Last week we were celebrating a very special day week in our household, known locally as "Wendy's birthdayweek," and we decided to celebrate in style. For the second year running we opted to take a nice vacation out to California in honor of the occasion, because it's been proven that a state must have a minimum size equal to that of California to adequately support the week-long festivities. If there's one thing I've learned as a dedicated spouse over our 10 years of (mostly) wedded bliss, a birthday for your significant other is often best celebrated in an alternate time zone, preferably one they truly enjoy.
Our vacation was about a week long and we broke the trip into three parts. While we made our annual pilgrimage to wine country (this is my seventh year running and Wendy's eighth) and a day in San Francisco to visit a few friends, this year we added Carmel-by-the-Sea onto the list of our destinations.
If you've never been or haven't heard of Carmel-by-the-Sea (yes, that's the actual name of the city), you're missing out on one of the true jewels of places the United States has to offer.
Located just about two hours south of San Francisco, this sleepy little town is nestled into the coastline of central California just a hair south of Monterey and a stone's throw from the famous links of Pebble Beach. The town was founded 1902 and hit its stride in the early 1920s as an artists' colony and coastal enclave. Since its inception, the town described simply as "a village in the forest overlooking a white sand beach" has served its inhabitants and guests as a spectacular inspiration and muse for artistic creativity.
Wendy and I have been to Carmel before, several times actually. My parents first took me there on a family trip back around 1984 or 1985, and more recently Wendy and I visited on two previous occasions, the last one being about three years ago. If there's one thing I can say in my trips that have now ranged almost 30 years, the town has changed very little in that time, save for the astronomical increase in real estate costs.
This year we decided to make the trip after some good friends of ours recently moved to Carmel due to a job change. We figured their relocation gave us a great excuse to visit the little city we love while getting to hang out with a few people we miss and wish we could see way more often.
Carmel is an odd but lovely little town. The streets are lined with eclectic shops, restaurants, and beachy storybook cottages.
The houses are tightly packed throughout the area as almost every piece of land has been used in some way shape or form, though the city had a minimum tree requirement for each parcel. You won't find a stoplight or street light anywhere within the outskirts of town, and sidewalks only exist near the main corridor of the city.
Aside from a handful of very large (and extremely expensive) homes, especially those on the coast with spectacular beach and ocean views...
...most houses seem to be in the three or four bedroom range, with many built in the 1940s to late 1970s, but there is a core group of houses that were built in the 1910s, 1920s, and1930s that truly gives the area it's charm and set the aesthetic that still exists today.
These houses and shops look like the type of place you'd see most typically in fairy tale storybooks rather than lining neighborhood streets. Their roofs are rolling and intentionally irregular, corners appear asymmetrical, and seemingly random windows or details appear in the most unexpected but perfect places.
Many of the original homes of this style that permeates Carmel are attributed to architect Hugh Comstock, who lived and built a considerable number of homes and shops in Carmel beginning in the 1920s.
Comstock's named fairy tale
cottages stand as a testament to the whimsical seaside town. The first two, built in 1924, were given the names "Hansel" and "Gretel." They were built by Comstock for his wife, a rag doll maker. She needed a shop where she could display and sell her popular dolls, so Comstock built these first two cottages in his soon-to-be-signature storybook style.
With asymmetrical windows, casings that look to be hand drawn rather than made from wood, and an unexpected curved and extremely interesting roof line, the two little houses sit on one lot and once had a beautiful view of the bay and ocean. That view is now obscured by a hotel across the street. Quite a disappointment if you ask me.
As part of our trip we stopped by the Carmel-by-the-Sea visitors center and picked up a list of other Comstock houses that we could visit and walk by. The sheet listed a few dozen of his houses and their locations.
Notice, I said locations, not addresses. Carmel-by-the-Sea doesn't have numbered street addresses for their buildings. Instead the home's original inhabitants named each house and referred to them in this manner. Today, with a much larger number, the homes are still named, but it's too difficult to keep track of this way. Instead, the houses are listed by their proximity to intersections. For example, a house located on San Antonio between 7th and 8th could be known by "San Antonio, 4 NE of 8th", or perhaps, "San Antonio, 3 SE of 7th." The residents don't have mailboxes and the post office doesn't deliver, so they have to go to the post office to pick up their items. It's a fun fact that I'm sure is sometimes a little more than annoying in this age of online ordering and delivery. But this detail is just one of many that makes this city quite unique.
With our list of Comstock homes in hand we spent a while wandering around the picturesque streets of the sea side town taking photos of the various houses we were able to find, such as the eatery called "Tuckbox."
From the larger places like Comstocks own residence named "Obers"...
...To the more grand homes, such as this one along the beach (which I believe is possibly just Comstock inspired).
All of the homes possess some or all of the various characteristics that help define these homes as storybook cottages and posses features rarely seen in other residential areas.
Beyond the charming architecture of Carmel-by-the-Sea...
...and the quaint shops...
...the stunning views and beach life is what truly defines Carmel as a sleepy seaside destination.
The views are actually one of those items I'm sure the individual homeowners covet and protect, even if you only get a tiny glimpse of the ocean from the upper corner of just one window in your home, it still has "ocean views." I noticed something very interesting related to construction and alteration of roof lines in the area. If you are putting an addition on, you must mock-up the addition's boundaries with orange plastic to ensure your neighbors can see how their view will be affected. I assume there can be quite a bit of arguing when it comes to permitting if your addition is going to take away any of your neighbor's view.
Naturally, whenever we're in the area we try to take as much advantage of the beautiful beach and ocean as possible. Whether jogging along the scenic drive...
...or just strolling along the sand, it's a relaxing feeling I never really understood until I tried it as an adult. Wendy and I couldn't help but keep saying "Lulu would have the time of her life running on the sand and playing in the ocean."
This is truly one of Wendy's all time "happy places," and I'd say I pretty much love it too. If some day we end up winning the lottery, you better believe that a Carmel-by-the-Sea Realtor with be among some of our first phone calls.
It's just one of those places that we feel comfortable, relaxed, and like we can just let go a little bit more than normal.
Who knows, if the lottery fails, maybe I can become a cedar shake roofer. Given the number of shake roofs in interesting patterns I think Carmel residents may keep the entire trade of cedar roofers up and running just within the one square mile that makes up the city.
Have you ever visited Carmel-by-the-Sea? If so, what do you think of the town? If not, does it seem like somewhere you'd like to go? Do you have a "happy place" that you like to visit on vacation? We'd love to hear about it.