In a state teeming with darling small towns and cities, Monterey County’s (seemonterey.com) Carmel-by-the-Sea may just be its crown jewel. At just one square mile, this tiny city defines haute seaside charm, its European- inspired downtown strewn with one-of-a-kind locales and enveloped by swathes of dramatic, windswept beach.
Exclusive boutiques and art galleries populate the city’s streets, but the design-driven downtown also serves as a showroom for the regional vineyards of Carmel Valley. Unlike Napa and Sonoma, where wine tastings take place at the estates themselves, many regional wineries house tasting rooms in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea. To experience these tasting rooms to the fullest, opt for the Carmel Wine Walk (carmelcalifornia.org), a passport that entitles holders to samplings at a dozen downtown locales. Oenophiles earn a stamp after each four-glass sojourn.
There’s plenty to do beyond downtown, as natural splendor surrounds Carmel-by-the-Sea. Monster jellyfish, gregarious seals and gray whales skirt past the craggy coastline of Point Lobos State Nature Reserve while farther north, Big Sur wows with endless, awe-inspiring panoramas. Colossal waves lap rugged promontories, zigzagging across some 90 miles; an unspoiled interior, draped in rainbows of green, showcases primeval redwoods and other arboreal giants that seem to touch the sky.
In nearby Monterey, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org) uncovers the mysterious life under the sea off California’s north coast. From leopard sharks sliding through the mysterious Kelp Forest to the two-ton ocean sunfish in Open Sea, the exhibits give visitors a new appreciation for California’s marine life. The aquarium also serves as a think tank and research center for the global Seafood Watch (seafoodwatch.org), guiding consumers and restaurateurs in the most sustainable decisions concerning fish and seafood. Restaurants like Monterey County’s Passion Fish (passionfish.net) abide strictly by these guidelines, serving fresh, sustainable dishes like smoked trout ceviche tostaditas with cashew pesto and salsa brava followed by sea scallops in tomato-truffle butter over rice pudding.
When it comes to accommodations in the area, hotel L’Auberge Carmel (laubergecarmel.com) is the quintessence of the city’s old-world elegance. The 20-room Relais & Chateaux property recalls the intimate inns of rural France, with a beautiful central courtyard and original coved plaster walls from 1929. Yet L’Auberge Carmel keeps history in style with modern luxuries such as oversized bath areas with heated floors and designer beds. The property’s intimate in-house restaurant, Aubergine Restaurant (auberginecarmel.com), is a gastronomic tour de force. Aubergine’s Executive Chef Justin Cogley, Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef 2013,” marries French inspiration and California flair using prime ingredients such as succulent Monterey Bay abalone and farm-fresh black trumpet mushrooms.