I've been fortunate enough in my career and life to travel to some extraordinary locales, but hands down my favorite place to visit is Carmel, California. Perhaps it's the magical village Carmel-by-the-Sea, the expansive Carmel Valley lush in green, or the gorgeous 17-Mile Drive through Carmel to Pebble Beach and Monterey. It's one of those rare magical places, perfect for romantic getaways and family travel. We are fortunate enough to have done both! Our first vacation together as a couple was to Carmel. We drove up the PCH from Los Angeles, stopping for lunch in Malibu and at a beautiful little winery in Los Olivos. Not only is the drive breathtaking, there are so many treasures to see along the way! Now as a family, we make the road trip a few times a year, to unwind and enjoy.
When looking for hotels in Carmel, no one beats Carmel Valley Ranch. Located on a massive property in Carmel Valley, it boasts the chicest lodge style accommodations. For families, I highly recommend the Hilltop Garland Suite. High in the trees, with a separate front room, great bath with an enormous tub, roomy master bedroom with a fireplace and wraparound porch, it truly is a magical place in the trees. If it's a romantic weekend without the kids, definitely go for the Vineyard Suite with Tub. It's actually the best deal, and you get a huge outdoor tub with the best views of the Valley. Pour some lavender salts in the bath, and watch the mist float across the mountains. The best part of the property is the separation of the adults-only pool and giant hot tub on top of the hill near the suites, and the family activity center at the bottom. A perfect way to cater to what style of vacation you are on. There is plenty for the family to do at CVR: Kids nights, S'mores cooking out every evening by the fire pits, having a picnic on a table tucked between the vines, hiking, honeybee activities, yoga classes and more. Don't be surprised when you walk around the property to see your share of turkeys and sweet deer in the fields!
Take the kids down to the activities center for activities and babysitting and head down to Carmel-By-The-Sea. This quaint little village peppered with fairy tale houses is a perfect date night spot. Cultura is one of my favorites if you are looking for an adventurous and high-end Oaxacan-Mexican dining experience. Very cool ambiance, friendly waitstaff, excellent Mezcal cocktails, and divine bites. The menu is limited if you are picky, however you can't beat their table side queso and succulent skirt steak. Don't leave your whimsy or wallet at home, as this is a pricey evening out, but totally worth the splurge.
For a more traditional evening out (and my husband's personal favorite) head over to The Mission Ranch Restaurant, located at the Mission Ranch Hotel, formerly owned by Clint Eastwood and a must do on your Carmel/Monterrey list. This beautiful property overlooking a quiet inlet sea, is dripping with ease and beauty without an ounce of pretension. Solid wine list, classic entree options (scallops are my go to!), and gorgeous view make this restaurant an easy date night for romance. One of the very first times I looked at my now husband's eyes and thought "Oh yes... I could love you for the rest of my life." was at The Mission Ranch Restaurant. We took a spontaneous trip from Texas where we lived at the time to Carmel. We really picked it by chance and I am so glad we did.
Take a day to explore Carmel and Monterey, and start it off with a scrumptious California Cowboy breakfast at The Wagon Wheel, right off Carmel Valley Road on your way into town. They have the best biscuits and gravy (after my Mother In Law's of course!) and some crazy concoction of pinto beans, poached eggs, and toast that I swear works like wonders for your morning cravings. Service and the coffee are always warm. They do get a little crowded on weekends, and make sure you have cash.
While continuing into town, I highly recommend you take the famous 17 mile drive. This expansive scenic road through Pebble Beach and into Monterey is quite breathtaking, with fun historic stops along the route! It's a small fee to enter ($10) which goes to preserving the grounds and coastline, and totally worth it for the views alone. You get a brochure to follow all the highlights along the route and great views of the coastline. If you get lucky, you may even spy a humpback whale! Our son had a blast tasting the salty breeze.
If you need a fun (and free!) kid activity, head over to The Dennis the Menace playground in Monterey! A real train, huge bridge, plenty of slides and swings for all ages. There's plenty to do in Monterey, including the famous Monterey Aquarium (which is great but pricey), as well as The Wharf where you can find great eats, and even a classic car show on the weekends. Finish off your day exploring Monterey with a ice cream treat from Revival Ice Cream. Owner Ron Mendoza, a James Beard-nominated pastry chef, delves out incredible flavors in this cute little downtown Monterey shop that are delectable enough for your toughest sweet tooth, and sophisticated enough for mom and dad! I love how creative they get with locally sourced herbs and toppings. My favorite was definitely the "Bee's Knees' with creamy honey comb candy and swirl!
If you have the time and adventurous nature, I do suggest flying into LAX, renting a convertible and making the drive up. The longer route through Malibu, Santa Barbara, Big Sur is quite fun and you can make a few stops along the way. Even if you venture inland for a little quicker jaunt, you can pause at some pretty cool little towns like Los Olivos, Solvang, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, and Paso Robles. Stop for the night at the popular Madonna Inn Motel in San Luis Obispo, or take a break at one of Central Californias amazing vineyards. On two trips we have stopped at the super kitchy and whimsical winery and sculpture garden Sculpterra in Paso Robles. Grab a lunch at Red Scooter Deli in Paso Robles square, and head 15 minutes inland to the winery. I suggest buying a bottle of their Viognier in the tasting room and heading outback to their sculpture garden, where they have games and giant kaleidoscopes. We love how kid and dog friendly they are, not to mention laid back and they serve a great Viognier at a decent price, not always easy to find!
Every time we are here, my husband and I dream of living in Carmel. The weather is perfect, and there is something magical about the vibe in Carmel; the restless sea, rolling green valleys, magical fairy-tale cottages. No wonder HBO's "Little Big Lies" chose Monterey as their backdrop. Nights do get cool, even on lovely Summer days, so make sure to pack a jacket and cardigan. Dress is pretty casual, and people are very friendly, so come with an open heart and exploring feet!