Carmel by the Sea & The Pacific Coast Highway

A cool November breeze blows through my hair as I cruise down Pacific Coast Highway leaving San Francisco in my rearview. I’ve just started out on what I hope will be the drive a lifetime and after spending the last four sleepless days in wild San Francisco on a NatGeo photography expedition, I’m ready for some quiet solitude. My sights are set on Carmel-by-the-Sea, only a couple of hours South.

It doesn’t take long to realize what the hype is all about. For years I’ve read stories and dreamt of this drive and now here I am hugging the yellow line as I wind around the smooth mountain roads, no room for error. With a belly full of butterflies, I gaze out to the right, nothing but the Indigo-hued Pacific as far as I can see.

With my windows rolled down and my stereo up, I drive, wind in my hair, nothing ahead but coastal highway and freedom, so palpable I can feel it, I can smell it, I can almost taste it in the salty air.  I am all alone and freer than I’ve been in a very long time.

I have left my family behind, my husband recently recovered from a fluke weight-lifting accident followed by a series of medical errors that almost cost him his life and me my sanity. I spent the past few months at his bedside, in and out of several hospitals in different states praying he wouldn’t die and finally the past few weeks at home while he recovered.  The stress and mental price I paid is indescribable, too great for words, something maybe only someone who has been there can understand. I had watched the guy I married go from a healthy competitive athlete to practically an invalid overnight, each sound or noise he made, even after he came home, had my stomach twisting in knots and my heart racing convinced he was having a stroke. A few months before, while my mother was nearing the end of her annual two week visit, she tripped over a box of crayons and broke her shoulder so severely she ended up staying for six extra weeks while I took care of her and drove her back and forth to her weekly doctor visits. Not exactly being what you would consider the nurturing type, taking care of my mom and seeing her in pain was tough for me, but it was nothing compared to what I was about to face with my husband. By the end of his recovery, I was at the mercy of prescription drugs to  sleep at night and most days I needed them to help me pretend to be a normal functioning adult, one that didn’t have constant panic attacks.  I was falling apart and had reached my breaking point, my husband knew it and so did I. I had to leave for a while.

It doesn’t take long before I lose both radio and cell coverage. Any other frame of mind, I would be afraid of breaking down or being kidnapped, but not today. The old, less brave me might also be afraid of the missing guardrails along the highway or of the possibility of rain or fog moving in making navigating this dangerous highway impossible, but not this newer freer, more fearless me.

I pull off to the side a few times to stare up at the sunshine and cloudless skies and just breathe in the ocean and the November air. I don’t worry about the isolation or the biker groups that sometimes pull off behind me, I am alive and alone and a 10,000-pound boulder has been lifted from me. Weightless and hopeful, I can finally breathe.

Still smiling as the sun begins to set, I almost drive right past what appears to be a neighborhood, but turns out to be just the place I’m looking for, the little village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I park and stand for a moment taking in the autumn air and unmistakable scent of cozy fires burning nearby, then stroll down Ocean Ave. past tiny thatched roof cottages, restaurants, and shops glowing with soft amber lights. The streets are quiet and I pass only a few couples strolling into restaurants. I’m already falling a little bit in love with this place.

Driving down Lincoln Ave, I spot the bright white exterior and terra cotta roof on the Cypress Inn and listen as it whispers Northern California to me. After scolding me in a motherly way for traveling alone, the lady at the front desk offers me a discounted rate, still higher than I’d hoped, but after catching a glimpse of the roaring fire in the living room, I know I’m hooked. There’s a small cozy bar and restaurant area with seating for maybe fifteen or twenty and even better, a large outdoor stone patio illuminated by thousands of tiny white lights and a fireplace that calls to me.

I let the warmth of the outdoor fire soothe me as I sit back with a Stella and a snack and glance around at the other guests, all couples, most with small dogs. It’s not until later when I realize I just might be the only pup-less person in town I start to feel like a fool, like the only adult at a playground without a child. Since I’ve become a grown-up, I never really had a pet of my own, so being in a town with people so focused on their pets is all new to me, but it makes me smile. Businesses here are definitely very accommodating and even have little water bowls and snacks set out. Oh and there’s even a doggie bakery on the main drag.

My room at the Inn is cozy and plush and despite carpeting, has no evidence of being a dog friendly. There are fresh flowers, an extra soft king-sized bed, and my favorite- high-end bath products. There’s also a very large decanter of sherry on my dresser, “It’s a Nightcap,” the lady from the front desk tells me. Having always had a thing for hotels, I believe I could live comfortably in one and on a coziness scale, The Cypress Inn is a ten, leaving me without doubt I could live here, with unlimited resources of course, dogs and all.

After a brisk morning run, I have breakfast with a couple just back from Safari in Africa. We chat about photography and travel, and most importantly about Jacque, their three year-old bichon frise, who loves to travel as much as they do. I say my goodbyes and promise to keep in touch before driving the few miles to Point Lobos State Park, where I spend a couple of hours hiking through dusty deserted trails.  Just me and my camera, I climb out onto craggy rocks and am serenaded from below by barking sea lions. The brave me of yesterday is nowhere to be found and even though I want to press on and keep exploring, the park is mostly deserted and I can’t shake this teensy uneasy feeling I have. I can’t decide if I’m being a huge sissy-girl or being wise by trusting my instincts.

Frustrated by my girlyness and vulnerability, I hike back and head for Big Sur located just south of the Monterey Peninsula, where I intend to stay the night. I’ve heard so many great things about this town in the past week. Famous authors like Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, actors, musicians, and all sorts of hippies have been lured here for the past several decades by the natural beauty and isolation. So, after another gorgeous and equally butterfly-inducing drive along the PCH, I pull into the famous Post Ranch Inn for some lunch at Sierra Mar. I’m seated at a table perched along the cliff’s edge, with a breathtaking view. My lunch, the special, a mushroom tart and cabbage salad is mediocre, but the view more than makes up for it. Rooms here range from treehouse suites to cliff-side oasis nestled high above the Pacific, all offer spectacular views and a hefty rate starting around $800 a night, about quadruple more than I’m willing to pay.

After lingering over lunch, I drive a short way through the wooded seclusion, hoping for signs of life, but instead find only wild turkeys roaming. I inquire about a couple of rooms, all beautiful, but  remote enough to be a set for a Stephen King movie. With brave me long gone, I decide to just head back to the safety of Carmel by the Sea. One day I will come back here and love it, I know it, perhaps with a travel companion who knows the area, but for now, I want to see signs of life, human life. If I didn’t have a scheduled flight out of San Francisco in two days, I would keep heading South, exploring this wondrous coastline. Damn the rigid rules of airline industry and their inflexibility.

I pull back into town just before dark and check into the Village Inn on Ocean Ave. It is simple, clean and cheerful with hundreds of colorful flowers hanging from the railings. The best part of all, it’s half the price of last night’s Cypress Inn.

In the morning, I take one last walk around the town, savoring my last moments before heading for the nearby mission grounds on my way back to San Francisco. Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was built in nearby Monterey in the late 1700’s, and relocated soon after to Carmel-by-the-Sea where it remains an active parish today. Wooden crosses and abalone shells mark the graves of the Eslenes Indians who helped build and maintain the mission. I take my time wandering around the deserted grounds trying my best to capture the serenity of this place.

As I meander, I reflect on my time in California and how it has cleansed me, like a spring cleaning of the soul. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway truly was the drive of a lifetime. It opened my fragile troubled mind to the beauty and possibility before me. I am clear and light and have smiled more in the past week than I had in months.  Before California, I was on the edge of a being irrevocably broken and had it not been for this trip, I honestly don’t know what would have happened to me. Driving the PCH and ending up in Carmel by the Sea healed me. It was just what I needed, the perfect end to my time in California.

Categories: Road Trips, Travel Stories, U.S.Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. This brought back so many memories of my time spent there. Thanks!

  2. How did I miss this one? Did you write this about my trip in March? lol Soul cleansing for sure. 🙂

    • Beautiful. And we are about to leave for CA and Big Sur in a few weeks. Then back to upstate NY (Ithaca …sort of a big Key West) and hence to St. Augustine for a few months. Is that where your live? Is that your white house? Call us for any specific recs you may have for centra coast. We’re Bob & Jan 607 351-0586. Enjoyed your account of Carmel and points south.

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