courtyard with a giant oak tree, the oldest public alley in Carmel, a terrace with a treetop restaurant, and more.

Carmel Mission Basilica Bell Tower
Carmel Mission Basilica Bell Tower | Flickr/Fritz Liess

Visit the only Spanish mission in California that has its original bell tower and bell

The Carmel Mission Basilica, built in 1797, was headed by early California colonist Saint Junipero Serra (ordained so by Pope Francis) and the Catholic priest is also interred beneath the chapel floor. The basilica is one of California’s most authentically restored missions, and is an active Catholic Parish, museum, and school. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is both a National and State Historic Landmark.

Get a good night’s sleep in a fantastic hotel

Whatever your hotel personality, Carmel can deliver. Want to be pampered with spa treatments and excellent culinary experiences? The Bernardus Lodge & Spa, surrounded by rolling hills and orchards, is stylish, tranquil, and luxurious. The rooms all have soaking tubs and fireplaces; the meals are truly garden-to-table; the spa has a hilltop jacuzzi, a steam room, and sauna; and there’s a heated pool, as well as tennis, bocce, and croquet. 

Prefer something a little more rustic and charming? The Vagabond House, once a haven for traveling artists and writers in the 1920s, feels like it’s straight out of an English storybook, but with all of the modern touches you want, including a soaking tub, fireplace, heated marble floors, an in-house spa, and breakfast delivered to your door each morning, so that you can enjoy it in bed.

Is your dog joining you on your getaway? If so, it doesn’t get better than the Cypress Inn, once owned by Doris Day who wanted travelers to be able to bring their pets no matter their size or breed. The hotel is right in the heart of Carmel and just steps away from Carmel Beach and that aforementioned sunset. There’s also a dog-friendly bar and lounge with classic cocktails and live music, and a “yappy hour” because sometimes it’s a good thing when happy hour goes to the dogs. 

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who spent much of her childhood going from one Carmel candy shop to the next. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where she’s buying candy next.
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