California's Central Coast: Carmel-So-Cool-By-The-Sea

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Carmel-By-The-Sea, one of California's small towns, uses that designation to let you know it's special and separate from the surrounding town of Carmel.

Photography by the authors

Carmel-By-The-Sea, one of California’s small towns, uses that designation to let you know it’s special. The name is, after all, quite a mouthful for a community of only 4,000 spread over one small square mile. But there is indeed something special about this little place that makes it worth a visit even though the drive is not exactly a quickie from downtown San Diego.

We’d heard about the Hofsas House from a travel writer living in Monterey. He said, ”I had friends recently who stayed in Monterey at the Best Western and then complained to me about it: ‘Parking was $17 every day, it offered no free breakfast, but a great view except down below where they put us!’

“I told ’em, ‘Why didn’t you ask me before you came. I’d have told you about the Hofsas House. It’s got free parking, free continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi and special deals for families. Fourth generation, obsessional German background so it all works!’”

So here we are, driving past the 1957 mural by Maxine Albro, better known for her Coit Tower mural in San Francisco. Albro who died in 1966 was a family friend. We read her painted welcome on the office door and check in — then hit the hay, suddenly aware the heavy construction traffic on California Highway 1 was tiring.

Next day we chatted with two of the generations, Doris Theis, (left in our image) the mother-in-law of Carrie Theis, the general manager and granddaughter of Donna Hofsas, the original owner. We ask Carrie about the history of the hotel and she responds with typical German efficiency by mentioning some facts first.

“We’ve been a family tradition for more than 60 years,” she says. “Of the 45 hotels in Carmel-By-The-Sea, only six have a pool. We’re one. We feel our slogan is sincere: ‘European elegance with the warmth of family hospitality.’ We are able to keep rates affordable because we have owned the property and the buildings for years. And some of our rooms are pet-friendly; some have wet bars, even kitchenettes. They are large, too, ideal for families.”

Carrie started at the age of eight working as a maid. Now, she says, she’s “getting a career in Spanish and maintenance.” She wants us to understand how small Carmel-By-The-Sea is. It’s an incorporated place of only one square mile and everything outside its perimeter is just Carmel. Carmel-By-The-Sea has its perception, its issues and the locals have fought hard to keep them and where they live still a small town.

None of the restaurants, most a bit pricey, are big chain, nor are there any national hotels here. There are no street lights (the Hofsas House offers flashlights in winter to guests if they’re going to be out late on foot). There are no obvious street signposts and no tree can be cut down if its diameter exceeds four inches. There are no neon signs, indeed, all signs must be wooden. We were told that because of the old world street lighting women can be ticketed if they wear high heeled shoes. We’d have thought our leg was being pulled but … this is Carmel-By-The-Sea, so we can’t tell.

Within limits, dogs, alcohol and bonfires are allowed on the beach south of 10th Street because the strong tides there clean the sand. The Carmel beach is rated by National Geographic as one of the top 10 walking beaches in the United States. We are told, too, that Carmel-By-The-Sea is always on the list of Condé Nast Traveler’s Top 10 Small Towns in the USA.

The metal family crest was constructed by Mr. Hofsas, himself. The slogan Otium cum Dignitate (leisure with dignity) is actually a quote from Cicero and recalls a time in California’s past when its immigrants brought the Classics in their suitcases. The room in our photograph is Number 45. It had a fireplace — and a cheese plate and wine set out to tempt us to the cheese tasting package. There are wine tasting and beach bonfire packages also available.

Enthusiastic walkers will love this small town where they can meander charmed by murals that show Carmel’s beginnings or wander intrigued by buildings that were, for example, the former pharmacy of the town’s sanatorium — with doctors’ offices above, their sign displaying the entrance.

Art is everywhere, after all the town started in 1910 as an art colony. There are said to be 45 hotels, 55 restaurants and 120 art galleries in this one square mile: an art gallery for every 34 residents! A somewhat dated article in the Los Angeles Times gives its 2004 perspective.

We go looking for Mario Simic for his take on all this. An artist who once owned nine galleries in upscale locations in the United States, he realized continuation on this path would impact his time to continue painting his series of “America the Beautiful.” He is standing beside one of his seascapes in the image above. Below stands his genial colleague Jim Seregos, in front of Muscular Poetry, by chainsaw artist J. Chester Armstrong (b. 1951), whose stunning tribute to the horse was carved from a single block of black walnut. Armstrong lives in Oregon so he never has to worry that he might run out of wood.

We ask Mario, “With all those galleries here what advice might you give art enthusiasts considering a purchase?”

“It’s really simple,” he says, “Buy what you like. Make sure you are comfortable with the gallery; it should provide the biography of the artist and willingly offer appraisals, and storage at no additional price and delivery. And under some situations be willing to negotiate price or show you how to save money on an acquisition such as a discounted price for a second purchase.”

We check out some of the antique artifacts at the local drug store and wander down the street to the Cypress Inn, which was established as the first dog-friendly hotel in town when it was bought in the mid-1980s by singer actress Doris Day, a celebrated dog lover. Posters of her movies bring back “It’s Magic” memories for visitors and a photograph of her standing beside Clint Eastwood, the onetime mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, surely recalls happier moments for this Hollywood sweetheart.

Even if you are not on the designated Carmel Wine Walk By-The-Sea of nine tasting rooms, your meander through town will take you past plenty of wine tasting opportunities.

We see a sign for the vineyards of Jack and Dawn Galante and stop there. (Galante’s great grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Carmel-By-The-Sea.) Galante produced its first bottle of wine in 1944 and now sells about 4,500 to 5,000 cases of wine annually.

“Galante has 30 acres of vines on a ranch of 700 acres — on top of a ridge where it’s 105 degrees by day and a perfect 50 degrees at night,” the spokesperson tells us. “We are known for our reds. We have an old world style: our wines have less sugar and less alcohol, which makes them more food friendly.”

All this talk of being “food friendly” makes us hungry. We head for Mundaka. A friend told us it had opened about four years ago and now had a great reputation for authentic cuisine as close to Spanish tapas as you’d find on the west coast of North America. He promised us fun, music and movies projected on the wall. It all came to pass. They were projecting Some Like It Hot the night we ate a great fish paella while we listened to a local guitarist.

Fandango was more elegant. We dined there with friends who say it is their preferred restaurant. “Why is it your favorite?” we asked Diane and Jack Potter. Jack, is a fastidious former vice president at Boeing.

”When you find a place,” he replies, “with good food, great atmosphere and superb service it makes you feel good. When you are young you explore other things, but when you are older and mature, you have a better idea of what you want — it’s the comfort factor. You know what to expect. We’ve never had a bad meal here!”

The restaurant offers a 12 oz New York Steak for $29.25, Salmon Filet for $28.95 and Petit Filet Mignon & Scampi for $29.95, but Jack whispers to the waiter and he brings us the special which comes with two small Maine lobster tails. Now we know why Fandango is their favorite restaurant.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.