C is for Carmel (by-the-Sea): Beach Bohemia


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Now that temps in California are reaching the “balmy” level again while most of the country is still shoveling snow, I feel the desire to go to the beach and, in California, we are blessed with many, although the beach at Carmel is maybe one of the most picturesque. The city itself may want to keep tourists out, as it describes itself with an understatement that is particularly un-American: I am paraphrasing as I am working from the Dutch copy and I am too lazy to look up the original quote, but Carmel is described as a town in the woods with a view on a white sandy beach.

Maybe this is one of the most picturesque beaches in Northern California for this town of cypress trees and beautiful woods is a gem in itself, plus it has a beach that could be used for any sort of commercial. As happens with places like these, artists are drawn to such places like bees to their hive and already in 1910 it became clear that 60% of the homes in Carmel was inhabited by artists.

Just like Bolinas, this means that there are strange and odd habits that are being cultivated by these beach bohemians: there are no street lights (so people can do better star gazing), or parking meters (although last time I was there I do remember meters?) and the homes have no street numbers which makes the mailman redundant: residents fetch their mail at the centrally located post office and this turns the post office into more of a community center than the place where one comes for stamps.

When Clint Eastwood became mayor of the town in 1988, he ended some of these strange laws like the ban on the sale and eating of ice cream in public.

If you are a dog lover you might want to know that Carmel is one of the dog-friendliest places on the West Coast: most hotels and inns allow pets and this was started by movie star Doris Day, a dog lover who also happened to run the by now legendary Cypress Inn. The beautiful beach is also always crawling with dogs but the place is wide enough for everyone to fit and most dog owners in the US pick up their pooches’ poo.

The picturesqueness of the place does not only have to do with the beach or the cypresses but the town’s ambiance is accentuated by the windy roads and the so-called storybook style cottages. This type of architecture was very popular in LA during the 1920s. Due to the elaborate historic Old World sets, movie stars started fantasizing that it might be cool to build some European kitsch of their own. In Carmel, the architect Hugh Comstock designed twenty or so storybook follies, which had to represent a quaint English village, with undulating roofs, round doors and asymmetrical stone chimneys. Imagine a house where you would find a witch with a pointy nose, sewer breath and a chin which sports half a beard. In the back room you might find Hansel and Gretel wasting away, right? Americans love this shit—or maybe I should just say, isn’t the American Dream the realization that, one day, you actually find yourself living in Disneyland? If you can understand this kind of local color, you know what California is all about…

Aside from the many fairytale dwellings, Carmel has an old Spanish mission, i.e. San Carlos de Borromeo (1771) plus a real Bach festival. Famous residents (past and present) include Ansel Adams, Jennifer Anniston, Doris Day, Clint Eastwood, Joan Fontaine, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Rupert Murdoch, Brad Pitt, Charles Schwab, Upton Sinclair, Robert Louis Stevenson and Betty White.

In 1906, the American poet Nora May French committed suicide in the house of fellow poet George Sterling. Sterling was instrumental in selling Carmel as an artists’ retreat and that no one has written a mystery about the suicide (was it a suicide?) is hard to imagine once you have ambled about in atmospheric, cozy Carmel.

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