Escape to Carmel Valley

Written by Constance Dunn

Fine California wine, cuisine and pure natural beauty make for a leisured break from LA

When one lives in a getaway destination like Los Angeles, packed with palm trees, blue ocean and a big-city bustle, deciding on a short getaway can be tough: Where can you go that’s beautiful, but different?

Head north on Highway 101 for about five hours and you’ll have an answer: Carmel Valley. This friendly slice of Monterey County, set amidst the raw pastoral landscape of the Santa Lucia Mountains, is a tucked-away oasis for easy living. Brimming with sumptuous local food and wine, and miles of free-flowing natural scenery, it’s an ideal getaway when the goal is to refresh and revitalize. As you wind into the Valley, laced with roads that curve through rolling golden hills, one of the first things you notice is the light, gentle hues of melon and straw, which drew artists to the area in leagues during the early 20th century. (If you’ve read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Carmel Valley will be familiar as the place where Mac and the boys headed to hunt frogs for Doc.)

Soft, clean air and the friendliness of locals are other hallmarks of the area. “Carmel Valley Nice” is an apt phrase to describe the welcome ambiance, and maybe it has something to do with the weather. Unlike its foggy neighbors along the Monterey Peninsula, the Valley enjoys over 300 days a year of pure sunshine.

Where to Stay

Find luxe accommodations at Bernardus Lodge & Spa, an award-winning retreat of unstarched refinement spread across 28 acres. The warm sophistication of the place is created by design—pure au courant rustication, with blazing fireplaces, oriental rugs and fresh flowers—and there’s a skillful, inviting staff. Every guestroom has a fireplace and fresh-air balcony or patio, along with niceties like a butler’s pantry stocked with fruit, snacks and wines from Bernardus vineyards. All 73 guestrooms at Bernardus are ideal, so book based on personal taste. Rooms in the garden section offer enhanced quiet among the trees, while those near the spa are centrally located, just a few steps from the pool or treatment rooms. Rooms along the central lawn overlook the manicured croquet and bocce lawn, while accommodations in the vineyard area introduce eloquent views of the mountains, organic rose gardens and grapevines. A new addition to the property, unleashed this August, includes a dozen suites and a pair of two-bedroom villas.

If you’re headed to Carmel Valley for a family reunion or large gathering, consider Holman Ranch. The 400-acre private property spans horse stables, wine and olive vineyards and a faithfully restored 1928 Spanish stone hacienda at its center. A popular wedding destination for its poetic sprawl and epic views, the ranch, which includes 10 cottages built in the 1940s—where Charlie Chaplain, Clark Gable and other Hollywood types lodged when the place was a gentleman’s retreat—and can be rented for overnight group getaways for up to 38 guests. Day or evening events can accommodate up to 350 people.

Where to Dine

Lucia Restaurant is arguably the most elegant restaurant in town. Located at Bernardus Lodge & Spa, the airy, romantic spot features local treats like king salmon, grilled squab and Pacific gold oysters from nearby Morro Bay. Like many restaurants in the area, the menu shifts to make the most of local game seasons, seafood hauls and fruit and vegetable crops, but a staple at Lucia is the foie gras, a specialty of the restaurant’s award-winning chef, Cal Stamenov, whose Duck Burger is a house superstar that’s topped with a meaty slab of the delicacy and served on toasted brioche. (Tip: If the weather’s right, book an outdoor table next to the fireplace.) A former roadhouse for travelers ambling from Monterey to Tassajara—a hot-springs destination to the south—Will’s Fargo is the place to indulge in a 16-ounce Kansas City steak with seasonal sides like oyster mushrooms or white corn with cilantro and lime. The bacon wrapped meatloaf and the surf ‘n’ turf also get rave reviews, and the setting is pure throwback Western, complete with wood-beamed ceilings and a crackling fire.

For a casual bite, head to Baum & Blume. You can sit in the folksy boutique or the kitchen, where siblings Deric, Diane and Deborah churn out European-inspired dishes like grilled lamb chops and oysters burgundy. Expect the soups and salads to be flush with fresh produce— down to the just-picked cherries in the goat cheese salad.

Carmel Valley Village

Wine grape production in Monterey County rivals that of Napa Valley, and its bounty is condensed in Carmel Valley Village, a short stretch of Carmel Valley Boulevard. Considered the main drag, this blink-and-miss-it hub is where you’ll find over 20 tasting rooms, along with friendly galleries, leisured restaurants and eclectic home-and-garden boutiques. Tasting rooms include Holman Ranch, home of award-winning wines like .5 Degrees Brix (a crisp, sweetish Pinot Gris) and a fruit-drenched Pinot Noir, Hunter’s Cuvee. Head next door to Parsonage to sip their flagship Estate Syrah in a room adorned with folksy quilts made by co-owner Mary Ellen Parsons. Love lesser-known varietals? A few doors away you’ll find Chesebro, where selections include an Albarino (a white-grape varietal principally grown in northwest Spain) and a Grenache Rosé, both award winners. Since you’re in Pinot Noir country, a stop at the Jarman tasting patio is never a waste of time; their award-winning 2013 vintage is an earthy mashup of berries and light spice, with a faint overlay of oak from 10 months spent in French oak barrels.

Cowgirl Winery, housed in a redwood barn, is a destination unto itself, complete with rambling chickens and plenty of places to sit and enjoy a glass of Cowgirl White, a crisp blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Talbott Vineyards focuses on just two varietals—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both of which are sampled in the tasting area that includes a picnic section where guests can bring their own edibles. If wine’s not your thing, stop by Quail & Olive. The brainchild of cardiologist and Mediterranean-diet enthusiast Dr. Brabeck, the shop has a dozen olive oils on tap, all sourced from within a few hours driving distance. Once you taste the premium stuff— whether it’s the antioxidant-packed Doctor’s Blend or oils pressed with blood oranges, jalapeños and even vegan bacon—it’s hard to go back to standard-issue olive oil.


Other Places to Visit

Art lovers can head to Carmel Valley Art Association Gallery, a colorful space filled with juried paintings, sculpture, jewelry and more from local artists. Guys looking to replenish their wardrobes should stop by the Robert Talbott store, stocked with silk ties and patterned dress shirts priced staggeringly below retail. And if wine and clothes weren’t enough, local resident Robb Talbott is about to open a vintage motorcycle museum, Moto Talbott, in the Village. Kids can enjoy romping in the playground or green grass at Carmel Valley Community Park, or at dog-friendly Garland Ranch Regional Park, where hiking paths wind along the scenic Carmel River and austere remains of a 19th-century barn, complete with antique farm equipment. If you plan on a long hike, fill up your backpack with healthy treats at Earthbound Farm Organic. The farm stand, owned by the nation’s largest purveyors of organic produce, has a salad and juice bar, and guests are welcome to roam the gardens or picnic under the pine trees on loaner blankets. For more fresh-air relaxation, visit Refuge. The popular spot consists of fresh-air thermal pools, fire pits and lounging areas in a silent, no-cellphone environment. Guests cycle through a series of cold and warm pools, then recline in robes on Adirondack chairs or indulge in full-body massages. After a few days of exploring the quiet, refined pleasures of Carmel Valley, don’t be surprised to feel more elevated and rested than you’ve been in years. The place has a potent way of casting a spell on the senses, boosted by a timeworn tonic of healthful cuisine, easygoing atmosphere and lungfuls of sweet air.

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