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Local Getaways: Why Carmel Valley Is the Wine Country Escape You Need

By Aislyn Greene

Oct 14, 2020

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The lengthy Carmel Valley Road takes travelers from the California coast to the valley's rich interior.

Photo by Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

The lengthy Carmel Valley Road takes travelers from the California coast to the valley's rich interior.

Do a little hike. Taste a little wine. Get down tonight—in Carmel Valley, an easy wine country escape south of San Francisco.

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Surprise! Carmel Valley is not the same place as Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel-by-the-Sea is the foggy little town where Clint Eastwood was once mayor and chain restaurants are banned. Carmel Valley—named after the Carmelite friars who passed through—is the hotter, drier inland stretch, close enough to Carmel-by-the-Sea to visit, but a world away, culturally speaking. It’s an agricultural corridor, home to vineyards, orchards, and farms. Here’s how to revel in the bounty.

Where to stay in Carmel Valley

Carmel Valley Ranch

Book now: from $585/night, expedia.com

This sprawling complex occupying 500 acres is perfect for families, golfers, and hikers (or families of golfers and hikers!). Set on the edge of a par-70 golf course, Carmel Valley has large rooms (including multi-bedroom suites), three pools, an on-site farm and apiary, as well as a restaurant with outdoor dining. Activities for the littles include half- and full-day programs; adults can hike the trails climbing above the property or take part in an archery or falconry lesson. 

Bernardus Lodge & Spa

Book now: from $495/night, expedia.com

This wine country escape looks straight out of a Tuscan film, down to the 28 acres of vineyards. Guest rooms open to the garden, overlook the vineyard, or offer easy access to bocce ball courts; villas offer fireplaces and copper soaking tubs. Spend the day at the Bernardus spa and the evening tasting wines at the on-site restaurant, Lucia. Bonus: It’s dog-friendly! 

Hygge House Airbnb

Book now: $2,143/night, airbnb.com

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An Airbnb as cozy as it sounds, this five-bedroom, four-bath house is well suited for a family or friends getaway. Sip wine by the outdoor firepit, soak in the hot tub, prep a meal in the full chef’s kitchen, or hike the trails in nearby Garland Ranch Regional Park. 

Elopement Wedding Wine Country Treehouse Airbnb

Book now: $273/night, airbnb.com

Despite its name, this one-bedroom tree-houseish cottage is not just for honeymooners. Anyone looking for a romantic weekend away can book the one-bedroom cottage constructed partially on stilts (hence the tree-houseish) beneath a canopy of oak trees. The cottage was built to maximize nature views: Gaze through the skylights over the bed or settle into Adirondack chairs on the deck overlooking a sea of trees.

Things to do in Carmel Valley

Carmel, like caramel, is about indulgence. So hop into some comfy, wine-country-casual attire and prepare for a weekend of winetasting, hiking, and possibly even a little spa-ing.

Winetasting 

There are dozens of tasting rooms along Valley Road, the main thoroughfare, and they’re close enough that you can pick the ones that appeal most. A number of them are clumped together in Carmel Valley Village, a quasi-downtown space, including the following three.

Cowgirl Winery: Fulfill any half-baked western fantasies while sipping a glass of albariño or pinot noir and listening to the sounds of bluegrass, as softly clucking chickens circle underfoot. A barn-like tasting room completes the look.

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Joyce: Book a tasting at the dog-friendly Joyce, a father-and-son duo who craft wines using fruit from multiple small sustainability-minded vineyards. Lounge in the contemporary outdoor space with a glass of pinot or Provence-style rosé. Bocce ball courts and firepits add to the outdoor appeal. Reservations recommended. 

Albatross Ridge: Another family project—this one named for a pilot grandfather who flew gliders from the nearby mountains—Albatross Ridge recently opened a new tasting room in Carmel Valley. Taste through the winery’s specialties (pinot and chardonnay) in a charming cottage, complete with a little lighthouse-like skylight. Reservations recommended.

Refuge Spa

It’s always good when a place lives up to a name and Refuge is most certainly a sanctuary. Acolytes go for its “Refuge Thermal Cycle,” a circuit that begins in a cedar sauna and ends in a zero-gravity chair, with stops in eucalyptus steam rooms, hot and cold plunge pools, and Adirondack chairs that encircle a firepit. Add on a 50 or 100-minute massage and you’re guaranteed to kick any residual 2020 stress to the curb.

Garland Ranch Regional Park

Take a break from winetasting and climb a few hills. The nearly 3,500-acre Garland Ranch park has them in spades. For a moderate hike, try the 2.1-mile Garland Ranch Waterfall loop, and for a true sweat sesh, tackle the 8.7-mile Pinyon Peak loop trail. Throughout the park, watch for nods to the valley’s history: abandoned homesteads, the detritus of old logging camps, and tools from the Rumsen people who once inhabited the area.   

Explore Carmel Valley Village

Pop into Quail & Olive to taste (and bring home) your new favorite California olive oil. Travel-minded gearheads might stop by Moto Talbott to view the museum’s collection of motorcycles from around the world.

Where to eat and drink in Carmel Valley

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Kathy’s Little Kitchen: This petite hole-in-the-wall has burgers on the menu, but the tacos and Mexican combo meals, such as spicy shrimp diabla with rice and beans, are the reason to go. (The small breakfast menu is also solid and reasonably priced.) There are a few outdoor tables, but Kathy’s can be busy, so come prepared to wait—or just get food to go.  

Corkscrew Café: A colorful member of the Carmel Valley Village, Corkscrew is a tasty way to break up winetastings. Snag a table in the pretty, vine-shaded outdoor space—strung with lights and a multicolored banner—and choose from a satisfying menu of cheese plates, pizza, and hearty mains. 

Valley Kitchen: Part of the Carmel Valley Ranch, Valley Kitchen is a tribute to Carmel Valley’s agricultural wonder. The menu features as much on-site produce as possible—honey from the apiary, cheese from the Valley goats, produce from the small farm. Go for breakfast, go for dinner, just go.

Roux: French techniques and local produce collide, wonderfully, at this dog-friendly Valley favorite. Helmed by chef Fabrice Roux—a French native—the menu offers gussied-up comfort foods (chorizo corndogs) and elegant classics (escargot with garlic-parsley butter). 

Lucia: Another ode to the local bounty, Lucia is worth a stop even if you don’t stay the night. Though after a meal of crab cakes, wagyu beef with black truffle, and bread pudding with honeycomb ice cream—plus a bottle of Bernardus red—you might just change your mind.

How to get to Carmel Valley from San Francisco

  • You’ll want wheels to visit Carmel Valley. From San Francisco, 101 is the fastest way south. Follow directions to CA-1 S, then turn onto Carmel Valley Road, or G16. The trip takes about two and a half hours.
  • For a more scenic route, cut over to Highway 1 in San Francisco and follow the coast down before turning off onto Carmel Valley Road. This route takes a little over three hours.

>>Next: A Guide to the Ideal Weekend in Big Sur

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