Rough Guide guidebooks are some of the best on the store shelf: thorough, entertaining and with excellent briefings on things historical, political and environmental. By and large we, and the Rough Guides, think alike.
But not in the case of Carmel.
|The coastline near Carmel, Calif., offers spectacular natural scenery.|
“Carmel,” the California Rough Guide opines, “seems the very epitome of parochial snobbishness. Local laws, enacted to preserve the rustic character of the town, prohibit parking meters . . . planning permission is required to cut down any tree, so they sprout everywhere, even in the middle of streets; and franchise stores are banned outright.” Well, really! How downright snobby can you get? Protecting trees. Offering free parking. Retaining rustic character. Tsk!
To my mind, the United States and Japan have one common failing. You hop on a bus or train, travel for hours (in Japan’s case usually seated next to a sort of . . . hobgoblin . . . with its shoes off and its rusty teeth wedged in a stinky, dried “carpet slipper” squid) and when you get off — hey ho! The urban view is exactly the same as the one you’ve just spent so long getting away from.
Same fast-food restaurants, chain stores and shoddy fling-it-up-who-cares-when-it-falls-down concrete architecture. Same lack of trees. Real trees, I mean, not those neutered, regimented specimens that pop out pink blossoms on cue, or have their limbs restrained by tree surgeons to keep them away from power lines.
No! It’s places like Carmel — quirky, parochial places, which make a point of being themselves (and letting the trees do likewise) that ensure the actual business of travel remains worthwhile.
We arrived in Carmel and thought, “Gosh, but this is astoundingly green!” Driving carefully down the main street toward the celebrated white sand beach, we passed mock Tudor houses, art galleries and tea shops. Our final thought as the ocean wind gusted wildly, clearing lungs and flinging hats into the stratosphere, was, “Ideal. Bless the Rough Guide series!”
You see, where we and the Rough Guide to California concur is in the book’s description of Carmel’s natural attractions. The “untouched nearby coastline is among the most beautiful in California.” It was that Rough Guide coastline review that brought us here.
Near Carmel is the exquisite Point Lobos State Reserve. Here grows one of the last two natural Monterey cypress groves on earth, and one of the only three Monterey pine forests. These gnarled, Tolkienesque trees were once widespread, but withdrew to Carmel’s misty headlands some 15,000 years ago as weather changed at the end of the Pleistocene epoch.
Lace lichen hangs from these ancient trees in huge feathery beards, reinforcing that Middle Earth feel. Lichen, incidentally, of any sort, is not one species, but two. Fungus provides the frame, and green algae acts as the mutual food producer.
Sea otters can be seen in abundance off Point Lobos, which is nothing short of a miracle given that the species was once hunted by fur traders down to a population of just 50 animals. Indeed the species was widely believed to be extinct until a tiny remnant population was discovered just south of Point Lobos in the late 1930s.
Now fully protected, the population is recovering well. Audible staccato clacks echo off Point Lobos’ troll-like cliffs as the sea otters crack open clam shells with stone tools. Bring binoculars — a close-up view of a sea otter is pure delight. Note the way they lie on their backs. This keeps their uninsulated paws out of the frigid water. Sea otter fur is the densest fur of all. At its thickest there are more than a million hairs in 6 sq. cm.
Whales also make the sea very well worth watching. Killer whale sightings are not as dependable as they are further north off Washington State’s San Juan Islands or off Canada’s Vancouver Island. Don’t rule them out though, particularly during the great 22,000-strong gray whale migration that passes Point Lobos, south then north, from December to March. Wild killer whales (or orcas) have never killed a human being, but in packs they hound the grays, humpbacks and even the gigantic blue whales.
Writing up his day’s sightings, one of the Point Lobos docents (voluntary rangers) reported 12-15 orcas, close in, just off the kelp and very close to gray whales. Further out, at the same time a pod of “60 minimum” was cruising. And where they were, there was blood slicking the water. The docents will keep you up to date with all sightings and also offer excellent guided walks.
Meeting a cougar is one of life’s less predictable incidents but quite possible here. If you bump into a large felid, check its tail. Short? Bobcat. Long and swishy? Jackpot. You’re looking at a cougar. What happens next is up to it.
|The whalers have long since gone, but ground squirrels still abound at Whalers Cove in Point Lobos State Reserve.|
Pinnacle Cove has pinnacles and peregrine falcons. Guillemot Island has guillemots. Sea Lion Rocks has sea lions. Bird Island has, yup, birds. But Whalers Cove lacks whalers. In times past, yes, but the breed is now locally extinct. Instead you’ll find harbor seals, frisky ground squirrels and currents that do the most uncanny things to the surface of the sea. Some parts of the cove ripple, others are as still as a mirror while patches of kelp swirl hither and yon like the hair of (rather large) drowned hippies.
Point Lobos is an all-weather experience. If the sun is shining, the spring flowers (woodmint, star zygadene, seaside painted cups) are up and shearwaters are skimming past on their journey from Australian wintering grounds to their Alaskan summer retreat, then it’s just plain mellow. But visit too when the storms come racing in off the Pacific, the surf pounds the sea cliffs, spray shoots high into the air and the sea lions bellow.
Yet as the elements shriek and roar and batter at the coast, just 15 minutes away Carmel’s inns offer log fires, hot chowder, the chance to glimpse former mayor Clint Eastwood, and the sort of cozy glows that make a storm worth coming home from.
By the way, try the balsamically reduced duck at the Pine Inn (Carmel’s oldest inn). Sensational.