CARMEL, Calif. -- In the 1920s it was a bohemian playground, where poets and lefty, artsy professors would converge to eat fish and drink wine on the beach.
Today, it 's "cottage country" for very wealthy Americans, just one square mile of some of the most charming, creative and costly abodes you'll ever find clustered in one place (think Toronto Island or Kits Beach, only more Grimms-fairy-tale-ish).
Even its name is charming, in a self-conscious kind of way: Carmel-by-the-Sea.
It comes with its own resident stars -- because stars can afford to live anywhere they want, and this beautiful chunk of coastal California is definitely star-worthy.
Clint Eastwood was mayor and still owns the Mission Ranch (and restaurant). Doris Day still lives there. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt had a place there, along with folks like sports announcer John Madden, Rupert Murdoch, Kim Novak, Betty White. I didn't see any of them while we were there, though we did take pictures of Eastwood's spread.
They say this little town of 4,000 has a median family income of more than US$80,000, and that's got to be due to all the retirees -- or perhaps their gardeners' incomes -- dragging down that number, because the wine lists in most of the restaurants we frequented boasted $1,000 bottles.
Let's just say we didn't get a whole lot of shopping in. But I still loved the place.
The beach boasts lovely fine-grained sand equal to our own world-renowned Grand Beach; the coastline views are jaw-droppingly spectacular; the town itself is so picturesque you want to stop and take photos at every rose bush; and it's friendly -- everybody says hello.
We actually discovered Carmel-by-the-Sea by accident. We were headed for a three-day golf school at a course in the valley about 12 minutes from Carmel. But the golf course's hotel rooms started at $300-plus a night, so we opted to stay in this little town and commute. We didn't once regret it.
SIX WAYS TO SPEND 72 HOURS IN ONE OF THE PRETTIEST PLACES IN NORTH AMERICA
Take a stroll: Down the soft white sand at the heart of this village, you'll encounter huge rolling waves, deep blue water, California surfer dudes and many inordinately chirpy dog-walkers. Go south and you end up at Scenic Drive, and it lives up to its name. Go north and you dead-end and have to retrace your steps -- or you can try doing what we did: scramble up a cliff and accidentally find yourself trespassing on a nicely manicured golf course. We wondered what the tents were for. Later, we discovered we'd just strolled down the 11th hole of Pebble Beach golf course, the site of the U.S. Open.
Tour: If you're a literary weenie, don't miss a chance to tour Tor House in Carmel, the romantic stone cottage and tower built by American poet Robinson Jeffers. I hadn't heard of him, either, but he was an icon in the '20s and '30s, and his fans today claim his fierce environmental stance keeps him contemporary.
All I know is, he built an amazing cottage and tower out of rocks from the beach, and the tour -- ours was given by his grandson, Lindsay Jeffers, who read Jeffers' poetry at each stop -- was truly moving. You can look out the window and imagine what this beautiful wild spot was before all the rich folks moved in. Jeffers actually planted thousands of the area's trees, unwittingly making it even more attractive to the hordes he later despised. Tor House is clearly a work of art (poetry is written on many walls), hard labour and love -- he built it for his wife Una and twin boys.
"Rachmaninov and Gershwin played on this," Jeffers said casually to our small group, making at least two of us jump back from his grandma's old piano. The tour costs $7 US.
Hike: Don't miss Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a surreally beautiful park of twisted cypress trees, crashing surf, frolicking seals and ocean-front trails where every few metres there's a photo op. I can imagine it would be crowded in the height of summer but, in late springtime, we had the place to ourselves and it was everything it should be. It costs $10 US per car to enter, or you can bike the three-mile route south from Carmel.
Eat: The restaurants are outstanding; we didn't hit a single dud. They all served warm homemade bread, great California salads, creative entrees, excellent local wine. I expect the high-flyers of Carmel wouldn't allow a bad restaurant to stick around long. But for one square mile, it's amazing how many great restaurants there are. We loved Casanova (www.casanovarestaurant.com) and La Dolce Vita.
Bike: We rented bikes in Monterey, the blue-collar town down the coast immortalized by John Steinbeck in Cannery Row (I'm sure Steinbeck would hate what they've done to the place: Steinbeck Deli? Steinbeck Plaza? Steinbeck shopping centre?) and cycled the famous "17-mile Drive" coastal stretch to Carmel and back one day. It was beautiful, flat, easy and really fun. About 42 kilometres later, after cycling past at least three famous golf courses, the iconic "lone cypress" of Monterey, and countless "scenic points," we were definitely ready to dine somewhere great again.
Shop: You just have to. They have great stores in Carmel, all high-end and all a lot of fun to visit, at least. I bought a beaded evening purse at a second-hand shop that was not surprisingly loaded with designer labels (hey, the rich folks have to clear out their closets sometime). It's called Mon Amie, on Ocean Avenue. I'm still waiting for somebody to ask me where I got it. "Oh, this little thing?" I'll say. "I bought it in Carmel."