You’ll note the horses before you spy a single grapevine on your drive into Carmel Valley, a pastoral wine country with evident ranch land roots. Yet tucked between the stables and cowboy saloons are a few compelling gems to build a weekend upon. Like California’s other brand name valleys, the region promises a breezy, food-and-wine filled escape amidst sunny, natural splendor.
The biggest news in Carmel Valley is the renovation of its regarded, upscale resort. Reopened last month after a complete rehaul of the 28-acre vineyard-set property—darkening walls knocked out, interiors brought into the 21st century—it suddenly feels like a stylish, full-service boutique. 57 contemporary suites with private decks, most with views of the Santa Lucia Mountains, are housed in low-slung buildings amidst swaying poplar trees. Amenity junkies take note: suites come stocked with complimentary goodies like Cypress Grove chevre, French sodas, craft beer, and splits of quality Pinot and Chard. Striking, white marble bathrooms include the kind of fancy spa soaps that eventually find their way into your luggage. Spend days lounging poolside, tossing a bocce ball on the green courtyard, or soaking in the spa facilities open to all guests. When it's time for a nibble, Lucia's handsome dining room with clean lines and tufted white leather chairs opens to a patio overlooking the vineyards and chef's garden. Wake for poached eggs with spiced yogurt or a velvety smoked salmon with all the fixings. Before sitting down for dinner, take a cocktail—a ruby red Martinez with sprig of lavender—out to the teak Adirondacks fronting a large, wood-burning hearth. If you can manage to pull yourself away, there's a fleet of shiny Mercedes coupes and SUVs with your name on it.
This sprawling, 4,462 acre park is the valley’s pup-friendly playground. Its wildly diverse topography—from the shaded Carmel River to sage-covered peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains—is laced with 53 miles of trails. Get your bearings at an informative visitors center set in a field of blossoming poppies. From there, an easy trail loop leads you past a seasonal waterfall that's currently dry thanks to the you-know-what, yet still features an impressive fern-lined grotto.
Stroll Carmel Valley's central village of wine tasting rooms interrupted by the occasional taqueria and you'll stumble upon this unexpected gallery-slash-bar filled with hip, lowbrow art. The funky-cool space sports makeshift living areas, wine barrel tables, and a humble bar with 70 craft beers and ciders. On the walls: the street-art influenced works of co-owner Neil Kirkpatrick as well as other local artists. Check the calendar for regular painting classes—paired with beer, naturally.
Carmel Valley wineries are spread far apart but its tasting rooms are a stone’s throw from each other in a walkable village. Stop in at Cheseboro for solid, reasonably-priced wines in a modern barn interior with corrugated metal and vaulted ceilings. Grapes come from the nearby Arroyo Seco appellation which, like San Francisco, is often blanketed in fog from afternoon until late morning. The result is soft, floral wine like a unique Vermentino, that tastes of interesting citrus fruits like Kefir Lime and Asian Pear.
This tasting room with a Millennial sensibility—Edison bulbs, exposed beams, and artwork that leans more Po-Mo than plein air—is not too unlike a SOMA loft save for the green Santa Lucia Mountains peering through the windows. The locally distributed winery produces a lot of varietals—two full menus worth—but stick with Pinots and you’ll be happy. They also feature a pleasant, rotating blend on tap that you can get by the glass or in a refillable growler to take on your way.
The Farm Stand at Earthbound Farms
A worthwhile stop as you head into the valley, this display farm honors the original Earthbound farm stand founded by two Manhattan transplants who unwittingly started the bagged lettuce trend and became patron saints of Tuesday night dinner. Set amidst the lush, vibrant grounds—don't miss the clip-your-own herb garden—is a charming market with picnic supplies and a small organic kitchen with killer salad bar. Grab some tongs and fill up a bowl to take to the picturesque picnic areas dotted about.
Lokal means Local in Czech which helps describe where Chef Brendan Jones was when he bought a blue collar diner sight-unseen over the phone. He was working in Michelin-starred kitchens throughout Europe before deciding to return home and create one of the valley's dining destinations. Reclaimed wood and big chalkboard walls inform the simple, modern interior. Outside, a pleasant dining patio sits next to a bed of colorful vegetables and flowers. As the name suggests, everything is locally-sourced starting with produce from Jones' mom's nearby organic garden. A hearty brunch menu is served most days until 3 p.m. when regulars return for egg dishes loaded with veggies. In the evening, Jones shows off his chops with dishes like beef tartare with tarragon ice cream. The gregarious chef is also quite the raconteur. Buy him a ginger beer (he doesn’t drink) and enjoy the lokal scuttlebutt.