Carmel-by-the-Sea is a 1 square mile village on the coast of California two hours south of San Francisco. It is where we stopped for two nights on our road trip down the coast from Santa Rosa (near Sonoma) to San Diego with our three small children, ages 4 and under.
The village has no street lights and no numbered addresses on the buildings. When we drove through one of the largest intersections in the village, I was surprised that there wasn’t a traffic light. Though it was clear that the lack of a traffic light was purposeful. All of the drivers were slow and patient. No one was in a rush. The drivers were enjoying people watching.
Because there are no numbered addresses, the US Post Office delivers mail centrally, and carriers like UPS or FedEx deliver packages based on information such as 5 houses down from the northwest corner of such and such streets. The level of detail in the architecture of the buildings makes you feel like this is a place you want to be. It was an artists’ colony in the early 1900s and many of the residents’ occupations were dedicated to the arts influencing the building designs. The village now has rules such as buildings must be designed around existing trees. If there aren’t enough trees new ones need to be put in.
We were all more than happy to just walk around. Our first stop, however, was the beach at sunset. The timing was serendipitous. When we arrived, there was excitement in the air as people scrambled to get to the top of the beach. Someone was playing the bagpipes. Unlike any other beach I have seen, the beach sloped down from the parking area in an enormous sand covered hillside. At the bottom of the sharp hill the beach opened up to hug Carmel Bay. People stood staggered on the steep sandy slope transfixed by the sun setting. It was our first California Coast sunset.
Us and all the strangers watched, joined together for a few long minutes by the raw beauty of the rugged coastline, the dipping sun and the humming of the bagpipes. As the last pixel of the sun fell below the ocean, the beach broke out in applause. The bagpipes crescendoed and stopped. The rawness of nature brought this group of people together in a way that I had never felt before, joined to these other humans by the etherealness of our planet spinning outside of our control. We stayed until the whole sky was an inky blue.
The next day we drove 15 minutes north to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium, touted as one of the best aquariums in the world. While it was very impressive for the adults, with the schools of thousands of fish fluttering in shimmering light being a highlight, it did not capture our children’s attention. It also happened to be extremely expensive ($60 for adults, 5 and under free) and did not allow you to bring in outside food, charging something like $7 for a regular donut. There is a kids playspace which was nicely done. But when asking the aquarium concierge for recommended things to do with kids, it’s not something she mentioned and we didn’t know it was there until the end. We left and ate our picnic lunch outside.
On the way back to Carmel we did the famous 17-mile drive along the coast inside the Pebble Beach community. It does require a fee if you are a nonresident, but it is a beautiful drive. You see glimpses of the Pebble Beach golf courses, but also the Del Monte Forest of Cypress trees, the rugged coastline which changed every time we rounded another bend, and the famous Lone Cyprus Tree.
At our hotel we spent time at the pool and ate dinner at a nearby pizza place. The server offered the boys raw pizza dough to play with like playdoh while waiting for dinner (ingenious!). With the sky being overcast the magic was not at the beach, but the slow drives in and around town were quite scenic.
On our last day we played on the steep sandy slope of the beach. Then we stopped at a bakery in town in walking distance from the beach. We meandered and looked for the buildings which we called gingerbread houses for the fairytale exterior and thatched roofs. With the three kids in tow we did not brave any restaurants, but I’d love to come back and try a few out including La Bicyclette, which caught my eye. From there we reluctantly hopped in the car and began the next leg of our four day journey stopping in Santa Barbara. This is definitely high on my list of places to revisit.
Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea:
- Sunset at the Beach
- Wander the town
- Carmel Bakery
- 17-Mile Drive
Things not Recommended in Carmel-by-the-Sea:
- Monterey Bay Aquarium: fine for adults, not recommended for families. I’d recommend spending more time at the beach or walking around town.
What I would do Next Time:
- La Bicyclete: restaurant in the village
- Point Lobos State Natural Preserve