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THE COMFORTS OF CARMEL FOREST, COTTAGES, BEACH, SIMPLE LIFESTYLE ... WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE?

Byline: Story and photos by Eric Noland Travel Editor

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA - It's when another accordion strip of nondescript businesses sprouts in your neighborhood, or when your neighbor fells a stately, shady pine tree to free himself from the nuisance of needles, that you gain a greater appreciation for Carmel.

Oh, this little community on the Monterey Peninsula - specifically the incorporated, mile-square burg of Carmel-by-the-Sea - has provoked its share of teasing over the years.

For a town of just 4,400 residents, it has produced a voluminous log of municipal ordinances. Did you know that you need to get permission from City Hall to prune a branch off a tree, much less cut the whole thing down? Were you aware that it's illegal to climb a tree on city property? Or wear high heels downtown? Or that if you hang a sign in front of your business, it can't be plastic?

When fun is inevitably poked at this community, its officials and residents inevitably shrug - and dismiss the taunts as envy.

``Carmel got the way it is on purpose,'' said assistant city administrator Greg D'Ambrosio.

And the success of the long-running venture is measured in visitor numbers, often pushing 1.5 million annually - equivalent to 340 tourists for every man, woman and child residing here.

Longtime visitors to Carmel might assert that it has lost the seashore-village charm of 30 or so years ago and has become elitist, persnickety and arrogantly upscale, but in truth there is still much to like about this place. Its efforts to stave off the creep of progress that has undoubtedly disfigured the face of your community is commendable.

Settle into one of Carmel's inns or boutique hotels for a few days and the place is likely to gather you into its beguiling spell - especially if you hail from anywhere in greater Los Angeles.

To begin with, nature is welcomed, accommodated and nurtured rather than subjugated. More than 10,000 trees grow within the 640 acres of the city limits. (It's not an estimate. D'Ambrosio, a former city forester - yes, it's on the payroll - said the trees have been painstakingly logged and monitored in a computer program for the past 30 years.)

Most are Monterey cypresses and pines, and they contribute mightily to the serenity of the place. Walkways bend around the trees. Streets buckle and sidewalks ripple from the pressure of their roots. Holes are cut through fences to make way for them. Low-hanging branches are painted white to reduce accidents. A cartoon on the wall of the post office shows a Carmel house ablaze, with the fire department responding and the resident frantically commanding, ``To hell with the house! Save the trees!''

At night in Carmel, starlight is welcomed - there is minimal lighting on the streets and in the downtown district to compete with it.

The town is also pedestrian-friendly to a fault. There are stop signs and crosswalks, not traffic lights, green turn arrows or flashing upraised palms that ward off pedestrians when they're two steps into an intersection. You'll also find that residents in vehicles fairly tumble over themselves to yield the right-of-way to walkers, even those crossing in the middle of a block.

Only residences, no businesses, are permitted along the waterfront. And in the center of town, the careful wording of ordinances has successfully discouraged big-box retail stores and fast-food chain outlets.

Through all these efforts, Carmel is attempting to cling to a near-100- year time warp. Around the turn of the 20th century, a developer subdivided this corner of the peninsula and attempted - without initial success- to lure residents. Then the earthquake of 1906 ravaged San Francisco, and with many artists and writers burned out of their homes in the subsequent conflagration that swept the city, a Carmel poet named George Sterling urged his artsy colleagues to move south.

It was a community of beach cottages and thick forest (occurring naturally) and morning fog - the kind of Central Coast attributes sure to nurture contemplation and inspiration, as it did for the souls of Robinson Jeffers, Sinclair Lewis, Mary Cleveland and Edward Weston, among many others.

The town center was designed after a Mediterranean motif, with some 60 courtyards hidden down narrow alleys. Wander down any of them and you're likely to find a brick-paved hideaway with tiny shops or cafes opening onto it. Flowering shrubs and vines are everywhere, tumbling out of pots and planter boxes, festooning walls and providing dramatic cascades of color. Fountains quietly gurgle. Many walls feature faiences - pottery plaques painted in bright hues.

There are some outstanding stores here, as well as scores of upscale art galleries and antique shops. You'll find superb country-home items at Carmel Bay Co., a throwback store that features simple furnishings, linens, gardening items. Thinker Toys stocks clever games and hobby items that might even distract your kids from CD-ROMS and other electronic wizardry. Nielson Brothers Market feels like your grandmother's grocery store, with bins of produce out on the sidewalk and a lot of cook-from-scratch ingredients inside.

Dining options, meanwhile, are infused with charm and romance, from the tree-shaded patio of Casanova to the basement hideaway that is the Asian-themed Flying Fish Grill.

And if you're undertaking an arts crawl, be sure to visit the Carmel Art Association Gallery, a co-op established in 1927 so that local artists would have display space for their work. Another must-see is the Weston Gallery, because of its matchless black-and-white art photography.

Although the primary focus for most visitors to Carmel-by-the-Sea is its downtown district, I enjoy wandering the residential neighborhoods.

Most of the homes are beach cottages on small lots - typically 40 feet by 100 feet - and it's intriguing to see what residents will do to contribute to the ``urban forest'' sensibilities of the community. Gardens are overgrown with vines and flowers, creating unruly masses of vegetation that climb trellises and walls and engulf imprecise picket fences of sinewy grape stake.

There are no curbs or sidewalks beyond downtown, which adds to the casual, lived-in ambience of the community.

Architect Hugh Comstock introduced a Hansel-and-Gretel design to Carmel in the 1920s (notably at the famous Tuck Box tea room downtown) and it has been imitated and embellished all over town - in some cases, sufficiently to trigger a cutesiness gag reflex. But most of the little homes conform to simple, tasteful and inviting designs.

In the early days of the art community, no one bothered with address numbers on their homes. These were considered superfluous, since there was no mail delivery; everyone had to walk to the post office daily to collect their rejection slips.

The tradition stuck, then was zealously embraced. Houses are lovingly named, not numbered: Cypress Song, Carmelot, Hob Nob, Seabelle, Promises Kept, This Is It, This Isn't (next door), Mar Para Dos. If you've made arrangements to stay in a vacation rental, don't be surprised if you receive some creative directions to your digs: ``On Lincoln between Ninth and 10th, east side of the street, gnarly cypress out front, blue garden gate.''

In recent years, some infirm members of the community clamored for mail delivery and got it for cases of physical hardship. And Carmel-by-the-Sea worked out a unique 911 emergency system with Pacific Bell. On emergency calls, computers instantly give dispatchers a description of a house's location, rather than an address number.

A walk through the neighborhood might take you past Tor House and Hawk Tower, the home that Jeffers built in the 1910s and early '20s. The latter resembles some stone ruin in Ireland's County Galway.

Another edifice of more distant California history is Mission San Carlos Borromeo, at the south end of town (Rio Road and Lasuen Drive). It was founded in 1770 and is the burial place of Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who was instrumental in founding the chain of missions in California. The mission's twin-tower church made of sandstone blocks dates to 1797.

Any exploration of Carmel, and certainly one on foot, inevitably leads to Carmel Beach. For good reason. It's a white-sand cove bordered by a short bluff, atop which cypress trees reflect the torture of years of winter gusts. The north end of the bay is bordered by the bright-green fairways of the storied Pebble Beach Golf Links. The powdered-sugar sand is of such an unusual consistency that it squeaks when you tread across it - not so much the barking sands of west Kauai; more like yapping sands.

And how appropriate that is. We were compelled to ask one Carmel long-timer if ownership of a dog was a prerequisite to residency here. The pooches are everywhere: tethered to poles outside coffee houses as their masters sip espressos within; setting the pace on walks through residential streets; tearing unleashed along the ocean's edge. (This is the rare California beach with off-leash provisions. Perhaps not surprisingly, there isn't a shore bird in evidence for miles.)

Refined conduct is expected from residents and visitors alike. People dress nicely to dine out - or even walk the streets. They stare daggers at those who walk into a restaurant gabbing on cell phones (the rare community where such a breach of manners is discouraged).

Maybe this civic demeanor comes with practice - a direct byproduct of having to heed all those ordinances.

At the beach alone, for example, signs prohibit skateboards, roller skates and bicycles on the scenic path; walking on the slopes; fires, alcohol and sleeping on the beach; parking on the east side of the road. Furthermore, warnings are issued about climbing on rocks, swimming and wading.

D'Ambrosio, the city official, chuckled. Indeed, Carmel has gained quite a reputation. ``A lot of people call it suffocating or over-regulating,'' he said. ``But there aren't that many communities that have been able to sustain themselves. ... The people who choose to live here want to fight for what's important to them.''

And fight they have. Gale Wrausmann, who leads walking tours of downtown, stopped her group at a small city park and told of when hippies overran it in the 1960s, to the dismay of townsfolk. An ordinance was thus passed, she said, decreeing that it was unlawful to sit down in the park. Carmel was taken to court, and fought the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.

So the city installed sprinklers, then set them on a frequent and entirely random schedule.

Problem solved. And Carmel repelled yet another incursion from your world.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Carmel is about a 345-mile drive from Los Angeles via U.S. 101 (to Salinas) and Highways 68 and 1. Another option is to fly to San Jose, rent a car and drive the 70 or so miles south to Carmel (either on 101 or the more scenic Highways 17 and 1).

WALKING TOUR: Gale Wrausmann, accompanied by her dog Squirt, leads the Carmel Walks tour at 10 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with a second tour at 2 p.m. Saturdays. The cost of the two-hour tour is a little steep at $20 per person, but it's a good way to get an overview of the place - and to venture into tucked-away inner courtyards that you might not have found exploring on your own. Don't get your hopes up to hit all of the sites listed on Wrausmann's Web site - www.carmelwalks.com - because our tour included only a handful of them. Reservations: (831) 642-2700.

DINING: You don't have to work very hard to find excellent dining in Carmel. Our favorite was the Flying Fish Grill, where delicious, Pacific Rim-themed seafood is served in a cozy, cellar-like setting (on Mission between Ocean and Seventh - remember there are no street numbers in this town). This establishment also had one of the most reasonably priced wine lists you'll find on the Central Coast, featuring Monterey County chardonnays for less than $30 a bottle. Information: (831) 625-1962. For lunch, we enjoyed Casanova (on Fifth between San Carlos and Mission). Be sure to request a table on the inner patio. Information: (831) 625-0501. The breakfasts are hearty if pricey at Katy's Place (on Mission between 5th and 6th); (831) 624-0199. We had read good things about Anton & Michel (on Mission between Ocean and Seventh) but were disappointed with our dinner there on many levels, from overcooked salmon to scatterbrained service; (831) 624-2406.

INFORMATION: An excellent guidebook to the area is ``Monterey & Carmel: Eden by the Sea'' (Globe Pequot; $14.95). The writing style of husband-and-wife team Gerald and Kathleen Hill is annoyingly self-absorbed and often silly (example: for the 17-Mile Drive, you approach a tollhouse - ``no cookies, sorry''), but the book is loaded with helpful information. It guides you through the downtown area store by store. Carmel-by-the-Sea maintains a visitor information office on San Carlos between Fifth and Sixth; (831) 624-2522; www.carmelcalifornia.org. Another good resource for the area is the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.montereyinfo.org.

CAPTION(S):

8 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) A walkway along the bluff above Carmel Beach, top, is popular with those who are fond of early-morning strolls. Carmel-by-the-Sea attracts visitors in part because the homes and businesses of the downtown district, above, adhere to a simple cottage design.

(3 -- 4 -- color) In Carmel-by-the-Sea, commerce gets out of the way of trees, which are allowed to flourish smack in the middle of sidewalks, left. The downtown area also features numerous hidden courtyards, above, many adorned with fountains and flowering vines.

(5 -- 7) Mission San Carlos Borromeo, top, is a relic from Carmel's distant history. The town's narrow alleyways, center, give it the feel of a European village. Residents in small cottages make the most of their gardens.

(8) Hawk Tower, built by writer Robinson Jeffers, has the look of an Irish ruin.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 11, 2002
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