Carmel: Storybook-by-the-Sea

Bird’s eye view of our late lunch: mussels and crunchy bread for one sister, juicy hamburger for another sister. The Blackberry dates this photo… it was indeed circa 2010.

Does your mouth just absolutely water at the scene above? Mine does. I can close my eyes and be back in one of those wooden chairs on the porch of California Market Restaurant at the Hyatt Highlands Inn overlooking the Big Sur coast. I will absolutely retire in this storybook setting, perfectly balanced between the Pacific ocean and the mountains. I may even pre-retire here… give myself a few decades as a buffer.. you know, just to get acclimated and situated and all that. Dear Future Husband, are you listening? Take cue from the above…. we are living in Carmel one day. So says Annalee.

On our second trip to the magnificent Big Sur coastline, my sister and I revisited a scene from our family’s first trip to the breathtaking Highlands Inn, a Hyatt Vacation Club Resort. I am a hotel snob, and this property is one of the most magical settings a discerning traveller will ever encounter.

Overlooking Yankee Point, California Market offers a perfectly relaxed setting for breakfast, lunch, or casual dining. The restaurant offers fresh, locally sourced seafood, produce, and poultry. A pot-belly stove ensures perfectly crisp bread, and being a luxury Hyatt resort, the service is well-trained, well-groomed, and attentive.

The most striking view is from inside the Highlands Inn lounge and their upscale restaurant, Pacific’s Edge. Floor to ceiling glass, tipped inward to further enhance the dramatic view and ambience of this large room, allows for 180 degrees of the most awe-inspiring vista you can imagine. The room literally juts out over the ocean, and when the waves are high and rough, as they were during our visit in January, the drama is incomparable. Have you ever read ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier, or seen the movie with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine? Wistful sigh… if those waves could talk, what would they be saying? Like a movie set, this room sets your eyes ablaze. I spent a few cozy winter afternoons in a big easy chair, pulled right up to the edge of the glass, holding a giant cup of the hotel’s famous hot chocolate between my hands. Dream a little dream at the Highlands Inn… this room will wipe your mind clean.

The rooms themselves are quite luxurious. As our stay at the Highlands Inn was all the way back in 2004, I cannot attest for any recent changes, but I remember our family’s suite to be large and spacious. Set on two floors so that each bedroom had an equal view, the master bedroom incorporated a large, open bathroom with glass walls. One could take a bath with a glass of wine at the water’s edge without missing a beat of the view. It was truly heaven, and I’m not one for overusing flowery descriptives.

The dramatic lounge at the Highlands Inn juxtaposed over the Pacific: one of the most architecturally stunning rooms I have ever had the pleasure of lounging in. It is easy to be entranced by the view through the tilted glass while relaxing with a mug of steaming hot cocoa.

The town of Carmel is a fairy tale come to life, and each visit revives a certain sense of quaint happiness from somewhere deep inside of me. Locals are cheerful, patient, appreciative people who do not take their picturesque village nor their jaw-dropping views for granted. If you wake up early enough and walk down to the beach at the end of the main road, (8/8:30 is early enough in this relaxed town), you will see an example of how residents take advantage of the dog-friendly, easygoing atmosphere. Neighbors venture down to the ocean with coffee mug in hand, letting their dogs run free in the sand. If this sight doesn’t bring a smile to your face, I don’t know what will.

Carmel-By-The-Sea is filled to the brim with art galleries, adorable inns, and cozy restaurants. One of the most famous B&B’s in the village is the Cypress Inn, also known as the Doris Day Inn, who is also known as one of my favorite actresses. It is a charming, quaint boutique hotel, and the lobby is adorned with old movie posters and fun knick-knacks. It welcomes dogs, upholding its reputation as one of the most dog-friendly home-away-from-homes. The rooms exude an old-world charm, and the Mediterranean style building is reminiscent of an Old Hollywood villa.

L’Auberge is also situated in a Mediterranean style locale, and being a Relais & Chateau hotel it is the definition of classic, fine charm and luxury, all wrapped up in a private courtyard in the heart of the village. It’s restaurant is highly regarded, as is the chef, Justin Cogley. Aubergine produces sophisticated, modern dishes with a tasting menu that changes daily. The property also offers cooking courses and well-reputed culinary adventures. It is easy to understand why L’Auberge is a choice spot for small, intimate weddings.

In the cozy winter months, the town feels like a well-kept secret, a hidden gem that wraps its arms around you and extends its warm hospitality regardless of the season. The summer months are touristy for obvious reasons: it is a beach town. Athough I have plans to visit in the warmer months, for now I have only two January trips to speak of. The winter charm is worth the trip, and I loved putting on a thick, cozy sweater and sitting by the fire in one of the village’s restaurants. Little Napoli and La Biciclette are among my favorites.

A still shot does not do the scenery justice in Big Sur, California. The dramatic twists and turns alongside the Pacific are most breathtaking first hand, or from the passenger seat of the car. (The driver must pay attention lest he/she make a fraction of a mis-turn and send you both plummeting into the ocean.)

On my second trip to Carmel, the one where I took the photos in this post, I was the driver held responsible for sustaining the car along the narrow cliffside highway, trying to make out the dark road in the pitch black darkness of the night. If I were to make one small criticism of this harrowing route, I would have to say it lacks nighttime lighting. Differentiating the road from the ocean was not an easy task. Day or night, however, the driver has to be extremely cautious. Locals whip around the curves like the cliff is merely a piece of wallpaper against the road and not an actual 100 ft drop. White knuckles are a by-product of this journey, but coming around those man-made hairpin turns and catching a glimpse of the waves crashing and the water bubbling against the rocks is well worth it.

A January hike in Big Sur’s Pfeiffer State Park. Narrow, rocky pathways jut out into the Pacific just as Big Sur’s infamous cliffside road does.

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