Carmel-by-the-Sea: Classic, Cosmopolitan, Cool

Carmel, CA…The weather has remained relatively unaffected by the development of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Routinely, in the 100 years since its inception, the sun has risen over the verdant Carmel Valley, tracing its way along an arc toward the sea and burning off the veil of fog to reveal the coastal village where, like Brigadoon, its inhabitants will have yet another day.

By evening, the sun surrenders to the sea, sinking into the horizon and, following her signature green flash, is extinguished behind a black curtain settling upon the scene. Coastal cottages disappear into the anonymity of night, betrayed only by the glow from the hearth, the lamp, the flame of a single wick in the window.

Across that fine arch of white sand reaching from the rocky coves of Point Lobos to what is now the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course; over what is now a paved expanse offering a “Scenic Drive” along the coast; above the hills clad with pine groves and quaint cottages or mansionettes masquerading as cottages, the sun still rises and sets upon a place of legendary beauty, a place that was, and for many remains, Bohemia.

It once was no more than a stretch of coastline along the Northern California border. Arguably the most spectacular stretch, the evidence of wild forces remains in the gnarled cypress and rough, craggy cliffs whose fall was softened by native foliage clinging to the rocks en route to an unforgiving sea. The ocean, an aged chameleon whose fickle moods alternate between fits of rage and seductive stillness, never warns nor explains the beating or bathing she offers the shore. Don’t turn your back on her.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a place where legends are made and much is made of them. It is a town that attracts a diversity of guests and claims as her own, those who come to understand who she is and what she represents. These are the residents who make their homes in the cottages provided by those who have come before, who do their best to pay homage to their early traditions and visions by maintaining the face of Carmel if, perhaps, modifying the interiors to suit the contemporary lives they lead behind the façade.

It all began with a name it has endeavored to live up to ever since 1603 when Spanish explorer Vizcaino anchored in the bay he named Monterey and, upon further investigation, came upon a beach at the mouth of a river, which he called Carmelo in honor of the three Carmelite friars traveling with him. Nearly two centuries later, in 1771, Father Junipero Serra established Mission San Carlos de Borromeo on a hill overlooking the mouth of Carmelo. Eventually known as the Carmel Mission, it was the jewel of Serra’s nine missions, the heartbreak of his ministry, and his final resting place.

At the turn of the last century, little about the Carmel homescape rivaled the appeal of the magnificent seascape. That is, until James Franklin Devendorf and Frank H. Powers ordered the planting of 100 cypress trees in the barren potato patches along the coast and invited Michael J. Murphy to come to Carmel to build homes. Murphy built his first house in 1902 around the tent in which his family was living. Today, “The First Murphy House” is a “Welcome Center” in town.

Soon after, Hugh Comstock built his bride a dollhouse. Neither an architect nor a carpenter, he fashioned a 400-square-foot cottage so quaint, so endearing, so different from the usual board-and-batten summer homes that the demand for Comstock homes for “under $100” made the young man a legend and the hamlet by the sea, a destination.

One of the best-known tributes to Carmel charm, The Tuck Box restaurant on Dolores St. exemplifies the unique Comstock design and has, over the years, become legendary for its practice of serving “high tea.”

The appeal of Carmel-by-the-Sea reaches an international audience, reflected in the mélange of foreign languages that echo along the tree-lined streets once destined never to be paved in a village unexpectedly cosmopolitan yet decidedly quaint.

Carmel once and for many is still a bohemian haven, a mecca for artists and a refuge for writers and intellectuals. It is the setting that inspired Robinson Jeffers to build his tower from which to write poetry about the splendor of waves against a rugged shore; whose spectacular sunsets illuminate the secrets of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” at Point Lobos; and which served as a stage for the lives and times from which Jack London and George Sterling composed their best works.

It also is the cultural hub of the area, supported by the Carmel Bach Festival, Carmel Music Society and the Monterey County Symphony, much of which take place in the spectacular Sunset Center, whose recent renovations celebrate its graceful, Gothic-inspired presence; as well as the Pacific Repertory Theater, the Monterey Jazz and Monterey Blues festivals and The Carmel Art Festival.

Ocean Avenue is both the entrance and the heart of the Carmel shopping district, whose arteries are flanked with specialty shops and restaurants, art galleries and antique shops. The town is a walkable labyrinth of continental ambiance closely guarded by local residents and city government.

No fast-food restaurants, neon signs or parking meters clutter the landscape; although ice cream and high-heeled shoes have been “permitted.” To further maintain the provincial charm of the one-mile-square village, the nature of merchandise is as closely monitored as the zoning regulations that separate beach and business by one-half mile. No boardwalks, no bikini-clad shoppers. The manicured gardens and Aspen-style architecture create an ambiance as enticing as the upscale shops at Carmel Plaza, The Barnyard and the Crossroads shopping centers of Carmel.

Everything the postcard promised is true. Cerulean blue water beneath a rugged coastline, white sandy beaches and wooded trails. A lone Cypress. Grand estates and gingerbread cottages. And once in awhile, Clint.