Having celebrated its centennial in 2016, the city has caught up with the culinary times. That’s apparent at Carmel Bakery, which turns out treats such as éclairs, shortbread, and sweet pretzels—flaky figure eights of pastry dusted with cinnamon and sugar. A vibrant restaurant scene stars hot spots like La Balena, where a rustic Italian menu includes dishes such as wild mushroom risotto and ricotta gnocchi in hearty Bolognese sauce.
Carmel hosts the multi-day GourmetFest, late February or early March most years, to highlight the region’s food and wine. Many of those local vintages pour year-round at more than a dozen tasting rooms clustered around downtown, in what amounts to a walkable urban wine trail. The oldest belongs to Jack Galante of Galante Vineyards, whose great-grandfather, J.F. Devendorf, was a founder of Carmel.
At Lucia the day I visited, the menu also included abalone, a scrumptious mollusk that once thrived in local waters. A reminder of its place in California history came on the last day of my trip, during a hike around Point Lobos, the oldest marine reserve in the United States. Though one-third of the park lies beneath the Pacific, its headlands are laced with walking trails. I followed one to Whalers Cabin, now a museum. Its walls are lined with fishing and whaling implements as well as photos from the late 1800s, when the waters teemed with abalone.
The ribbon of Highway 1 that spools south from Point Lobos toward Big Sur is not a route to rush. Safety commands a leisurely pace, and so does the coastline, a necklace of coves and cliffs ornamented by such jewels as Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where I pulled off for one last scenic stop.
Enough daylight remained to illuminate my short walk down Waterfall Overlook Trail, which faces McWay Falls, an 80-foot cascade spilling to a small beach. A squadron of pelicans winged by. Breaking formation, one of the birds dive-bombed for dinner. My belly rumbled. It was almost time to eat again.