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Despite visiting California on a regular basis, no one on the team has actually gone to Carmel-by-the-Sea .
Preethi Chandrasekhar of The Eager Traveler, who last wrote last wrote about Portugal, Austria, Czech Republic, Anguilla and Dominican Republic, went on a sponsored trip to Carmel via Carmel’s Tourism Board. As with any sponsored trips via a tourism board, your normal travel experience will mostly likely vary. But they do offer a good outline of the popular spots to visit.
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I recently collaborated with VisitCarmel to spend 48 hours discovering all the hidden (and some not so hidden) delights Carmel-by-the-Sea has to offer. If you’re wondering where or what is Carmel, it’s a small seaside village located in Northern California, on the Monterey Peninsula. It’s known for its charming fairy tale cottages, the beautiful Carmel Beach and its vast array of art galleries. Read on for why you should make this town a part of your California itinerary.
You can fly into either San Francisco or San Jose International airport and rent a car to drive 1.5-2.5 hours into Carmel depending on which airport you land in. Driving into Carmel is easy and scenic if you take the Highway 17 route and you can stop off along little Capitola, another beach community, on the way into Carmel.
The best way to get around in Carmel-by-the-sea is on foot. You will not need a car while exploring the little village. Having a vehicle, however, comes in handy to explore nearby areas surrounding Carmel, such as the Point Lobos National Park.
The Vagabonds House Bed and Breakfast Inn and Carmel – As a self-proclaimed vagabond, I formed an instant connection with this place when I heard I’d be staying here. Located in a quiet, side street in downtown Carmel village, the entrance is filled with colorful flowers inviting you to climb the steps into the inn’s charming courtyard. An inviting fire-pit greets you as you walk across the courtyard to an upper level that contains most of the inn’s rooms. My room was large and spacious with all the amenities one could want including heated bathroom floors and a lovely claw foot tub to soak in. The in-room fireplace is perfect for those chilly nights as Carmel does become cool in the evenings as it’s on the coast.
We spent our evenings by the fire pit enjoying the wine and cheese hour, listening to the mini waterfall gurgling in the courtyard – truly a magical weekend get-away! One sunny afternoon post wine-tasting, I even indulged in a spa treatment at the Vagabonds Inn. The spa room is small and cozy for a 60-minute body massage, which was perfect as I didn’t want to spend too much time away from the sunshine and exploring Carmel!
- Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar – As the restaurant’s website states, “at Flaherty’s it’s all about seafood.” They aren’t kidding. These guys know how to choose their fish and how to make it taste amazing. They preach and practice sustainability. Their fish is fresh, caught wild. Standouts for me included the Signature Crab Cakes (made from local cornbread) with a delish corn & black bean relish, and the Shellfish Risotto which was to die for. This dish had a medley of the freshest seafood I’ve had including Lobster, Shrimp, Scallops, Mussels and Clams – in a mouth-watering Lobster sauce accompanied with baby spinach, peas and mushrooms. The sauce is actually their award-winning Lobster Bisque, so don’t miss this dish. Or, try a cup of their Bisque soup. For dessert, we chose the highly recommended bread pudding, which we literally inhaled in a few minutes. The bread was fluffy and melted in our mouths and might be the best bread pudding we’ve ever had. The restaurant itself is small and cozy with a family atmosphere, but don’t be shocked if you meet their Sommelier – Kayla is well versed in the wineries in the area and can recommend a few for you to visit if you have time.
- Village Corner – This is the cutest restaurant with a large outdoor patio that’s ideal for those sunny Carmel days. Brunch here is the perfect way to start your Saturday or Sunday morning, with delightful breakfast staples such as eggs, pancakes, a scrumptious Avocado toast with sea salt and a sinful pecan-crusted French toast that you must indulge in. They also have a gluten free menu coming shortly, so stay tuned!
- Tuck Box – This restaurant is a fairytale cottage and has a wonderful outdoor patio. Definitely a must-visit for their scones.
- Dametra Cafe – Looking for a fun ambience with some impromptu middle-eastern music and dancing? Then Dametra is where you want to be on a Friday or Saturday night.
We drove into Carmel on a Friday night just in time for a fabulous dinner at Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar. It was the perfect start to what would turn out to be a magical weekend. I would recommend starting your Saturday morning with a walk into downtown toward the Carmel Beach. Early morning is best as you can experience the quiet streets, take a few photos, and enjoy the solitude on the beach. There were quite a few people already on the beach, playing around with their canine companions. The Carmel beach is a beauty, with white sands and views from famed Pebble Beach to Point Lobos. The Scenic Path Bluff is a gravel pathway just above Carmel Beach that has eight stairways leading down to the beach, so if you’re looking for a quick pre-breakfast workout, you now know just the spot.
Post beach walk, we returned to Vagabonds Inn and were in for a lovely treat – the breakfast-in-bed concept. This isn’t an option. It is how the inn operates. Breakfast is served in a tray to your room each morning. You just check a few boxes on a form left for you in your room the previous night and slip it under your door. It’s as easy as that! After fortifying ourselves with some hot tea, coffee, eggs, fruit, granola with yogurt, we set out to Point Lobos State Reserve. Just a few miles south of Carmel, this place contains a number of hiking trails next to the ocean, and small beaches to relax in. My favorite was China Cove’s tranquility and the sea green color of the ocean that awaited me at the end of that trail. The beach however is currently closed to the public as sea lions have taken over the spot. It’s a real treat however to watch these beautiful creatures frolicking around in the water and on the beach. Docents with binoculars are available to answer questions and it was neat to learn about these animals while getting a closer look at them. There are many other smaller beaches you can hang out in such as Hidden Beach. At the sign for Hidden Beach, go down the stairs to the wide cove like setting. If you’re lucky you’ll be the only one on this beach for a few minutes! We enjoyed watching the waves and savored the feel of the pebbles as we walked around this cove. Point Lobos is also popular for its tide pool areas in Westin Beach. You can actually spot marine life (think Ochre Sea Star) in these pools if you look closely. Finally, diving is also possible with a permit, in the northern area of the reserve.
Driving back to Carmel we marveled at the beautiful, wild California coastline. It had turned out to be a sunny and gorgeous day. We decided to lunch at the 1927 fairytale cottage called Tuckbox that in my opinion has the best scones I’ve ever had in the U.S. The scones are like mini cake slices and of course they come with clotted cream and heavenly local Olallieberry and Orange marmalade. The outdoor patio is blissful and sitting out there in the sun, basking in the warm rays, I couldn’t help but feel that life was perfect in that moment. That’s the beauty of Carmel!
Post lunch we decided to stroll around downtown and try some of the wine-tasting rooms that Carmel has to offer. I love wine tasting. It’s fun and relaxing. Our first tasting room was the Galante Vineyards Tasting Room. It’s a small, casual room showcasing local estate-grown reds and is known to be the only tasting room that has the big reds such as Malbec, Sirah, Cab Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. They have a 400-acre horse and cattle ranch in Carmel valley where a wine tour is also possible. This was one of my favorite wine tasting rooms tucked away in a secret hidden passageway adjacent to a small park in downtown.
Scheid Vineyards in contrast is located on a main street, still in downtown, and has 27 different varietals – the top seller being the Odd Lot Red – a blend of 9 different varietals, and is known to be smooth. It’s also constantly sold out. So no, I didn’t get to try it! I did however try the Pinot Noire Rose – think ripe berries and cranberries. The GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and and Mourvedre was also lovely with a dark fruit and subtle spice flavor.
By now I was pretty buzzed and we decided to wander back to the inn to enjoy their wine and cheese hour! Armed with cheese plates and some cool white wine, we languished by the outdoor firepit. Pleasantly drunk thirty minutes later (yes I’m a lightweight), we, or rather I stumbled over to the spa area for my 60-minute massage and happily went into a trance-like state for the remainder of my session. Back in the room, we enjoyed the heated bathroom floors as we showered and got ready for a fun dinner at Dametra Cafe. As the name might imply, this restaurant offers a fusion of Mediterranean specialties with Greek and Turkish influences. Make a reservation for 8pm and you will be in for a special treat of music, singing and impromptu dancing!
Sunday morning turns out to be just as gorgeous as the previous day and I decide to leave a little early before my Art Tour to explore some of Carmel’s hidden passageways. Yes that’s right, Carmel has 42 hidden passageways and courtyards to discover and I had the most fun that morning wandering through some of these. If you have time for only one, make it to the Secret Garden Passageway. With a name and entrance like that who wouldn’t want to explore this alley! It’s a very tiny passageway lined at the entrance with bamboo and actually connects Dolores Street to San Carlos Street. Walk through into the hidden Pilgrim’s Way bookstore and garden and spend some time enjoying the fountains and the surroundings. It’s so peaceful you may not want to leave.
I turn and head back the way I came towards the Village Corner to meet my guide from Carmel Art Tours. Did you know Carmel is home to some world-famous 70+ art galleries? An art tour is a fun yet informative way to get behind the scenes. You’ll walk through downtown Carmel, sometimes through hidden alleys, into select art galleries for perhaps a chance encounter with the artist and hear some fascinating stories about the creative process. I didn’t think this would be that interesting for someone like me, who doesn’t know a whole lot about art but I wanted to test that theory. Don’t be fooled. This art tour is geared toward anyone with a zero understanding of art to the most experienced connoisseur. It’s a cultural immersion of sorts into a behind the scenes glimpse of Carmel’s art world. And I found it interesting and colorful. Literally.
We started out with the Delia Bradford art gallery and I was honored to even meet Delia herself as she was in the middle of painting a landscape in her gallery space. She’s lived in Carmel all her life and concentrates on heavy acrylics – although she used to be into oil painting. She prefers acrylic as it dries faster, is just like oil, minus the fumes. She loves color and focuses on florals, seascapes and uses leftover paint sometimes to produce abstract impressionism paintings. Both her parents are artists, so you can see where she gets her talents from. She enjoys both painting on site as well as in her studio and depending on the size of the canvas, she says big pieces can take a couple of weeks to complete. She’s been painting for over 38 years and her gallery is a pleasure to wander through, so definitely put this on your radar as you stroll through downtown.
We next walked across to the Westbrook Modern that was very different from the art at the Delia Bradford gallery. Westbrook is home to unique works of art by different artists, including one that is composed entirely of pages from various graphic novels that are shaped into an interesting abstract design by the artist. I also ran into Korean artist Ham Sup’s work. Ham has worked with hangi – traditional handmade mulberry paper- as his medium for over 30 years. My favorite piece in this gallery was the Desert flower. Made from just two cuts of purest glass, hand carved, each curve creates a different look. It’s two cuts of a beautiful flower and every time you look at it, you can see something different.
We left Westbrook and entered the Steven White gallery across the street. White, who is of British origin, is trained in classical sculpture. His works are mainly commissions for public spaces and as I walked into his gallery I was stunned by a life size sculpture of Lincoln displayed in the back wall. I also saw a two-part sculpture depicting the women held by the Japanese during the WW2. White recently worked on a sculpture depicting this for the St. Mary’s square in San Francisco. He tends to use live models and has had his works displayed at Tufts University, Cannery Row, A&M etc. There was even a sculpture of a woman’s various stages of her pregnancy – the woman had actually commissioned him to make one during her own pregnancy. What a neat idea.
Our next gallery was different from sculptures & paintings – it was the Gallery Sur which focused on photography with a few sculptures from Zimbabwe for example. I had a chance to meet David Potigian, the photographer himself, who had displayed some of his works in the gallery. He mostly focuses on landscapes around Carmel and Big Sur. I can see why. The seascapes are stunning, each one depicting a story. He describes himself as highly visual, and credits his high school photography teacher as one of the reasons that led to his interest in photography. He fondly speaks of how he would come home from high school in the evenings only to experiment in his dark room at his parents’ house. I should have gone to his high school, I would have been a much better photographer for sure! David mainly displays works from a small group of artists that he’s carefully curated over the last 10-20 years – reliable artists whose works are popular, sell well and with whom he’s developed relationships. He says the local landscapes he tends to feature in his gallery are what sets it apart from other galleries in Carmel.
Finally, my guide and I wander through the streets, coming to an incredibly charming alley. My tour guide, the lovely and very knowledgeable Rohanna LoSchiavo, insists we must walk through here if I love little alleys. I don’t resist, willingly drawn into this blue and white Greece-like alleyway, clicking pics and oohing and aahing as we walk through, passing a charming restaurant courtyard on the way, some pretty doorways, and up the steps into Robin Winfield’s welcoming space, filled with photos and paintings. What’s unique about her work is some of her creations have a photograph within the painting. She has worked for years with this technique and shown in galleries across the country. She talks about how art can change perspective in that it can be real but surreal also. She enjoys playing with that perception of reality, giving the viewer something to think about. I can relate, for travel is also a medium that allows us to explore our perceptions of reality. The world is but a canvas for a traveler’s vivid imagination and the more we explore, even our own backyard can contain treasures such as this seaside town called Carmel.
About the Author:
Preethi Chandrasekhar is a freelance travel writer/influencer with a passion for sharing her travel stories to inspire people to explore more of this beautiful world. She’s interested in experiential travel and writes frequently about off the beaten path destinations. Follow her on Instagram and her blog, The Eager Traveler, for more of her travel pics and stories!
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