Tuesday 13 October 2015

Road Trip Diary: Charming Carmel

Day 55
San Francisco to Carmel
Saturday 27th June 2015

After 3 days of San Fran life, we couldn't wait for some peaceful time away from the hustle and bustle of the city and it's streets.

We only spent one night in Carmel on our last visit so this time we booked two nights in Carmel-by-the-Sea and two nights in Carmel Valley, a 25 minute drive from the coast. We decided to split our time because Carmel (the coast one) is beautiful but quite small. Spending 4 nights there would be a bit much so we decided to go inland.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a funny place, full of vacationing rich Americans meandering around quaint fairytale cottages, shops filled with designer junk and a hundred galleries flogging very average-looking art. The only thing that most people know about Carmel is that Clint Eastwood was the Mayor for a while and this odd little fact still draws a lot of people to the town. He's the ex-owner of the Hog's Breath Inn, a pub & restaurant decked out in wooden mock-tudor style decor. It feels a bit down-at-heel considering it's posh neighbours, but serves decent drinks and has a great outdoor terrace.
Carmel is chilled but touristy, fellow Americans love the chocolate box cottages and scenery and it has some great bars and restaurants.

Before our dinner that evening we visited the Cypress Inn, a beautiful hotel and bar co-owned by none other than the inimitable Doris Day. We drank a couple of expensive cocktails in their garden and lazed in the sun for half an hour before heading off for food.

I will tell you now, if you EVER visit Carmel (either Valley or By-The-Sea) the best place for dinner is Dametra Cafe and Tripadvisor and it's thousands of reviews agree with me. The food is Greek, the music is live and loud and interactive and the ambience is warm, hugely friendly and just thinking about the whole thing almost brings a tear to my eye. We experienced it four years ago without making a reservation, where we just managed to get a table. Four years later and the place is a lot more popular so I was so relieved to have made a reservation a few days before. If you're going to go, my only advice would be to book as soon as you can and order the moussaka, you will not regret it and you will cry thinking about it a few months later.

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Day 56
Sunday 28th June 2015

Too much red wine and one of the most beautiful spots in coastal California? Oops.
We drove over to Point Lobos feeling a bit delicate but the fresh air and the views soon perked us up.
The car park area was full as we got there a little after midday so we parked along the road with loads of other people and walked treacherously past the traffic to the entrance- at least we saved the $10 parking fee! Top tip: get there early! 

Point Lobos is essentially a rocky outcrop, surrounded by a forest and even though it was quite overcast when we visited, it was stunning. The colours and patterns in the rock, the hundreds of seals and otters we spotted and the views from the cliffs were all pure magic and very soothing for a couple of hungover idiots.

We headed back after a picnic lunch in the forest and grabbed some ludicrously good salted caramel ice cream from the Carmel Bakery - with scoops so big we had to ask for bowls and spoons - and watched the sun set over the fairytale rooftops from our balcony.

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Day 57
Monday 29th June 2015

Monterey Bay Aquarium is not cheap but it is worth it. Sadly, because it's so popular, discount codes (like I mentioned in my last post) are hard to find so we paid full price but not once whilst we were there did I regret the $40 we each spent on tickets.
It's huge so make you sure allocate at least half a day to it, if not a whole day so you have time to wander the shops and the wharf.
We spent most of our time lurking around the sea otter tank because sea otters are my spirit animal. I'd be perfectly content lying on my back in the sea, whacking shellfish against a rock all day and holding hands with my fellow furry friends to make sure we didn't float too far from each other. They are incredibly beautiful creatures, elegant, dexterous and very playful. We'd seen them as tiny specks of fur out at sea along our coastal drives but seeing them up close was fantastic. Ed managed to sneak off and buy my birthday card from the gift shop and at the end of August, after being home for just over a month, he surprised me with a 'There are plenty of fish in the sea, but I otter be with you' card which made my heart melt and ache to be back there.

After some lunch at a forgettable tourist restaurant in the wharf, we left Monterey and the Aquarium to head inland to Carmel Valley and to a hotel I'd been really looking forward to, the retro Blue Sky Lodge. As we pulled up I spotted that the pool was empty and being repaired and the whole place looked a lot more tired than in their photos - pretty disappointing. The check-in staff didn't seem to care much so we asked for our money back and hopped back in the car and onto Expedia to see if there was anything else available in the area. It was late in the afternoon, it was over thirty degrees and we just wanted a bed to crash onto and a pool to cool off in. Luckily, we spotted the Country Garden Inn just down the road and pulled off to see if they had any vacancies. I'm not sure if it was our charming British accents or the wad of dollars in my hand but the proprietress gave us a big suite with a discount which ended up being cheaper than the previous motel. Big win.

For dinner, we drove to the local Safeway and bought fresh baguettes, tomatoes, cheese, pickles, chocolate and wine and sat outside our room in the warm evening sun playing cards and drinking until the moon and the bats came out to play.

Day 58
Tuesday 30th June 2015
We rose early to take advantage of the buffet breakfast and realised that we had the pool all to ourselves so made the most of it by spending the majority of the day lounging next to it. Carmel Valley is a beautiful place, full of wineries and rolling, parched hills. It's quiet and has a subdued community feel but decent restaurants are only a short walk away so it almost feels like one big resort.

We peeled ourselves from our sun-loungers just long enough to find some lunch and explore the main shopping area where, somehow, I managed to find a hidden thrift store with vintage treasures and we grabbed lunch at a grocery shop where the checkout guy though we were French, much to our amusement. Americans are funny.
After all that excitement we headed back to the sanctuary of the pool where we napped and read and ate for the next few hours. A holiday within a holiday.

The Inn offered free wine and evening snacks every night so we wandered up to reception and had a chat with the hotel owners about where to eat that evening, drank a couple of glasses of free local wine and browsed the menus for some restaurants- such a good idea to promote nearby businesses.
After recommendations from both the owners and another vacationing couple, we decided on Café Rustica. It was brilliant - not too expensive and with a huge open kitchen and traditional stone pizza oven that churned out fresh pizzas at a rate of knots. It was packed so we were lucky to get a table and it just showed how popular it was with the local community to be that busy on a Tuesday evening! We walked back along Highway 1 feeling full to the brim, a little tipsy and excited for our drive to San Luis Obispo and the legendary pink and resplendent Madonna Inn.

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