Is there a greater pleasure when traveling than hanging out and poking around a new territory? Searching out the unfamiliar, where nothing much and everything has the potential to surprise and offer unexpected connections and insights, is travel's supreme joy.
This sort of carefree exploration is the essence of a visit to Carmel. It starts out being so beautiful you don't mind if it also turns out to be a mindless indulgence. But soon enough, you inevitably begin to question and examine the very elements that create the overall attraction. In other words, Carmel's beauty is far deeper than its gorgeous skin, but you'd accept her even if it weren't so.
The legacy of Carmel began when the area's bounty attracted many visionaries and great thinkers who were resolute in their determination to protect the area. It's true that residents of this magical place are beyond wealthy; they are mega-rich. Against some criticism, they have historically not been content to rely on governmental agencies to handle this environment and, encouraged by their wealth, managed to create their own organizations to "protect and preserve."
Which is why visitors must pay a fee to travel the famed 17-Mile Drive. This is one of the few private toll roads in the country, owned and maintained by the Pebble Beach corporation. There are three separate tollgates guarding entrances to the loop, which takes visitors through the vast Del Monte Forest along a stunning coastal route that runs just south of Pacific Grove and through Carmel.
Moving from the secluded Spanish Bay to the treacherous Point Joe, where underwater colliding currents promise a vigorous ocean show, visitors are drawn to the amazing vistas along the route. At famed Bird Rock, observe huge colonies of cormorants, seals, and sea lions that roost and cavort. Over 150 species of birds call these woods home, allowing even casual bird-watchers to catch sight of many of them.
The visitor's map shows 21 Points of Interest, the most famous being the Lone Cypress. A testament to endurance and tenacity, the 200-year-old tree clings precariously to a cliff, taking whatever wind, salt, and storm the ocean dishes out. The tree is being aided currently in the hopes this symbol of Pebble Beach (it is copyrighted) will endure another century.
Just beyond the turn at Pescadero Point rests Stillwater Cove, where the multicolored pebbles first attracted visitors to the region over 100 years ago. During that era, horse-drawn carriages took picnicking pleasure seekers along this very route.
Leaving the 17-Mile Drive at the Carmel Gate, following along Scenic Road reveals multi-million-dollar "cottages" fronting the roadway leading to the mouth of the Carmel River and the deliciously beautiful River Beach State Park. With the exception of excellent diving options, the Beach is too treacherous for water sports. The main attraction here is the bird sanctuary and lagoon that is literally howling with aviary arias and teeming with fowl activities. (I haven't seen that much fluttering, flitting, and preening since I visited South Beach.) It is a stupendous site for bird lovers, artists, and anyone who loves nature and canvas-worthy settings.
Loop back around to Carmel Point, arriving ideally just before sunset. Take a stroll through the sugary sand as lovers spoon, dogs leap for frisbees, and photographers salivate at the coming attraction.
Like a precise, solid drive off the tee that results in a hole in one, ending your day of touring with sunset in Carmel is an occasion that may inspire you to buy everyone on the beach a drink. As with the golfer who suddenly hits his mark, you've likely spent years in misguided strivings, searching for perfection in all the wrong places, muscling through intensive attempts at improvement, seeking the keys to life's true meaning via better equipment, when the great paradox arrives.
In one fleeting, profound, and miraculous moment when you weren't even trying, you are suddenly face to face with the pure, unadulterated excellence you've searched for so long. It arrives effortlessly in a harmonic convergence of the laws of motion, a relaxed state of mind in elusive flow, and a brilliant dash of good fortune.
The sun sets. Pink, gold, purple swirls paint across the horizon. Life is so beautiful, its purpose so clear and unfettered. You are swimming in joy. In times such as this, eternal happiness seems assured.
Savor the experience. Take a picture. Moments like this do last a lifetime.