Carmel-by-the Sea: Art, History and the Sea
by Frank DiMarco
Carmel-By-The-Sea! Oh, how that rolls of the tongue so easily. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. Nestled in the shore of Carmel Bay, on the south end of the larger Monterey Bay, one of Northern California’s natural wonders and marine life habitats. With a heritage of the Old World, this natural artist’s colony, hub of wealth, comfortable homes and culturally engaged society still manages to throw open its arms to visitors from all over the world.
With big brother Monterey just over the hill to the north, and the enchanting Highway 1 route to Big Sur to the south, Carmel simply says, “stay and rest awhile.” It is very easy to comply. All are welcome here.
Having weathered some criticism for “commercialization” over the years, if the easy-on-the-eyes architecture and brilliant merchandising skills in the shop and gallery windows is to be criticized, then drive down to your local strip mall before if you make a judgment. Sure, we all miss the truly funky artists colonies that flourished along the California Coast, but let’s face it, things change, and sometimes they get better. Carmel is a case in point.
Let’s talk a little about Carmel’s history. As with many California coastal areas, tribes of Native Americans, the Esselen and Ohlone along the Central Coast, flourished before the Europeans showed up in the early 1600’s, claiming the area for Spain. Carmel Valley was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The big names showed up in the mid-1700’s: Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junipero Serra, and soon the historic Carmel Mission was established. As usual, in spite of some frequent good intentions, European diseases decimated the Native Americans and they either died out from illness or fled to the mountains to the south due to the treatment by the Spaniards. Father Serra died in 1784, but not before helping to establish the famous chain of missions throughout California. Highway 1 is called El Camino Real, “The King’s Highway.” as many have known it, and many old missions can be visited along its beautiful route. In 1848, after the Mexican-American war, Carmel became part of the United States, ceded by Mexico, with California becoming a state two years later.
An art colony was born, seismically, if you will, after San Francisco’s disastrous 1906 earthquake. Artists of all disciplines fled San Francisco for the south, coincidentally supplementing another growing art community in Los Angeles, which continues to enjoy world-wide renown; but many artists simply stopped, agog, in Carmel, and there they stayed and worked. New venues such as The Arts and Crafts Theater and The Forest Theater evolved and a visual arts community that included early photographers such as Arnold Genthe, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, arrived and thrived. Musically, among other events, the Carmel Bach Festival has been celebrating J.S. Bach since 1935. The feeling of an artist’s workplace still permeates the quiet streets.
It would be hard to imagine a more “connected” place to stay in Carmel than The Cypress Inn, wonderfully linked to the town’s history, warmly preserved by the ownership of Doris Day and Dennis Le Vett and managed with a big smile by the very capable Fiona VanderWall and her accommodating staff.
Checking in to the 44-room establishment, at the corner of 7th and Lincoln, is to step into a 1920s building suggesting a Mediterranean-Moroccan style, rich in wood, window treatments hung from forge-twisted iron rods and venerable tile floors. Doris Day memorabilia are tastefully displayed in the lobby and other parts of the Cypress Inn and are enjoyable to review. Our suite overlooked the Lincoln Street and had a delightful balcony facing west and a spacious circular jacuzzi tub in the large bathroom. Top shelf linens and a lovely inset fireplace also set an elegant tone.
If you travel with your dog, The Cypress Inn especially welcomes you, as one of California’s most pet-friendly establishments. While we were sans pet, we thoroughly enjoyed the well-behaved dogs who came to the abundant continental breakfast with their owners. Dogs and their humans also showed up for the afternoon “Yappy Hour” at Terry’s Lounge, the Cypress Inn’s great bar/restaurant. You could feel the popularity with the locals who gather daily for some libation and the fun of sharing their pets. Some of you might turn your nose up at this, but it is fun, clean and remarkably quiet. And the dogs are hilarious and real characters.
Terry’s Lounge, named for Doris Day’s late son, music producer Terry Melcher, is a cozy, elegant place to eat and drink. Mixologist Will Larkin, whose family roots are deep in Northern California history, has an amazing grasp of wines and liquors with a solid knowledge of beers. Not to be missed is the cocktail menu, which features wonderful quotes from famous movie stars. My favorite is Mae West’s, “Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” Cocktails at Terry’s Lounge are fun.
We ate at the bar two nights in a row and Will was generous in sharing his knowledge of food and drink. Food and Beverage Manager Jonathan Bagley has made the most of a small-plate concept in keeping ingredients as local as possible and Terry’s Lounge is signed on with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which monitors species threatened with overfishing. Among the items we enjoyed were delicate, briny Miyagi oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Farm at Tomales Bay, seared Ahi Tuna with a light butternut squash cream sauce, house-roasted beet salad with goat cheese and a stand-out watercress & apple salad. The burger and fries on the menu is enough for two! Finally, Will recommended a delicious Hahn Winery 2010 Santa Lucia Ridge Pinot Noir, a smooth, fruit-forward vintage that rivals any California or Oregon Pinot Noir we’ve tasted. Terry’s Lounge has a comfortable, local feel to it and it became our favorite place to eat in Carmel.
Now for a nice walk. You won’t find too many more picturesque strolls than along Scenic Drive in Carmel-by-the-Sea. With the Cypress Inn being located right in the middle of Carmel, it is a short drive or walk down the hill to Carmel City Beach.
Scenic Drive takes off to the south and the walk, either on the easily accessible beach or on the lovely street-level path, is dreamy. Kelp, Cypress trees, a distant fog bank, the odd sea lions and sea otters make Carmel Bay a signature of this part of the California coast.
Along Scenic Drive, oceanfront homes, some modest, some daringly cantilevered over the water dazzle; but the sea is the real star. The fresh ocean air is a tonic for the soul and this walk is one of the things that draws visitors back time after time. Forget your other concerns for a while, breathe in this air and enjoy the moment. Hug your partner a little closer and feel the gratitude for being able to be right there. You’ll find shared smiles among strangers along Scenic Drive.
Returning to the center town, possibly via a big loop including Mission Ranch and the Carmel Mission, nosing around the art galleries can be a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The bar for art in Carmel, as historically noted above, is set high. Gallery representation is precious to working artists and the vetting process for exhibition in this artist’s colony is comprehensive. Explore! The surprise of looking down a small alley and seeing a metal sculpture studio or finding the precise seascape for your living room in a gallery window awaits.
Unless you’ve decided to stay forever in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the time comes to leave. When you do, please do yourselves a favor and pay the fee to drive the world-famous 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach to Pacific Grove. The sea vistas, the famous Del Monte Lodge, the Inn at Spanish Bay, Del Monte Forest, the generous turnouts along the rugged shoreline and the spectacular estates that speak of wealth, old and new, make this trip worthwhile. We gazed at the breaking waves for what seemed a very long time on The Drive. Two sea otters were busy in a cove, acting like the clowns they are and a couple of deer ambled along, completely used to passing cars.
Carmel remains a very special place in the hearts and minds of world travelers and locals alike. And when you go, here are some references: