“I want to go here, then here, and then up here. Then down this path. And is that where the goats are? Let’s go there. Oh, and we need to try all of the swings.”
We’d just arrived at Carmel Valley Ranch and our four-year-old son, Oliver, was already plotting on a map every minute of our four-day stay.
To be honest we needed him, because the information, directions, and schedules you receive upon checking in at this sprawling hotel complex are daunting. There’s a lot you could do. Morning yoga or bath bomb–making? Archery or bocce ball? Beeswax candle–making or maybe just chilling?
We were here largely for the children’s activities—to allow Oli to roam freely under the late summer sun amid Carmel Valley’s undulating hills—with the region’s food and wine a close second. (And OK, maybe a little bit of time in the grown-up pool while he was at kids’ club).
Since a major upgrade this summer, the resort offers even more opportunities for kids. On top of a huge array of existing options, the property recently added falconry, a junior naturalist camp, a “Nocturnal Nights” walk to spot owls and bats, and even hatchet-throwing.
Hatchets seemed a bit sharp for someone who is still learning to operate round-edged scissors, so we opted for gentler options. We spent a lot of time in the gardens, examining flowers and vegetables, learning the inner workings of beekeeping by some 30 hives, and meeting Carmel Valley Ranch’s resident Swiss nanny goats. The petting sessions were cute, and everyone made a friend or two, but these creatures come with a backstory.
They belong to Charlie Cascio, a goat farmer (and experienced chef with years of culinary training across Europe) who saw his self-sufficient farm in Big Sur devastated by wildfire in 2016. After the blaze, he was invited to relocate the goats to the hotel property, and since May this year he’s been managing the new onsite creamery, where he churns out goat’s milk cheeses right next to the main lodge entrance.
An affable chap who still lives in a yurt down the coast, Charlie is full of stories of his time in Amsterdam “at the end of the hippie renaissance,” his chance encounters with a shepherd that led him to goat rearing, and his time as a private chef and working in high-end French kitchens. He’s also super passionate about his cheeses, showing me (and anyone who asks) the rounds and pyramids of crottin, chèvre, and peppercorn-studded caprino romano cheeses, excitedly explaining his plans to add hard cheeses and spices like fenugreek to the mix in coming months.
Charlie’s creations complement the other in-house and local products: honey from the apiary; sea salt from a drying room in the garden; wine from the vines surrounding the restaurant; seafood from nearby Monterey. So while kids can learn all about the farm, parents get to enjoy the table.
The local products are all woven into the menu at the hotel’s Valley Kitchen, showcased during regular family style pop-up meals in the garden itself and on sale as a do-it-yourself picnic in the new-for-summer-2019 Market Creamery, a kind of upscale grocery store and coffee shop with built-in artisan workshop benches.
The focus on take-out options reinforces the philosophy at Carmel Valley Ranch: to get outside and start exploring. And some of our most memorable moments during our stay were simple and unscheduled: swinging on all of the different swings hanging from venerable trees across the property; taking a hike at toddler speed to find more trees to climb and horse trails; spotting wild turkeys and deer roaming right outside our room.
Of course, all this idyllic family bonding was punctuated with plenty of tantrums. S’mores sessions round the fire pit triggered our son’s sugar demon alter ego, and I ended up carrying him sideways and bellowing past the valets into the woods, much to the amusement of a contingent of new conference guests. We spent several hours looking for a lost toy. There were numerous arguments around the ping-pong table. None lasted too long, though. Not with this much cool stuff to do.
More family fun in Monterey County
Carmel, Monterey, and Big Sur are dotted with alfresco opportunities for traveling families. Monterey is rightly renowed for its world-class aquarium, where we spent a lot of time picking up and putting down toys in the gift shop. (We did manage to see the penguins feeding and the sea otters barrel-rolling, though).
Kids will also love tidepooling at nearby beaches, the candy shops and arcades of Cannery Row, and Dennis the Menace Playground—an exceptional outdoor wonderland full of tunnels and bridges.
We also convinced Oliver to join us on a hike around Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, an untouched stretch of coastline in which cars are capped at 150. His patience and stamina lasted right up until I got us lost and we had to backtrack. Excursions along the 17-mile drive and the Pacific Grove headland were great ways to while away in-car nap time too.
Big Sur, meanwhile, is a forested dreamland for children and the childlike, where hotels like Big Sur Lodge may not have TVs or Wi-Fi but offer hikes under the redwoods and swims in meandering streams.
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