Carmel-by-the-Sea Might Be Cooler than the Beach Town Where I Grew Up

I went back home this past weekend to a town I’d never actually visited. In other words, I went to a place that took me back to my childhood. It so happens that Carmel-by-the-Sea is similar to my hometown of Hermosa Beach, which means I felt right at home and nostalgic, as well as being transported back in time.

Carmel-by-the-SeaBoth are beach towns with lots of morning fog. Both are about 1-square mile big. Both are full of poets, painters, actors, writers and photographers.

plein air show in Carmel

A plein air painting juried exhibit in Carmel.

Carmel was incorporated in 1916; Hermosa in 1907. Both attract surfers, though the water is definitely colder in Carmel. And both have small cottages that were built generations ago sitting next to award winning, “to the lot’s edge” architectural wonders on every street. Don’t ask the prices unless you aren’t daunted by California real estate.

homes in Carmel

Old and New Carmel homes

As part of a bloggers’ weekend, I drove up to Carmel with the simple expectation that I would have a good time. Since so many of you are similar to me in that we like history and the personal touch, I’ll share some of the things I did and discovered that I think YOU might also enjoy.

Hofsas House
A gutsy, go-getter woman founded the hotel where we stayed – Donna Hofsas. In 1947 she lived in the cottage where I stayed while adding more rooms over the years. In a town that only allows two-story buildings, she talked the city planners into letting her build a 4-story hotel. How’s that for moxie? Then she commissioned the same female painter who did the fresco at Coit Tower, Maxine Albro, to paint several murals and other works at the hotel.

Hofsas House Carmel

The living room in Donna Hofsas’ original cottage.

Donna’s granddaughter now runs the bright pink Hofsas House  (as well as being on the city council), so ask her for the hotel’s secrets when you stay there. Hofsas House is on San Carlos Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue (see below to discover why I’m not giving you a numbered address).

bed in Hofsas House cottage

My cozy bed nook in the original Hofsas House Cottage.

On the details side, Carmel is more affordable than I expected. Even in high season, room rates range from about $150 – $275, with no stupid ***@** resort fee snuck in. Wifi, breakfast and parking are free.

Town Quirks
Did you know it’s illegal to wear heels higher than 2 inches in Carmel? You won’t get a ticket: the law was created in the 1920s to protect the city from lawsuits from people who tripped on the sidewalks. Great excuse to put on sensible shoes, eh?

Carmel shoe shop

These definitely count as sensible shoes. I should have gotten them.

The town has no street light or addresses. Walk around and you’ll notice that homes all have names. Keep in mind that the town was founded by creative types. They wanted a forested, European feel to the town, so bourgeois things such as number plates were verboten. Everyone has to go to the post office to collect mail. Certainly means all 3,700 inhabitants get to know each other.

home in Carmel

This is the “address” system in Carmel: all names; no numbers

For now, you can still have fires in certain locales on the beach too. This was exciting for me to hear, as we used to dig sand pits and have fires on the beach in Hermosa in the 60s. They were banned by the time I hit middle school.
No big box inns or stores are in Carmel either. It’s mom and pop all the way. Actually, the town is so friendly, even your dogs are welcome. Even in the inns, restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and shops, where you’ll spot water dishes and treats everywhere. Annnnnd, free parking.

dogs at the beach, Carmel

Dogs are welcome and encouraged in Carmel

Shopping, Hiking and Dining
Compliments of the Hofsas House, I received four Wine Walk Tasting tickets, each good for a wine flight at any of the 14 wine tasting rooms in town. Yup, I left Santa Barbara County’s wine country and landed in Monterey County’s. I also discovered two designer consignment shops, an Alice in Wonderland shop, a chocolate shop, and enough bakeries to keep my bread-baking, carb-loving self happy.

designer sunglasses in Carmel

I wanted these designer sunglasses from Foxy Couture soooooo badly

Alice in Wonderland store, Carmel

White Rabbit Store, where I bought a load of Christmas gifts. I was in this play as a child. And my late older sister played the White Rabbit. Very nostalgic store for me.

For lunch or a snack, I recommend Carmel Belle on San Carlos Street between Ocean and 7th (get the ginger apricot scone, stat!), or the Cheese Shop on Ocean and Junipero.

Carmel Belle, Carmel

Get the apricot ginger scone. And wine to go with it, of course.

For dinner, a friend and I went to Beach House Restaurant at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove (an 8-minute drive). It’s right on the beach, and our service and food were excellent. Plenty of options for vegetarians, too. FYI, the portions are huge, huger, hugest, so come hungry.

Pacific Grove

The view of some lovers from our seats at Beach House Restaurant at Lover’s Point

mud pie at Beach House Restaurant, Pacific Grove

I only ate half of this mud pie – the half above the plate.

Hiking is my meditation, so I walked along the beach, around town on the residential streets, Point Lobos, Big Sur, and about 20 different pull-out stops along Highway 1 as I drove south. On my next visit I might take one of the History Walks, though I could also be persuaded to do the art walks or food tours. I also want to hike along the Mission Trail Preserve. For those of you into birds, one of the secrets I learned from Carrie (co-owner of Hofsas House) is that the Carmel River is the place to be.

Final piece of good news that you will never think about in advance, but makes a big difference – Carmel-by-the-Sea is a safe place for women to walk alone, day and night. I went walking early in the morning, and felt at ease and quite peaceful. Even though I had my iPhone and Canon out (major tourist alerts), the locals out running and dog-walking all said hello. I truly had to resist the urge to say, “I grew up in a town that used to be just like this. Can we please chat about the good ol’ days?”

I want to go back soon. Preferably on a romantic getaway, but another girls’ getaway would work too.

by Alexandra Williams, MA

Photo credits: Alexandra Williams – Canon and iPhone

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