The black veil of her habit fluttered in the wind as she slipped out a door hidden in the garden. That’s all I saw, just that glimpse of veil. But I was surprised and delighted. After many trips to the Carmelite Monastery to enjoy this charming garden tended so lovingly by the cloistered nuns, I had finally caught a glimpse of one of these mysterious women. You can have your Pebble Beach, your Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. My Monterey Bay vacation isn’t complete without a stop at the enchanting Carmelite Monastery.
Ask me where I’d like to take a dream vacation anywhere in the world and the Monterey Bay area will always be high on my list. With its fog-covered, craggy bluffs and crashing waves along the coast; its sunny, blue skies and orange sunsets over the pastoral valleys inland, there are few places that soothe me like this beautiful area of California.
After years of making the trip, our family’s journey through Carmel and the Monterey Bay area has taken us off the beaten path. Enter the cloistered nuns. Throw in some otters, a hotel far from the main tourist action and a not-so-famous golf course, and you have a fresh twist on a venerable vacation destination. Not to knock the famous spots: the Seventeen Mile Drive, Cannery Row, Carmel Mission, and the charming shops and restaurants of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They are all well worth seeing. But here are eight places we play and stay that still feel like they are all ours.
The Carmel Valley
Far from the crowds and touristy hotel strips surrounding downtown Carmel and Monterey you’ll find the Carmel Valley, on the sunny side of the Monterey Bay area and beyond the coastal fog belt. Head east off of Highway One at Carmel Valley Road and the cypress trees give way to rolling hills, horse farms and even a few wineries. Carmel Valley Ranch (carmelvalleyranch.com), nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, offers reasonably-priced and spacious two-room suites with balconies overlooking the resort’s own golf course and spectacular views of the valley. It never feels crowded and there is always plenty of space at the Ranch’s two pools. Just down the street, Earthbound Farm, the world’s largest grower of organic produce, offers tours, a small store with groceries and prepared foods, plus a children’s garden and walk-through herb maze. We always enjoy a taste of Chateau Julien Winery, which gives weekday tours and has a tasting room open daily. Little Carmel Valley Village will slow your pulse as you wander through its garden and gift shops, galleries and charming restaurants. Stop in at the casual Café Rustica, for pizza, pasta and atmosphere. There’s also Will’s Fargo, a self-described “dressed-up saloon” that serves steaks and seafood in its gilt-framed dining room.
The Pebble Beach golf complex is no doubt a site to see, but also an expensive and challenging course to play. When we want to hit the links as a family, we head to the neighboring town of Pacific Grove, where greens fees at the 18-hole Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links run between $35 and $40 (you can play nine holes or after 2 p.m. for less). Best thing about this relatively uncrowded course: spectacular ocean views on its back nine rivaling Pebble Beach. www.ci.pg.ca.us/golf. Visit Pacific Grove’s quaint downtown area afterward for dinner.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Did you know that Monterey Bay is home to the world’s third-largest marine sanctuary? We bring our bikes or simply hike around Point Lobos State Reserve, a few miles south of Carmel. This beautiful state park is a 350-acre headland area along the ocean that is home to a wealth of marine life. From the trails you will spot otters, harbor seals and in the winter, migrating whales. An additional, 750-acre area is an undersea marine park open to scuba divers. It’s a fun spot for young children to watch the divers enter the water and do their thing. www.pointlobos.org.
As you head down Highway One south of Carmel, slow down or you just may miss the dirt driveway that leads you to the Carmelite Monastery (not to be confused with the Carmel Mission.) The simple but spectacular location, across the street from the Monterey Bay, is home to the Carmelite Sisters by-the-Sea, a cloistered, contemplative community of nuns. Stop in the beautiful old church to reflect or leave your prayer requests, and you may hear the sisters’ chanted prayers echoing from their chambers. Don’t leave without stopping for a walk or a rest on a bench in the charming garden that sits in front of the church, overlooking the ocean. It’s filled with unique plants, architectural remnants and even and old row boat lodged in the dirt like a prized flowering plant. As we contemplated the ocean from a bench there one fine spring day, a huge pod of dolphins put on a show that seemed destined just for us. Carmelitesistersbythesea.net.