Chill Out and Drink Up in Carmel Valley

1. Where to Stay

Extensive grounds surround the refined Western-style rooms at Carmel Valley Ranch.Photo: Courtesy of Carmel Valley Ranch

Take advantage of the bevy of outdoorsy activities at Carmel Valley Ranch (from $325). Sunset hikes, tennis mixers, hilltop yoga, and stargazing are all on the bill at this 500-acre property (a $30 fee covers most activities), which feels more like an especially luxurious camp retreat thanks to a $35 million renovation in 2010. The 139 suites have private decks, fireplaces, and soaking tubs, while the grounds boast an 11,000-square-foot spa and bonfire pits for nighttime s’mores sessions. Earthy foodies, take note: Last September, the resort added a hen house to its farmstead, which also includes an apiary, salt house, and two-acre organic garden. Sign up for a gardening session with farmer Mark or just stop by on Saturday mornings to quiz him on his bounty—then grab a laid-back dinner at the Lodge, where the ranch wedge with Point Reyes blue cheese dressing ($14) and the sweet-spicy honey-chile chicken wings ($13) are musts.

Kick back or tee off at Quail Lodge (from $195), which reopened in March 2013 after a $28 million makeover. Once country-club conservative, the 93 rooms and suites spread across a dozen bungalows now have a contemporary ranch feel, with rustic modern furnishings, wood-beamed ceilings, and warm yellow accent walls, plus roomy bathrooms with deep tubs and private balconies or terraces. Golfers will dig the Robert Muir Graves–designed course (green fees from $80), and thrill-seekers can face off-road obstacles at the on-site Land Rover Experience Driving School ($250 per vehicle for one hour). The less athletically inclined can happily doze off beside the tranquil lake on the grounds, or stroll along the one-and-a-half-mile South Bank trail, a new walking path that runs between the lodge and Palo Corona Regional Park, with views of the Carmel River.

Stay close to the valley’s shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms at the Sanctuary Cottage (from $317). Details like a stained glass window above the queen-size bed spruce up simple but smart interiors—but the grounds are the real draw. The home sits on seven acres of rose bushes, fruit trees, and ponds (including a koi pond with a waterfall, which the cottage overlooks), and guests are welcome to take advantage of the seasonal vegetable garden. And though town’s close by, there’s plenty of entertainment on the property, including a solar-heated pool and a ping-pong table.

2. Where to Eat

The on-site garden at Bernardus Lodge furnishes much of the produce at Cal Stemanov's coolly elegant Marinus.Photo: Courtesy of Marinus

Grab a seat on the quiet patio at aptly named Lokal. The two-year-old café is the brain child of chef Brendan Jones, who worked at two-Michelin-star Mugaritz near San Sebastian, Spain. The look here is minimalist (think spare, reclaimed wood and concrete), but the menu is decidedly not. Offerings change daily, but you might find pear salad with parsnip chips, Point Reyes blue cheese, and yuzu-honey dressing ($14) or a surf and turf of scallops, pork belly, and uni foam ($19). Before repairing to your table, pull up to the salvaged redwood bar (taken from the stage where Hendrix played at the Monterrey Pop Festival) to split a bottle of the Caraccioli brut rose ($58), a bright sparkling wine from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Dig into hyperseasonal fare at Marinus, Cal Stamenov’s rustic-elegant spot at the Bernardus Lodge. The chef is somewhat of a local legend who worked with Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, and Masa Kobayashi before landing in Carmel Valley. Much of the menu is sourced from the on-site garden, including dishes like spring onion agnolotti with sheep’s-milk ricotta and nasturtium broth ($17) or Sonoma duck with fresh corn polenta, chanterelles, and bing cherry jus ($36). The 1,600-label wine list may look intimidating, but it’s worth a browse for its significant attention to affordable local finds, including Bernardus Winery’s crisp, acidic Griva Sauvignon Blanc ($38). Save room for desserts like roasted pineapple with fromage blanc panna cotta and housemade coconut sorbet ($12).

Break bread with cowboys and winemakers at Will’s Fargo Dining House & Saloon, a 1950s roadhouse that was taken over by Bernardus founder Ben Pon in 2002. The Wild West décor—think bull horns and red velveteen on the walls—and complimentary tray of veggies with ranch dressing haven’t changed over the decades, but Brittany-born chef Jerome Viel has given the steakhouse menu a very French makeover. Try bistro staples like escargots with garlic-herb butter ($9.95) and steak tartare with frites ($26.95), or just give in to kitschier tendencies and order the consistently juicy, perfectly pink Nebraska corn-fed prime rib ($28).

3. What to Do

Tasting room-hoppers can stop off at Cowgirl Winery for a glass of rose and a bocce game.Photo: Courtesy of Cowgirl Winery

Take a stroll through Carmel Valley Village’s tasting rooms. A slew of area wineries—21 at last tally, including two just outside of town—have opened more intimate sampling spots here in the last few years. Locals come for gallon growlers of whatever’s on tap, plus small-lot wines like the 2013 grenache rose from father-son team Francis and Russell Joyce at the industrial-cool Joyce Vineyards. Trade your old cowboy boots for a free bottle of wine (try the dry but fruity blush or the full-bodied, dark ruby Hacienda blend) at Cowgirl Winery, which opened in December 2012 as an offshoot of Georis (a go-to for Bordeaux varietals down the street). Located in an old red barn, the tasting room shares an expansive outdoor area, complete with pinot noir vines, bocce ball courts, a chicken coop, and a Ford truck-cum-picnic table, with Talbott Vineyards, known for its standout chardonnays (and its collection of vintage motorcycles and pedal cars).

Imagine the low-key, early days of Napa on a drive along the blissfully traffic-free River Road, between Salinas and Soledad. Flanked by the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west and the Gabilan Mountains to the east, the road winds for about 30 miles past farms, fields, and intimate wineries like Marilyn Remark. Stop off there, where golden retrievers Hogan and Snead are the welcoming committee, and ask Marilyn and her husband Joel Bernstein for a pour of one of their Rhone varietals (the Grenache is excellent). For a more active tasting experience, drop by Hahn Winery near Soledad, which offers ATV tours that end with a reserve tasting ($45 per person, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily, reservations required). Loop back to Carmel Valley via scenic Arroyo Seco Road, which will take you through the foothills into oak-shaded Klondike Canyon.

Ensconce yourself amid the 16 acres of vineyards, gardens, and manicured grounds at Chateau Julien, just outside Carmel Valley village. If you feel like you’re in Alsace, that’s because the estate was modeled after a property the owners spotted on the French-Swiss border. In a surprising change of pace, the flagship varietal here is merlot, not pinot (the region’s most common one, along with chardonnay). Pack a picnic and linger among roses, snapdragons, geraniums, gladiolas, and hydrangeas.

4. Insider’s Tip

Though it's located in a nondescript outdoor shopping center, Taste Morgan is a deserving stop for wine lovers. Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Winery

Some of the area’s best wines aren’t on the grounds of a gorgeous vineyard but tucked into an unassuming outdoor shopping center off Highway 1. Sidle up to the bar, or settle into a leather club chair, at the airily refined Taste Morgan. The reasonably priced (and surprisingly complex) Rhone-style Cotes du Crow’s, a blend of syrah and grenache ($18), is the pour you’ll want.

5. Oddball Day

Hike through the spectacular rock formations of Pinnacles National Park.Photo: Courtesy of the National Park Service

Ease off the bottle for a day and venture into the great outdoors. Start the morning with hearty, cowboy-style fare (get Martha’s oatmeal pancakes, $4) at the Wagon Wheel, then make the hour drive to Pinnacles National Park ($5), outside Soledad. Embark on the Balconies Cave-Cliff loop, a moderate 2.4-mile hike from the Chaparral Ranger Station near the west entrance; it’ll take you past spectacular rock formations and through the dark passages of the Balconies Cave (bring a flashlight and keep an eye out for bats). Post-trek, re-fuel with wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas (from $12.95) and hearty Hungarian goulash ($15.75) at Café Rustica back in downtown Carmel Valley, then ease sore muscles at Refuge, a two-year-old thermal spa with hot and cold plunge pools, saunas, steam rooms, and fire pits ($39 per person). Post-soak, make the 20-minute drive to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The million-gallon Open Sea exhibit recently underwent an $18 million revamp, and it’s now home to sharks, sting rays, and sea turtles ($39.95 per adult). From the aquarium, walk the one and a half miles along the coast to Peter B’s Brewpub, where the recently released Russian Imperial Espresso Stout, made with local Acme Coffee cold brew, makes for a welcome wine alternative (happy hour, 4:30 to 6 p.m. daily, $4 per pint). Skip the pub grub, and venture over to Carmel’s Aubergine, helmed by Justin Cogley, a Food & Wine best new chef of 2013. Splurge on the beautifully plated tasting menu (from $110), which might include inventive dishes like kampachi in vanilla-peppercorn broth or bison with smoked eggplant, farro, and buckwheat. From the restaurant, it’s a short stroll to the beach to view the sunset.

6. Links

The Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau website gives a comprehensive overview of the area.

Plot your tour of Carmel Valley Village’s tasting rooms with this handy map. The River Road Wine Trail website also has a printable map.

San Francisco’s reach extends down Highway 1 to Monterey and Carmel, and spots inland, including Carmel Valley.

Read up on the latest openings and restaurant news in the Monterey County Weekly’s Food & Wine section.

Chill Out and Drink Up in Carmel Valley