Quaint seaside towns are not a rarity in California. And at first glance, Carmel-by-the-Sea, tucked into the Monterey Peninsula along the state’s Central Coast, checks all the usual Pacific beach-town boxes. It gets plenty of press for its finer-things approach to life, featuring year-round mild weather, a walkable downtown lined with upscale boutiques, a surprisingly sophisticated art scene, pet-friendly shops and restaurants, and an infectious, relaxed seaside vibe.
But Carmel-by-the-Sea has always done things a little differently. Since its beginnings as a planned community that found critical mass when San Franciscans sought refuge after the 1906 earthquake, Carmel has eschewed dramatic growth in favor of a carefully cultivated sense of collective living and wonder.
The Concentric Circles of Carmel-by-the-Sea
When the city founders imagined Carmel-by-the-Sea, the village at the heart of larger, unincorporated Carmel, they put community at its core. The small downtown district is encircled by small plots of residential land just large enough for a cottage and an abundant, overgrown garden. These two concentric circles are ringed by a third: undisturbed nature in the form of forest, coastline, and wild Pacific Ocean.
Discovery Without Addresses
For the uninitiated, exploring Carmel for the first time presents plenty of puzzling moments and inspires questions about some basic concepts. For instance: Do we really need addresses?
Because here’s the thing: Carmel-by-the-Sea doesn’t do street numbers. The first hints of it might come when you’re looking for your hotel and discover that the directions instruct you only as far as the street and cross streets. And then you head out to dinner and realize that, again, you don’t have a specific address but only a street and cross street.
Your first reaction might be irritation, but there’s something appealing about the idea that each destination will be preceded by a treasure hunt. And once you’ve embraced the opportunity to slow down a bit and weave discovery into your navigation, Carmel-by-the-Sea takes things a step further.
Passageways and Courtyards
In most cities and towns, the city meets the sidewalk. You can expect to walk down a block and see its bookshops and boutiques, its galleries and cafes, its museums and restaurants.
At first glance, Carmel-by-the-Sea appears to play along with this urban-planning convention. The one-square-mile central business district is laid out predictably, with numbered streets going east-west and named streets running north-south, connecting Highway 1 to the east with the vast Pacific at the western border of the town. The streets seem tightly lined with buildings, until you look a bit closer and realize that on each block, there’s at least one crack in the continuity.
Sometimes the passageways look like alleys, but more often, they resemble a side entrance or a private path to some tucked-away spot. Plain or adorned, welcoming and bright or mysterious and draped in shadow, these passageways require just one thing from you: curiosity.
Not every visitor is ready. Plenty of people wander by these unassuming entryways almost without seeing them. And still more see them but, trained by years of navigating more conventionally laid-out cities, walk right by them.
Take the plunge, though, and you’ll be rewarded. Yes, you may wander through restaurant dining patios and squeeze past the occasional trash-can-lined alleyway. But you’ll also discover beautiful secret courtyards, gardens brimming with flowers all year long, and shops and restaurants thriving in the hidden corners of this small town.
And once you get the hang of it, you realize that in this nesting doll of Carmel—the downtown within a residential ring within a circle of nature—there’s yet another Carmel, this lesser-traveled one of hidden paths and courtyards.
For all its conventional trappings—from courtyard cafes to upscale boutiques—Carmel-by-the-Sea dabbles in a surprising number of utopian small choices, creating an unfamiliarity akin to discovering yourself unexpectedly in a new country. It’s a spark that ignites that inspires you to see things anew, with a boosted sense of curiosity and wonder. And isn’t that the true gift of travel?
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Christine Sarkis visited Carmel-by-the-Sea as a guest of Visit Carmel. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.