Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Carmel for short, is a charming yet conflicting fairytale coastal city in Central California.
I love road trips, I really do. And Carmel-by-the-Sea is most definitely worth the stop if you happen to be south of San Francisco or if you’re on a Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) road trip. But every time I come back here to share more worthwhile experiences, I can’t shake my doubts as to the object of this blog. Am I here for the sole purpose of bragging about eating and traveling milestones? Do people really care? Is this going to be one of those really ambitious pursuits that fizzles out and gets forgotten? I hope not.
The world hasn’t exactly gotten kinder last I checked, and I cannot lie that recent events have definitely tampered with my enthusiasm for narrative. Yes, even more so than your usual happy tale fueled by blissed out ignorance or just plain apathy. It pains me to admit that I have become incredibly pessimistic as to the outcomes of the latest scandals plaguing my birth country. Pork barrel scams aren’t exactly new to Philippine politics — misappropriation of funds and kickbacks have been rampant since before I came to being, so why has nothing changed until now? Is everyone in power as corrupted and corruptible as they seem? Is violence really the only way to keep people in line? It doesn’t help either that the country I’m living in continues to dole out punishment for acts of heroism and compassion thereby proving the old truism that “no good deed goes unpunished.” See this and this for recent examples. But then America also has this to offer.
Given my above-average research skills, it wasn’t so hard for me to find this charming and highly scenic town south of Monterey and Pebble Beach in Northern California. The place piqued my curiosity with its vigorous historical pursuit of planned development strategies so the little city can retain its character as “a village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach.” One rule arising from this is that new buildings must be built around existing trees and new trees are required on lots that are deemed to have an inadequate number. What I’ve seen of the area left me with no doubt of the locals’ success in this department. Carmel regularly hosts delegations from cities and towns around the world seeking to understand how the village retains its authenticity in today’s increasingly homogeneous world.
While this sounds well-meaning and all, what does it mean in reality? The homeowners in this city aren’t exactly the type of folks whose lives greedy and thoughtless corporations can uproot and mess with. It is a very exclusive town inhabited by wealthy families and celebrity millionaires. Pretty ironic given that this used to be a refuge for Bohemian poets, musicians and writers in the wake of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. At the time, these new residents were offered home lots – ten dollars down, little or no interest, and whatever they could pay on a monthly basis. Amongst them were George Sterling, Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London — the novelist who inspired the hiker Chris McCandless’s adventures into the wild that ultimately led to his untimely death.
Now this may seem lazy yet I can’t help but to share this Yelp review of the city by a guy who is even more familiar with Carmel than I am.
“I want to write about the beauty of Carmel’s natural surroundings, the quaintness of its streets and architecture, and the way it epitomizes coastal Northern California. I also want to write about the decades of magical Christmas vacations I spent here with my family and all the traditions we created, altered, and reinvented. Unfortunately, I can’t write about all of that, not because I don’t still have wonderful memories of even the rainiest and windiest of days here, but because Carmel is ridiculously exclusive.
Exclusive is a bad word. You might think it’s not, but it is. Just like trendy. If you find nothing wrong with exclusivity and trendiness, then, well, you’re part of the problem. Put another way, if you don’t have a problem with keeping certain people out or expecting people to conform to rather arbitrary, specific ways of grooming, dressing, acting, and living, then I have a problem with you.
It’s not really Carmel’s fault, or it wasn’t originally.
Like many beautiful places in California, Carmel was long characterized by a kind of bucolic laziness. Sure, very rich people came here to get away from the big city, and celebrities enjoyed the relative anonymity with which they could enjoy themselves in public here, but Carmel also used to be home to ordinary rural folks and artists whose work didn’t only appeal to people with far too much time and money on their hands.”
So in a lot of ways, Carmel reminds me of She & Him. Famous for being sweet and quirky, yet inaccessible in ways that leave me unsettled.
I can’t come up with a Yums vs. Yucks list because I haven’t really spent enough time in the city to draw enough conclusions. What I do have is a list of quirky facts about Carmel-by-the-Sea that you can weigh in on.
1. The one-square-mile village has no street lights or parking meters.
2. The businesses, cottages and houses have no street numbers. The early artists who were the first builders of the homes in the town gave their houses names rather than numerical addresses. This means no delivery of mail to individual addresses, the residents have to pick them up.
3. Wearing shoes with heels more than 2 inches in height or with a base of less than one square inch is banned unless you obtain a permit. This was the “cover our asses” move that the city came up with to defend itself from lawsuits resulting from wearers of high-heeled shoes tripping over irregular pavement distorted by tree roots. Permits are available without charge at City Hall.
4. Selling and eating ice cream on public streets used to be prohibited. This and other similar business-restrictive laws were overturned by Clint Eastwood (yes, the Clint Eastwood) and his council during his term as mayor in 1986-88.
5. Wikipedia’s list of notable people living in Carmel includes Betty White. If you don’t get why this excited me to my core, then watch the following commercial. She makes the rest of them look like indistinguishable blurs, and she’s 91. While I was in Carmel, I kept trying to guess which quaint house was hers.
6. Hugh Comstock’s fairytale cottages. I’m kicking myself for not having read about this sooner but consider this a treat if you can make it there. Read more about it here.