As you make plans for a weekend getaway, keep this in mind: Carmel and Monterey are a quick two hour drive south of the San Francisco. For those with an appetite for some of the best wine tasting and gastronomic treasures around, it’s time to get going. Recently, my husband and I made the trip – staying in unique properties and enjoying the verdant region with its knock-out views.
Monterey’s historic Cannery Row was our starting point. Don’t dismiss this out of hand as “too touristy.” The area is steeped in history as the epicenter of Steinbeck country. It’s the ideal place to jump start the fun. We checked into the InterContinental The Clement Monterey – the perfect location (for us and the car). The modern hotel sits on Monterey Bay (and a national marine sanctuary) and fits into its seaside locale with a weathered exterior and boardwalk. The interior is upscale and inviting and the rooms are comfortable, spacious, loaded with amenities and many have views of the main street and the scenic bay (some with balconies). From here, it’s a quick walk around town.
We strolled over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, inhaling the salty sea air along the way. This popular venue inspires conservation of the oceans through “teaching” exhibits of sea life. From sharks to jelly fish, sea turtles to penguins, there are wonderful displays to be discovered, including the reinvented Open Sea wing.
For lunch, we tried the Monterey Bay Aquarium Restaurant – Cindy Pawlcyn’s latest adventure serving up fresh, local and sustainable creations. Every seat has Bay views – all the better because with borrowed binoculars and a guide, you’ll be able to identify the birds you spot. Hog Farms grilled asparagus, wild Pacific Dungeness crab cakes and the Thai style mussels are hits.
Afterwards, we set out on the Cannery Row Wine Walk. Each tasting room has a unique vibe and friendly staff.
A Taste of Monterey (representing more than 70 wineries): Don’t miss the 2007 Cobblestone Chardonnay and Boëté’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and 2006 Reserve Cabernet Franc.
Scheid Vineyards: Find great Reserves, especially the 2007 Chardonnay and 2006 Claret. Their 2008 50/50 is a unique Cabernet/Syrah blend.
Baywood Cellars: Try the sweet wines – the 2003 Symphony Late Harvest, 2000 10-year Tawny Port and the Grappa Limoncello.
Pierce Ranch: The 2010 Albariño 2007 Tourbillon and 2007 Tempranillo are outstanding.
Dinner that night was at the hotel’s C Restaurant, where we experienced a spectacular view of the marine sanctuary, the setting sun and the endless ocean. The restaurant is an avid follower of the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program – you eat only what’s sustainable. Since local ingredients rule, we opted for the smoked trout sashimi with radishes, cured lemon and miso-yuzu vinaigrette, pork shank terrine with Dungeness crab and beluga lentils, and caramelized day boat sea scallops served with a porcini mushroom-leek stew. We paired local wines with each delectable course. It was an easy elevator ride home to be lulled to sleep by crashing waves and glow from the fireplace.
The sunrise over Monterey Bay the next morning was stunning. On our way south to Carmel, we stopped at Morgan Winery, tucked into a shopping area just outside of downtown. Bright and airy, taste both Morgan and Lee Family Farm wines including the 2008 Double L Syrah and the 2008 Garys’ Pinot Noir.
From there, it’s a five minute drive to the picture perfect (and one of the pet friendliest) towns – Carmel-by-the-Sea. This charming enclave is home to shopping, galleries and cafes.
Carmel’s scenic beach is a must see. Then it was lunch at Cantinetta Luca with its colorful interior, brick lined walls and wood-burning oven. The classic Italian food is simple and rustic. We ate the best grilled king prawns with corona beans, roasted peppers and salsa verde as well as house made salumes and a funghi pizza with criminis, spinach and gorgonzola. All this was matched with vibrant Italian wines; it was heaven.
Wine tasting in Carmel is easy – stroll the streets and courtyards and stop along the way. Figge Cellars: The 2009 Pelio Chardonnay, 2006 Syrah and 2008 Paraiso Pinot Noir are not to be missed. Cima Collina: Favorites include the 2005 Hilltop Estate Pinot Noir and 2009 Tondre Grapefield Riesling. Caraccioli Cellars: Love the 2006 Brut Cuvee, 2008 Chardonnay and 2007 Pinot Noir. Galante Vineyards: Enjoy the 2005 “Blackjack Pasture” Cabernet, 2008 “Olive Hill” Petite Sirah and an interesting blend in the 2007 Grand Champion.
The lush Auberge Carmel is nestled in the midst of downtown. It is a serene and beautiful French country oasis. This Relais and Châteux offers luxe accommodations in a boutique setting. The landscaped courtyard was awash in bright flora and a lovely place to relax. Each of the 20 rooms is distinctive; all boast rich fabrics, warm interiors and large bathrooms (some with soaking tubs).
Dinner at L’Aubergine, the cozy 12-table restaurant in the hotel was memorable. Four luscious courses featured ingredients delivered by local farmers. The amuse bouches were awesome, especially the English pea sponge cake with pea purée and pea shoots.
Luscious hamachi with sea beans, sea water, bonito jelly and uni was just one of the four courses. Others included ocean trout with crispy skin and halibut with sea lettuce, oyster and pig tail. And the international wine selections were incredible. We ended the delicious evening with a strawberry cream cheese parfait.
Next morning, the full breakfast (included with our room) gave us the fuel to make the scenic drive home.
It’s always the time to visit Monterey and Carmel. You know you’ll eat, drink and sleep well!