CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. —A stroll around this magical bayside town that gained fame in the 1920s as a bohemian art colony is a highlight of any trip to the Monterey Peninsula.
It's always intriguing to get lost among the warrens of shops and four-star bistros, mysterious alleyways, hidden courtyards and vibrant gardens, and to explore the fascinating architecture — a surprise around every corner — and understated history.
We wanted to get more up-close and personal, so we signed on with Carmel Walks for a two-hour (dog-friendly) tour.
As we waited for tour group members to assemble in the shaded courtyard of Ocean Avenue's Pine Inn (built in 1903), we chatted with our guide, Gale Wrausmann, who founded Carmel Walks 14 years ago. She grew up in San Francisco and holds a master's degree in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley; it was her passion for photography that brought her here.
"I finally moved here in 1995 and began photographing, with the idea of doing a book (due in 2010)," she said. "I thought I knew the area well because I'd played tournament golf here. But as I explored, I was surprised by the things I was finding — which nobody knew about — so I did research on the area.
"My friends and neighbors were fascinated, so I started giving tours on Saturdays. That turned into five days a week, year-round."
The best part of her job is meeting tourists from around the globe, Wrausmann said.
"In a small town, I literally have the whole world come to my doorstep. I get exercise and earn a living at the same time."
Meanwhile, the Pine Inn courtyard was filling with the other tour members. Some were from the Bay Area, others from Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and cities in Germany and England.
"I've had people on my tour from all 50 states and almost every country in the world," Wrausmann said. "We've had Broadway actors perform for us on the stage of the Forest Theater — which, by the way, was the first outdoor theater west of the Rockies (1910).
"Robert Redford's daughter lives in town, and we walked right by him one day," she said. "He was dressed down, so only one other person recognized him.
"I had the woman from England (Peggy Seeger) who inspired her husband (Ewan MacColl) to write 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.' She sang it for us on the tour."
Roberta Flack popularized the song in the movie "Play Misty for Me" (1971), which was filmed in Carmel and starred Clint Eastwood, a longtime resident and major property owner who served as mayor from 1986 to 1988.
The animated Wrausmann is full of informed tidbits and anecdotes — a living history of Carmel, as we discovered during her narrated tour. We followed her down alleyways, across courtyards, up stairways (some designed by architect Julia Morgan), alongside gardens, into vintage buildings and along the narrow streets and sidewalks of Carmel.
Because there's no street mail delivery in Carmel — that's why the post office is such a popular social gathering place for locals — there are few specific addresses. Thus, the locations here are identified by intersections.
Tour highlights included:
The on-site Aubergine restaurant stores its wine cache of 4,500 bottles in a cellar beneath the courtyard.
"A friend of mine who worked with Clint once asked him why he named it the Hog's Breath Inn," Wrausmann told our group. "His answer was, 'To keep people away.' Of course, it went on to become the No. 1 tourist destination in Carmel."
In 2003, a special roped-off room was built to display a table at which artist Vincent Van Gogh took meals at the restaurant of the Auberge Ravoux boardinghouse in a town north of Paris. It was a gift to Casanova owner Walter Georis from the owner of Auberge Ravoux.
The cottages were built by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s. The first, Hansel (or the Doll House), was constructed for his wife as a showroom and storage space for the Otsy-Totsy dolls she handmade and sold to major markets. Comstock built the second — Gretel — as a mini-workshop.
Carmelites were so taken with the novelty of his fairy tale style that they hired him to build more cottages — about 20 in all. Other builders soon joined the party, sprinkling Carmel with the fairy tale cottages and storefronts that epitomize the town today.
The fairy tale style is characterized by crooked lines, swooping roofs, turrets, alcoves and stone chimneys that appear to be on the brink of tumbling down. One of the most visible is the Tuck Box, which became an English tea room in the 1940s (Dolores between Ocean and Seventh; 831-624-6365 or www.tuckbox.com).
Our tour was over, and it was time to find a restaurant for a great lunch — the easiest task of the day.
IF YOU GO:
Carmel Walks offers two-hour guided tours that highlight the famous residents, history and architecture that have made Carmel-by-the-Sea one of America's most unusual villages.
Tours are 10 a.m. Tuesday- Friday, and 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday. Tour groups are limited to 20 people; private tours are available.
Cost: $25 per person
Reservations: (831) 642-2700 or www.carmelwalks.com