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

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.

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.

In addition, all Carmel traffic is routed around the thousands of pine and cypress trees originally planted at the turn of the century for flood control and today jealously guarded by computer.

When these municipal stringencies are coupled with the picture-perfect architecture, the effect can be slightly too perfect.

But don't let this deter you.

If you get tired of strolling San Carlos and Mission Streets, peeking in shops for that new Rolex watch, a $40 necktie, or the giant oil paintings of the crashing-surf variety (there is lot of art here, but not a lot of sophisticated art), by all means quit these metropolitan delights for those of Mother Nature.

Follow Ocean Avenue due west, and you leave the downtown area and come to the residential neighborhood, where, scattered among the six-figure houses are such historic homes as a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house and Tor House, poet Robinson Jeffers's former digs.

Beyond these few blocks lies the oft-photographed coastline -- the cobalt Pacific crashing on the boulder-strewn shore.

The town's main beach is a fantastic curving swath of white sand that even in the dead of winter is peppered with young beach boys on boogie boards wet-suited surfers, hand-holding couples, and swirls of screeching gulls.

After strolling the hard-packed sand in the brilliant January sunshine, we clambered up the cliffs for a free, ringside view of the tournament being held at Pebble Beach, one of a dozen top-ranked golf courses that punctuate the craggy, wind-swept peninsula.

That view just whetted our appetite for a closer inspection.

Handing over our $5, we drove off on the 17-Mile Drive, that famous route wending through the wealthy Pebble Beach community, including the natural pine and cypress Del Monte forest, and hugging a rocky coast that is one of the most photogenic in the world.

Somewhere after we snapped our version of the Lone Cypress, we stopped for lunch at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, the tasteful headquarters of the course that is considered Mecca by duffers and scratch golfers alike. Despite the armies of blazer-clad tournament officials and golf shoe-shod players scraping across the driveway, the lodge is not overly intimidating.

It offers rooms, meals, and golf to the public -- although at typical Carmel prices. Greens fees can approach $50, and tee time reservations must be made months in advance.

On the way back to town, one can take a slight detour through Monterey.

As the peninsula's largest seaside town, Monterey has its own distinct atmosphere and history, including the legendary Cannery Row.

That block-long fish-packing operation made famous by Steinbeck's novel is now part amusement park, part literary landmark, part historic preservation site. It has precisely the ambiance that Carmel has sought to avoid. Practical information

Despite Carmel's compact size, its leisurely pace and hamlet-like feel make you want to slow down and savor it all. Plan to spend at least three days here.

As nearly everyone arrives by car -- the nearest commercial airport is in Monterey -- allow for a two-hour drive from San Francisco or anywhere from a six- to eight-hour commute from Los Angeles.

Because of the town's popularity, one should secure accommodations in advance. This is particularly true during the January golf tournament and the two music festivals in July and September.

As Carmel has no Chamber of Commerce, the Carmel Business Association (PO Box 4444, Carmel, Calif. 93921, tel.: [408] 624-2522) can supply a list of available accommodations. A few of the better inns: the Pine Inn, Normandy Inn, Vagabond's House Inn, and Cypress Inn. Prices range from $26 to $95.

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