Back when California was still part of Mexico, the ranch lands were bestowed to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmel. By 1928 it had changed hands several times, and a hacienda was constructed. Nicknamed “Hidden House,” it was a hideaway for Hollywood celebrities. You can see many pictures of them on the walls of the still-standing building.
In the 1940’s it was expanded to include guest rooms and one of the first swimming pools in Carmel Valley. Fast forward to 2006, and the current owners brought it back to its original splendor, while adding vineyards, olive groves and wine caves.
Wine and Food
On our tour we got to taste a number of their estate wines, which have been rightly listed by National Geographic as one of the “world’s 10 best wines.” What appealed to me was their organic, high end Jarman varietals because they were created to honor co-owner Hunter Lowder’s mother, with a portion of proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.
My dad, a former wine connoisseur, would love their estate wine club. Besides getting exclusive access to some of their limited-production wines (which I found out means you cannot buy them elsewhere), club membership is also one of the ways to gain access to the ranch grounds, events and guest cottages. My dad also would have loved the offsite Will’s Fargo restaurant (which is owned by the same family) where we got to have dinner as their special guests. I had a favorite waiter. He noticed I was a bit cold on the outdoor patio and brought me a folded up tablecloth to put around my shoulders. I think he liked me best!
Even if you care nothing for wine, you’ll still want to stay on the property. Weddings, retreats, special events, (we were a group of 14 bloggers, though the property can accommodate 38 overnight guests), or corporate dinners are all options for staying overnight in one of the 10 “cabins.” I have it in quotation marks because my so-called cabin had a kitchen, living room, and two separate bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. It was divine, actually.
After touring the wine caves, we got a thorough tour of the – are you ready for this – game room, carriage house, great room, conference room, chapel, lawn and veranda, garden courtyard, rose patio, and stone terrace. We were also given complete access to the swimming pool.
We had spent the previous night in Carmel-by-the-Sea, which was a few miles away, yet completely different. I was trying to decide which place I preferred, and came to the conclusion that they were tied for first because both places were amazing in their own right. The main thing they had in common was superior hospitality.
If you want scenery, take Highway 1 along the California coast instead of the inland freeway choices. After leaving Holman Ranch, I wasn’t in a hurry to get home, so I took this route for the first time in quite a few years. Even though it was foggy for much of the drive, I managed to get some great photos, and go on a few hikes. One warning – your nose will let you know when you’re at the elephant seal rookery just north of Hearst Castle.
Text and photos: Alexandra Williams, MA
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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