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Whimsical cottages meet stunning coastline in this artist colony-turned-luxury retreat

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If there were only the beach, that would be enough. It’s a lovely beach, a crescent of pale sand that gives way to turquoise Pacific, backed by Monterey cypress, their foliage flattened into wide fans by the coastal wind. But Carmel Beach isn’t the only star of the petite Monterey County city. Rather, it’s an ensemble cast of charms that make Carmel-by-the-Sea such an enchanting destination—one worthy of regular distinctions like Travel + Leisure’s “11 Best Small Towns in America.” What makes this destination so unique? Here are five reasons that Carmel-by-the-Sea is a don’t miss stop along Highway 1.

5 Unique Characteristics of Carmel-By-the-Sea

1. It Has a Rich Art History

Officially incorporated in 1916, Carmel-by-the-Sea has long exerted a magnetic pull on artists and authors. Some of its earliest residents included writers Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London, who fled post-earthquake San Francisco for the enclave’s bohemian appeal. Poet Robinson Jeffers, arriving with his wife in 1914, called the town “our inevitable place,” and built his stone Tor House, now open on weekends for tours, overlooking the ocean. That rich history of creativity has left its mark: Today Carmel is home to nearly 100 galleries that showcase works ranging from 19th-century Impressionism to contemporary pieces by artists not only from the Golden State, but from all over the world. For a particularly notable collection of Early California paintings dating from 1870 to 1950, stop by Karges Fine Art. Carmel Fine Art Gallery, located across the street, also offers a fine selection of Californian works from that era.

2. It’s Home to Eclectic Architecture (And a Unique Address System)

The tradition of naming homes—perhaps a vestige of its literary past—endures in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where garden cottages that look plucked from the Brothers Grimm sit next to Mediterranean estates and modern ranches. Builder Hugh Comstock created the fairy-tale aesthetic in the 1920s, and 21 of his originals remain, including the Tuck Box, a quaint café that specializes in afternoon tea. (Another quirk here is that the city does not use street addresses. The locations of businesses and homes are identified as being on “San Carlos St. at 9th Ave.” or on “Carmelo St., three houses south of Ocean Ave.”)

3.  It’s a Small Town with a Big-Time Wine and Restaurant Scene

After tea at Tuck Box, you could easily focus on the wealth of local wines. Explore Carmel-by-the-Sea's excellent tasting room scene by following the Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Walk; the free digital guide provides details, exclusive tasting experiences and sometimes even prizes at eleven wine-tasting rooms, including KORi WinesDe Tierra VineyardsScheid Vineyards, and Manzoni Cellars.

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For those in search of heartier fare, there’s Cultura Comida y Bebida, where Oaxacan dishes like smoked pork mole and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with lime and salt) are best paired with one of 39 mezcals. At La Bicyclette, the vibe is pure French bistro, while special occasions merit Aubergine, a Michelin-star splurge inside L’Auberge Carmel resort.

4. The European-Style Town Center, Carmel Village, Is Full of Charm

Along with restaurants, Carmel Village is stocked with wine-tasting rooms, boutiques, and even a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Sip a Pinot Noir from Central Coast Wine Country or browse fancy pens at Bittner, a shop dedicated to the art of writing. If you’re jonesing for a show, the Sunset Cultural Center—built in 1926 as a public school—has had its beautiful Modern Gothic exterior and dramatic interior repurposed as a performance hall with exceptional acoustics. Drop by to see a performance, which could be anything from stand-up comedy to a rock band, a play, dance, or a rousing concert by the Monterey Symphony (check their calendar).

5. It’s a Short Drive Away from Epic Adventures

It’s the raw environment that best defines this stretch of California, and that means venturing out of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Navigate 17-Mile Drive by car or bike, stopping to contemplate the Lone Cypress that’s clung to a patch of rock for centuries. Play a round at Pebble Beach, the No. 1 public golf course in the country, book a surf lesson, or make for Point Lobos State Reserve, where scuba divers and kayakers share the water with harbor seals and sea otters. When the day is almost done, hit the sand to admire the sunset over the Pacific with your canine companion, and ponder why it is you don’t live here. 

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