CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA — A stroll around this magical bayside town that gained fame in the 1920s as a bohemian art colony is a highlight of any trip to the Monterey Peninsula.
It's always intriguing to get lost among the warrens of shops and four-star bistros, mysterious alleyways, hidden courtyards and vibrant gardens, and to explore the fascinating architecture and understated history.
We wanted to get more up-close and personal, so we signed on with Carmel Walks for a two-hour (dog-friendly) tour.
As we waited for tour group members to assemble in the shaded courtyard of Ocean Avenue's Pine Inn (built in 1903), we chatted with our guide, Gale Wrausmann, who founded Carmel Walks 14 years ago.
The animated Wrausmann is full of informed tidbits and anecdotes — a living history of Carmel, as we discovered during her narrated tour. We followed her down alleyways, across courtyards, up stairways (some designed by architect Julia Morgan), alongside gardens, into vintage buildings and along the narrow streets and sidewalks of Carmel.
Because there's no street mail delivery in Carmel — that's why the post office is such a popular social gathering place for locals — there are few specific addresses. Thus, the locations here are identified by intersections.
Tour highlights included:
Church of the Wayfarer, Lincoln Street and Seventh Avenue; 831-624-3550 or www.churchofthewayfarer.com: The 103-year-old church offers a quiet respite from the persistent (but tasteful) commercialism of the shopping district. Enjoying the sweet scent of cedar, we sat in a pew and deciphered the stories told in the stained-glass windows.
Cypress Inn, Lincoln and Seventh; 800-443-7443 or www.cypress-inn.com: The Mediterranean-style, dog-friendly hotel, built in 1929, is co-owned by reclusive singer/actress Doris Day, who lives in nearby Carmel Valley. Many of the attractive tiles embedded in the walls were architect Julia Morgan's leftovers from her Hearst Castle project.
L'Auberge, Monte Verde Street at Seventh; 831-624-8578 or www.laubergecarmel.com: The delightful brick courtyard of the European-style hotel (1929) all but vibrates with local history. The tile, metalwork and statuary were imported from Spain, and the building was modeled after a home in Prague. It once was an apartment house with a number of famous tenants, including internationally renowned modernist artist Henrietta Shore, a contemporary of Georgia O'Keeffe.
The on-site Aubergine restaurant stores its wine cache of 4,500 bottles in a cellar beneath the courtyard.
Weston Art Gallery, Sixth Avenue between Dolores and Lincoln, 831-624-4453 or www.westongallery.com: The small space overflows with vintage and contemporary photographs from world masters, including landmark pioneers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. The gallery is the third-oldest in the country, opened by Weston's daughter-in-law, Maggie Weston.
Hog's Breath Inn, San Carlos Street between Fifth and Sixth; 831-625-1044 or www.hogsbreathinn.net: Though Clint Eastwood said adios to the rustic restaurant years ago (but owns the property), you'll still find the Dirty Harry Burger on the menu. The extraordinary courtyard is brightened by a pastoral mural painted by one of Eastwood's buddies.
"A friend of mine who worked with Clint once asked him why he named it the Hog's Breath Inn," Wrausmann told our group. "His answer was, 'To keep people away.' Of course, it went on to become the No. 1 tourist destination in Carmel."
Casanova, Fifth Street between Mission and San Carlos; 831-625-0501 or www.casanovarestaurant.com: As the story goes, in the 1920s, actor Charlie Chaplin bought a small house for his cook, who lived there for 50 years. Upon her death, the property was sold and remodeled to resemble the farmhouses of Europe. Since then (1977), the restaurant has been expanded into the delightful labyrinth it is today.
In 2003, a special roped-off room was built to display a table at which artist Vincent Van Gogh took meals at the restaurant of the Auberge Ravoux boardinghouse in a town north of Paris. It was a gift to Casanova owner Walter Georis from the owner of Auberge Ravoux.
Forge in the Forest, Junipero Street and Fifth; 831-624-2233 or www.forgeintheforest.com: Inside the architecturally striking restaurant is the Forge Saloon, accented by copper walls, brick flooring and a mahogany bar from England. It originally was the shop of master blacksmith and artist Francis Whitaker, who pounded out the ornate ironwork that decorates many of Carmel's historic buildings. He worked his forge for 13 years, beginning in the 1940s. His original anvil, vise and hearth are on display.
The last stop on our tour was "what we've really come to see," Wrausmann said as she ushered us across a busy street and into a residential neighborhood. There, we were treated to the sight of Carmel's first two fairy-tale cottages, little whimsies nestled in flowering shrubs, looking straight out of a Beatrix Potter storybook or a Thomas Kinkade painting. (The Carmel Chamber of Commerce happily informs callers that the cottages are at Torres Street and Sixth Avenue.) The cottages were built by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s. The first, Hansel (or the Doll House), was constructed for his wife as a showroom and storage space for the Otsy-Totsy dolls she handmade and sold to major markets. Comstock built the second — Gretel — as a mini-workshop.
Carmelites were so taken with the novelty of his fairy-tale style that they hired him to build more cottages — about 20 in all.
Other builders soon joined the party, sprinkling Carmel with the fairy tale cottages and storefronts that epitomize the town today.
Our tour was over, and it was time to find a restaurant for a great lunch — the easiest task of the day.