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Carmel's charms: guaranteed to make a tourist's day

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 1986

Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.

Three months ago, who would have guessed that Carmel-by-the-Sea, that sleepy square mile of dollhouse architecture appealing largely to the romantic-weekend crowd, would become a political hotbed attracting the attention of everyone from London's Daily Mail to Doonesbury? Not us. And possibly not even film star Clint Eastwood, who, despite his run in today's mayoral election, was nowhere to be seen during our three-day visit here back in January.

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Not that we didn't repeatedly cruise by the Hollywood actor's famous eatery, the Hog's Breath Inn, in hopes of spotting the rangy about-to-be candidate.Missing him was not the kind of news to make our day.

All hopes of stargazing apparently quashed, we turned our attention to Carmel's more traditional charms -- a combination of physical beauty and Sybaritic comforts that, to some, constitutes a credible version of Elysian fields but to others is overpriced, cloying cuteness.

After zigzagging through Big Sur in a wind-lashing rainstorm, we arrived in this fairy-tale town with its gingerbread homes.

Wedging our Japanese subcompact into the ranks of German sedans and dropping our luggage at a 1920s Spanish-style inn, we were soon ensconced in one of Carmel's many caf'es dining on angel-hair pasta by candlelight.

Not that we were the first to discover these soothing, upscale charms.

Carmel is the municipal jewel-in-the-crown of the Monterey Peninsula, which curls into the Pacific some 120 miles south of San Francisco. As a result, the city plays host to its share of the area's annual 3 million tourists, many of whom arrive for the AT&T golf tournament in January, the Carmel Bach Festival in July, and the Monterey Jazz Festival in September.

Such popularity, however, has frequently raised the hackles of Carmel's 5,000 or so residents. City ordinances are among the nation's strictest, banning franchise outlets and take-out restaurants.

In 1929, city fathers passed the none-too-inviting resolution declaring Carmel ``primarily, essentially, predominantly a residential city.'' This year, the antidevelopment controversy spilled over into the mayoral election.

Never mind.

What draws the resident to this pristine seaside village also draws the weekend visitor.

The town's appeal is essentially twofold (or three- fold, if your golf handicap is up to par). The downtown area is a shopper's and gourmet's paradise. A crisscross of quaintly named streets, Carmel is rife with excellent restaurants, inns, and art galleries.

Here you can go on a gastronomic and retail splurge, loading up the trunk of the Jaguar or BMW with gourmet chocolates, hand-thrown pottery, Victorian antiques, and suede sweat shirts.

You can also gaze at the Polaroid photos taped to the real estate office windows to see if you can really afford Carmel.

Although Carmel was initially settled by 18th-century Spanish missionaries and blossomed into an artists' colony 100 years later, the city now appeals largely to the affluent.

The community that originally fueled the imaginations of photographer Ansel Adams, novelist John Steinbeck, and poet Robinson Jeffers is currently home to those who can afford it -- the well-heeled resident who can plunk down $300,000 for a typical Carmel bungalow, or those weekend visitors who demand first-class dining and accommodations.

While the two groups operate in apparently grudging coexistence, what unites them is this manufactured sense of exclusivity.

Everywhere, Carmel reflects this refined atmosphere. There are no traffic lights, parking meters, or garages in town; street and commercial signs are unobtrusive and of the non-neon type; no building is over three stories.