As far as Disney movies go, Snow White is a dud. Sorry. Not sorry.
The seven dwarves’ cottage – the one Snow White broke into illegally and took a nap in (weird) – was really the only part I enjoyed. It became the quintessential whimsical fairytale cottage, despite the shortcomings of the rest of the film.
That is, perhaps, why the idea of Carmel for a weekend away was so utterly enchanting. Its downtown square is full of those magical cottages, but with five-star restaurants, quaint inns and wine tasting rooms inside rather than seven miners living together.
Unlike Snow White, however, Carmel offered so much more to love than just cottages. The walkable waterfront oasis and sister inland region are equal parts charming, elegant and eclectic. So, despite its looks, comparing it to The Little Mermaid or Toy Story might be more appropriate.
But that is for you to decide.
First, it is important to note that there are kind of two Carmels.
Located on California’s central coast between Monterey and Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea – often just called Carmel – is the ultra-walkable seaside city littered with wine tasting rooms, restaurants and cozy inns where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor. Carmel Valley, on the other hand, is technically a census-designated place that lies inland from Carmel by 13 miles. Warmer and greener, Carmel Valley boasts wide open spaces, dozens of vineyards and sprawling resorts.
A quaint yet chic escape for artists, authors and auteurs for more than 100 years, the architecture in Carmel is a cross between Tudor Revival and Spanish Romantic Revival, dotted with nearly two dozen “Comstocks,” a k a Snow White cottages, designed by Hugh Comstock in the 1920’s.
Named among Travel + Leisure’s “Top 15 Cities in the United States” in 2020, there are more than 40 charming inns in and around the heart of the city, notably The Hideaway and The Getaway. Located downtown just, The Hideaway features just 24 rooms and suites with gas fireplaces and cozy nooks tailor-made for romance as well as daily sunset happy hour gathering. Just outside of the main downtown and steps from the Pacific Ocean is The Getaway, similarly small with just 34 rooms and suites and dog friendly, the boutique hotel offers ample outdoor space, bikes to explore the area and a host of amenities for your four-legged friend including plush dog beds and specialty treats.
Each of the city’s accommodations is smart to offer a direct path by foot to Ocean Avenue. The road is aptly named because, if taken west, it ends on the sandy white Carmel Beach. A popular beach for surfers, one of the coolest things to do while in town beyond hopping on a board or enjoying a quick dip is to walk, jog or ride a bike along the Scenic Bluff Path, a safe garden-lined trail along the coast that offers views of nearby Pebble Beach and Point Lobos.
Ocean Avenue also leads to all of the action in the downtown square including historical and art walking tours; dozens of boutiques, antique stores and galleries along cobblestone paths; and more than 60 coffeehouses, bakeries, pubs, bistros and restaurants from which to choose. Of particular note are Seventh and Dolores, a buzzy and sophisticated fine dining option where the chefs cook fresh seafood from nearby Monterey Bay and 28-day dry-aged steaks in a glass-encased kitchen; La Bicyclette, an Old World-inspired bistro one might find in the European countryside; and Alvarado Street Brewery & Bistro, which excels at offering California coastal cuisine paired with its own brews. Beyond culinary delights, there are also nearly 20 wine tasting rooms tucked into the downtown, including Caraccioli Cellars, Holman Ranch, Scratch Wines, Manzoni Cellars, Hahn Family Wines, Albatross Ridge, Galante Vineyards and Silvestri Vineyards.
While Carmel has the tasting rooms, Carmel Valley has the vineyards. And though just a 20-minute drive inland, Carmel Valley feels a world away from its seaside sister. In stark contrast to intimate Carmel, Carmel Valley is big and bold with mountain ranges, golf courses and riparian woodlands as far as the eye can see as well as resorts and ranches spread over several hundred acres. Quail Lodge & Golf Club, for example, is set on 895 acres in the heart of Carmel Valley and offers an 18-hole championship golf course, tennis courts, pool, fitness center and restaurant. Nearby all-suite Carmel Valley Ranch sits on 500 lush acres adjacent to the 4,400-acre Garland Ranch Regional Park so guests may enjoy easy access to miles of scenic hiking and can explore gardens, and other natural wonders bordering the resort’s Pete Dye-designed golf course.
Most ranches and resorts are just minutes – albeit via car given the terrain – from more than 20 full-on vineyards and wine tasting rooms.
The biggest must during a weekend in the region is, without a doubt, Folktale Winery & Vineyards. Folktale, located on the land that once served as Chateau Julien Wine Estate, opened its doors in 2015. Named because its lauded winemaker Gregory Ahn and his team believe every great bottle of wine tells a story, the vineyard boasts a massive garden, barrel room, stage, indoor and outdoor tasting spaces, games, and even a restaurant in addition to the actual planted vines and working vineyard operations.
If you have the time, plan for an afternoon at the winery, including lunch in the garden. I especially love the menu as it has some really playful wine pairing suggestions with every single dish, even the starters. I am a particularly big fan of the patatas bravas with fermented chili oil paired with the 2018 Mission Ranch Pinot Noir; the Niman Ranch meatballs with tomato sauce, ricotta and parmesan paired with their 2018 cabernet; and the wood-fired truffle carbonara pizza with egg yolk and sage paired with the 2018 reserve pinot noir.
Less 10 minutes from Folktale, Joullian is also well-worth the visit. At first blush Joullian looks more gothic cathedral than vineyard. As you get closer, however, the rest of the vineyard reveals itself. Onsite, enjoy tours, barrel tastings, wine tastings and self-catered picnics. Joullian also happens to be just a mile or two from a handful of other great wine spots, including Cowgirl Winery and Bernardus Winery.
The culinary bar is set just as high in Carmel Valley as Carmel as well, thanks to Kathy’s Little Kitchen, Corkscrew Café, Valley Kitchen, Roux and Lucia.
Clearly a visit to these two regions that share one name has endless possibilities.