Distinctive small community, outstanding mission
Among California’s most distinctive small communities, Carmel was originally settled by Spanish soldiers, but acquired its first rustic houses when a colony of bohemian writers, painters and academics began settling on pristine ocean-side plots in 1904. By the mid-1920s, the artistic community had run its course and architect Hugh Comstock began filling the town with whimsical wooden (in some cases wood and adobe) cottages to tickle the fancy of moneyed San Franciscans.
Today, Carmel is where the Californian concept of ‘quaint’ finds its ultimate expression. Lines of almost-too-perfect gingerbread structures line short lanes and courtyards. To preserve the fairy-tale – but surprisingly charmless – atmosphere, Carmel’s wealthy residents ban traffic lights, fast-food stands and the cutting down of trees, although there’s no hesitation when it comes to embracing tourists: souvenir shops and art galleries are everywhere.
An antidote to the picture-postcard cottages is the Tor House, on Ocean Avenue, built from granite carried up from the beach (with the aid of horses) by its owner, Robinson Jeffers, who settled in Carmel in 1914. Jeffers’ epic poetry made much of the area’s commanding landscapes and forged his reputation as one of the leading writers of the American West. Tours of the Tor House (Fri and Sat only) are by reservation only; tel. 408 624 1813.
The high point of a visit to Carmel, however, is the Carmel Mission (http://www.carmelmission.org), 3080 Rio Rd. Resited here in 1771 following an unhappy year in Monterey, the mission was the second to be established in California and became the main base of Junipera Serra, the head of the Spanish expedition into California, until his death in 1784.
Undergoing a thorough restoration during the 1930s, the mission is a feast for the eye. The most striking part is the stone church, topped by a Moorish tower, with its vaulted interior decorated with oil paintings and wooden images of Christ. The museum sections carry comprehensive displays relating to mission life and the development of the mission chain across California, together with a re-creation of Serra’s spartan living quarters and of California’s first library: the shelves of which held Serra’s 600-volume collection. Besides some lovely gardens, the mission grounds contain the Indian cemetery, where you should seek out the marker to Old Gabriel, a fellow credited with living 150 years.
Detour – Yokoji-Zen Mountain Centre
Turn off Hwy-1 at Carmel and drive inland along Carmel Valley Road (G 16). After passing the pricey houses, ranches and golf courses that represent the wealthy residential overspill from the Monterey Peninsula, the road then climbs quickly into the hills between the Santa Lucia and the Sierra de Salinas mountains. Turn right on to Cachagua Road and right again on to Tassajara Road, both narrow, winding mountain roads, for Tassajara Hot Springs (http://www.sfzc.org/tassajara; +1 888 743 9362). The spa resort, which opened here in 1904, is now the Yokoji-Zen Mountain Centre, a Buddhist retreat. From May to September, visitors are permitted in bathe in the luxuriant springs: the serene setting and the minerals in the water co-operate to create a tremendous sense of well-being.