Our home base on the Monterey Peninsula was Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town so storybook cute I had to remind myself that this was not, after all, a realm of wealthy hobbits. I mean, just look at it:
These Epcot-village views aside, the town is a venerable old lady, by American standards. A Carlmelite friar claimed this area for Spain and named it after his patron saint in the 1600s. The 1700s saw a Spanish mission sprout here under the leadership of a Franciscan friar, Junípero Serra, California’s “founding father.” The friar established nine of California’s earliest missions, including San Diego (none of this ended well for the native people).
Serra’s Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo is a 20-minute walk from the town center, worth a detour with its carefully restored Basilica (the friar is buried there by the main altar), a gallery, and three museums, the most fascinating of which, the Convento Museum, is a time capsule of California’s colonial past: You can peek into Serra’s spartan living quarters, his kitchen, the reception area (this was, after all, the administrative center of Serra’s settlements), and a cell that holds the friar’s book collection, California’s “first library.”
Our visit to the Mission was too hurried to do it justice here, so I will leave it be, for now. The Carmel I did soak in–the whimsical hodgepodge of architectural influences–came into being long after Serra’s death, in the early 20th century, when the town flourished as an artists’ colony, home to the likes of Jack London and Ansel Adams. Clint Eastwood was mayor in the 1980s, working in this coziest of City Halls:
“Dropping down through the pungent pines, they passed woods-embowered cottages, quaint and rustic, of artists and writers, and went on across wind-blown rolling sandhills held to place by sturdy lupine and nodding with pale California poppies. Saxon screamed in sudden wonder of delight, then caught her breath and gazed at the amazing peacock-blue of a breaker, shot through with golden sunlight, overfalling in a mile-long sweep and thundering into white ruin of foam on a crescent beach of sand scarcely less white.” (The Valley of the Moon, Jack London, 1913)
It really is that beautiful. We loved our evening stroll by the water. As the day melted away, we watched a dog play with her owner and a group of curlews inspect the waves.
When it came, the sunset was stunning. Its colors, its sounds, its texture–the rays, the clouds, the ocean, the birds, the trees clinging to faraway cliffs–washed over us, all of the day’s busy thoughts and worries lulled, rendering us silent, and present, and content.
Back in town, we ordered some drinks, pleasant concoctions of something fruity and a little too sweet, and plotted our days ahead: the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Lick Observatory, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and San Jose’s Japanese Friendship Garden. Not bad for a busy work trip.