Travel Destinations

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Weekend Getaway to California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel Beach at Sunset Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Carmel Beach at sunset.
I had always wanted to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I imagined a posh town by the ocean filled with large, sparkling white buildings, high-class shopping, palm trees swaying, gentle waves lapping at the sand, and me walking along the sidewalks with my two little dogs at my side.  Living in San Diego, the thought of a weekend getaway to California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea seemed so easy.  Yet we hadn’t ever seemed to make it happen.

I was so obsessed with the idea of a weekend trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea for a reason that many might not share with me.  Doris Day is my favorite actress of all time.  I grew up watching her capers with Rock Hudson over and over again.  Later in life I learned she owned a hotel in Carmel and that it was dog friendly (at a time when pet friendly travel wasn’t as easy as it is now).  Because of Doris Day, her hotel, and her advocacy for animal welfare and animal rights, Carmel is probably the most dog friendly town in California, perhaps even the United States.  I desperately wanted to go.

An inviting passage through a Carmel block.
After many years of wishing we finally traveled up the coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea for the weekend.  We had a beautiful drive up the California Coast, hugging the ocean cliffs along Highway 1, antsy to get our vacation started in a place I had longed to visit for so long.  Little did I know I was going to be in for a bit of a surprise.  We drove into town, winding our way through narrow streets bordered by tall forest trees.  It felt more like a mountain town than a coastal community.  I kept waiting for the forest to give way to a sunny beach town, but that never quite happened.  Carmel-by-the-Sea turned out to be the best of two worlds, a forest by the sea.

When we talked to Carrie Theis, the owner of the Hofsas House Hotel, during our stay, I was happy to learn I was not alone in this misconception, as many visitors are surprised.  Carmel-by-the-Sea takes great pride in this unique feature.  Carmel fights for its trees and it practically takes an act of Congress to chop one down.  While the nearby towns of Pacific Grove and Monterey are also fantastic towns and fit more of what I had imagined, I loved the extra relaxed feeling of Carmel with its trees and nature, a feeling that fully settled in as I stood on our hotel room balcony, staring at the ocean through the tall trees, startled by a bright blue bird flying beneath my line of sight.

But what is there to do in Carmel?  Is it all old people relaxing, with nothing much to do?  I have spoken with others who remember a Carmel of years past that didn’t offer much for the younger generations.  Carmel certainly isn’t for people who want to party and stay out until all hours of the night, and it firmly holds on to its low-key ways with rules like no neon lights, no street signs except for wood posts at each corner, no addresses, no buildings over two stories above street level, limited street lights, and laws against wearing high-heels over two inches without a permit (I’m serious!).  But there are plenty of things to do in Carmel to fill a weekend vacation.

Galante Vineyards Cowboy Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
This way to Galante Vineyards tasting room.

Carmel Wine Walk By-The-Sea

Everybody thinks of Napa when they think of California wine, but California has great little wine regions all over the state.  Carmel wines are produced throughout the valleys of Monterey County.  But rather than taking a drive to all the different wineries scattered throughout the county, in Carmel the wines come to you.  There are 14 wine tasting rooms within the one square mile of Carmel-by-the-Sea, so visitors can stroll from tasting room to tasting room and then walk back to their hotel.  No need for a designated driver or worrying about getting behind the wheel.  Carmel makes it even better by offering a Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea Passport containing nine vouchers good for a flight of wine at any of the tasting rooms.  This is a great value if you plan on tasting wine from a few different wineries as the passport is $65 and flights are usually $10.  If you’re staying at the Hofsas House Hotel, you can get an even better deal as they sell the passports for $50.  Don’t worry if you have a few left over; the vouchers never expire.  All of Carmel’s wine tasting rooms are dog friendly, so feel free to bring along your furry companion.

Related: The Wine Tasting Rooms of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel Shops and Galleries

Carmel Shops Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
All of Carmel's shops have a personality.
Carmel has done a lot with its one square mile.  Blocks are small and filled inside and out with tiny shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes.  Narrow, inviting passageways beckon visitors to come inside and see what’s hidden within the city blocks.  Art galleries with paintings and statues can be found on every block.  Shopping options range from well-known names like Coach, Sur la table, and Tommy Bahama to specialty shops selling everything from dog treats to Christmas ornaments.

Diggidy Dog Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Henry leads the way through Diggidy Dog.
It takes far more than a weekend to explore all of Carmel’s shops and galleries, but we were able to spend some time visiting a few.  We were traveling with our dogs Henry and Charlie who decided their favorite shop was Diggidy Dog, a dog and cat boutique selling everything you could possibly need for your four-legged friend.  Pets are greeted at the front door with pails filled to the brim with assorted treats.  Henry and Charlie decided the cheese biscuits, tiny dog bones, and pig femur were the best.  Another popular shop is The Cheese Shop which is filled to the rafters with cheese.  We were able to sample two of The Cheese Shop’s fine cheeses, Basil & Olive Oil Asiago and Pilota, through our Monterey Wine & Cheese Pairing package at the Hofsas House Hotel.

Carmel Beach

Dog Friendly Carmel Beach Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Free at last!
Carmel Beach stretches the entire width of Carmel-by-the-Sea and looks out over the Pacific Ocean and provides a view of Pebble Beach Golf Links.  Scenic Road follows the beach and is a great path for walkers.  Carmel Beach is a dog-friendly off-leash beach.  Many visitors to Carmel make the walk down Ocean Avenue to watch the sunset.  If you want to stay at the beach into the evening, you can have a warming fire on the beach south of 10th Avenue.  The Hofsas House Hotel offers a Beach Fire and S’mores Bundle which includes a bundle of wood, a blanket, a flashlight, and s’more fixings.  Just be sure to extinguish the fire with water or leave the coals visible to pedestrians.

Mission Trail Park

Mission Trail Park Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Mission Trail Park.
On the east side of Carmel-by-the-Sea is Mission Trail Park, a small canyon with miles of dog friendly trails.  Trails are wide, easy, and shaded, with narrower trails branching off the main path.  Mission Trail Park is Carmel’s largest park and has multiple entrances, including one by the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission for which the park is named.

Activities Just Outside Carmel

In addition to the things to do in Carmel, there are a number of activities to enjoy within an easy drive of Carmel.  The Monterey Peninsula towns of Pacific Grove and Monterey are just a few minutes north of Carmel-by-the-Sea and have pretty streets to stroll along as well as the Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row to visit.  We chose to explore the scenic 17-Mile-Drive, which follows the Monterey Peninsula coast and has an entrance gate in Carmel.  South of Carmel is Big Sur and one of the most stunning stretches of California coastline.

Carmel Hotel Accommodations

Hofsas House Hotel Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
The European inspired Hofsas House Hotel.
You won’t find any sprawling mega-resorts in Carmel.  Carmel’s hotels are small and charming.  We stayed at the family-owned Hofsas House Hotel, which was first started by Donna Hofsas in the late 1940s.  The hotel is now run by her granddaughter Carrie Theis.  The Hofsas House Hotel is one of the “bigger” hotels in Carmel with a whopping 38 rooms, a heated swimming pool, and a sauna.  When we travel in Europe, we love staying at small family-run hotels, but those are usually hard to come by in the US.  Staying at the Hofsas House Hotel feels like staying in a cozy European hotel with its faux half-timbered Bavarian exterior with cheerful frescoes and mural, its uniquely decorated Dutch-doored rooms all designed by Carrie’s mother, and the friendly and helpful owner and staff who cheerfully provide recommendations for what to see and do around Carmel.

Hofsas House Hotel Suite Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Our suite's living room.
Hofsas House Hotel Wine and Cheese Pairing Package Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Wine and cheese pairing package.
Hofsas House Hotel Lobby Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Hofsas House Hotel lobby.
Hofsas House Hotel Tail Wagging Package Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Henry sniffing the tail wagging package.
Dog Friendly Hofsas House Hotel Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Henry and Charlie enjoying the fire.
Pet Friendly Hofsas House Hotel Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Charlie thought the fire was just for him.
Our room was a two room suite with a private balcony and view of the ocean through the trees.   The living room area had two day beds which could either be used for seating or for the kids to sleep for families.  There was also a small dining table for enjoying breakfast and our wine and cheese and a wood burning fireplace with Duraflame logs provided.  Some of the rooms are dog friendly, and our two canines felt right at home, enjoying the package provided by the Hofsas House Hotel of dog treats from Diggidy Dog, a Frisbee, a collapsible bowl, and a loaner dog bed which they used to lay in front of the fire at night.  Breakfast, consisting of fresh pastries from the local pastry shop, fruit, yogurt, juice, and coffee, is served every morning in the lobby.  Guests can eat breakfast in the lobby or grab a tray and enjoy breakfast in their room. 

Carmel Restaurants

Carmel has a number of high-quality restaurants, no chains allowed, for travelers to choose from.  Quite a few of them are dog friendly too.

On our first morning we enjoyed the breakfast provided by the Hofsas House Hotel.  The second day we slept in and missed our complimentary breakfast, so we headed into town and visited the Carmel Coffee House for a late breakfast before hitting the road.   The Carmel Coffee House is a little coffee shop nestled into the middle of a block.  They roast their own organic coffee and make their own baked goods, including my mile-high quiche.  The Carmel Coffee House has café tables outside for dog friendly dining.

Carmel Coffee House Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Quiche and coffee at the Carmel Coffee House.
We took a picnic lunch with us from 5th Ave. Deli when we drove 17-Mile Drive.  5th Ave. Deli is a gourmet deli with a large selection of salads and sandwiches.  I had the tarragon chicken salad sandwich and Rome had the Reuben.  We accompanied our sandwiches with bottled root beer and ginger beer, chips, and chocolate covered peanut brittle.

While a number of Carmel’s restaurants have dog friendly outdoor dining, inclement weather can make enjoying that dog friendly dining a little difficult.  We had some rain, but based on a recommendation from our hotel dined at PortaBella, a Mediterranean restaurant with completely enclosed outdoor seating, perfect for a rainy night.  A standout dish was the pumpkin ravioli with cheese and pomegranate.  They also have some tasty cocktails, which we enjoyed since we were a bit wined out after all our wine tasting.

PortaBella Pumpkin Ravioli Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Pumpkin ravioli at PortaBella.
Pacific Grove and Monterey are a quick drive up the street from Carmel-by-the-Sea, so we spent our other evening dining at one of the restaurants in Pacific Grove.  The Beach House at Lovers Point has a view of Monterey Bay and, at night, a view of the sparkling lights of Santa Cruz across the water.  Our dinner started with fresh warm bread and a beet salad with arugula, blue cheese, pecans, and roasted yellow beats.  The Beach House at Lovers Point is a seafood restaurant, so Rome ordered the Sea Bass and Clams with Italian sausage, baby potatoes, veal and butter brodo and I had the Provencal Petrale Sole with fingerling potatoes, grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives, roasted onions, capers, lemon, and olive oil.  Both were cooked perfectly and served with some surprisingly flavorful sauces.  Our waitress reassured me I could safely wax nostalgic about the sauces as they are made from scratch.  On the menu are also locally made wines and beers.

Beach House at Lovers Point Pacific Grove Carmel-by-the-Sea Weekend Getaway
Sea bass and clams at the Beach House at Lovers Point.
Of course since Doris Day was my inspiration for wanting to travel to Carmel-by-the-Sea in the first place, we stopped in at the Cypress Inn for a drink in Terry's Restaurant + Bar.  The outer bar and restaurant are dog friendly and there were literally dogs everywhere.  There was actually less Doris Day memorabilia in the hotel than I imagined there would be, but there are posters from her movies on the wall and a cabinet of Doris Day related items in the entrance.

While Carmel-by-the-Sea didn’t look exactly like I imagined, it completely lived up to my expectations as a place that I would love to visit as a weekend getaway over and over again.  Carmel is small and cozy with great little restaurants, cute shops, and stunning surroundings.

Thank you to the Hofsas House Hotel for hosting our visit to Carmel-by-the-Sea and making this post possible.  Thank you also to the Beach House at Lovers Point for hosting our dinner at their restaurant.  As always, all opinions are my own.  This post contains affiliate links.  If you book through them, it costs you nothing extra and we earn a small commission which goes towards running this website and bringing you more travel stories.

Travel the World: Carmel-by-the-Sea is the perfect destination for a California weekend getaway.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.