When many East Coasters hear Carmel-by-the-Sea, their first thought is of Clint Eastwood, even though the famous actor and director was only mayor of this small California village for two years in the 1980s. Those that have visited Carmel might think of it as a romantic getaway destination; filled with galleries, high-end shops, and local cafes. Not many would think of this charming town just south of the Monterey Peninsula as a family travel destination. But if you know me, you know that doesn’t stop me from finding what every destination has to offer families and proving the common wisdom wrong.
I have wonderful memories of visiting Carmel with my now husband. Carmel was the place where I first introduced him to the art of George Rodrigue. While this famous Louisiana artist is no longer with us, his gallery is still in Carmel and one of his famous Blue Dog prints, a wedding present from me to my husband inspired by our Carmel visit, still hangs in our family room. Since we were visiting Monterey as part of our California road trip, I really wanted to stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea and introduce our 10 year-old to the quaint, Bavarian-inspired village that I had fallen in love with over 15 years prior.
Family-friendly Hotels in Carmel-by-the-Sea
You will find over 40 small inns and bed-and-breakfasts in Carmel, but what you won’t find are chain hotels or neon lights. The town works hard to keep that small, European-style village feel. In fact, homes in Carmel don’t even have street addresses and residents need to visit the post office to pick up their mail. Carrie Theis, the owner of the family-run Hofsas House, exemplifies the town’s warm hospitality. For over 60 years the Theis family has been welcoming guests to its 38 spacious, yet unassuming, rooms and suites. Hofsas House is located just a couple of blocks from the heart of downtown and offers views of the sea through the trees. We arrived just in time to see one of their beautiful sunsets from our two-room suite.
We were greeted by the Hofsas House’s wine and cheese pairing, featuring local Monterey County wines and amazing cheeses from The Cheese Shop, which we were able to enjoy on our balcony. It was a trek carrying our bags up four flights of stairs to our suite, but we had plenty of space to spread out as the rooms were enormous. Not fancy, but homey. The first room offered a small kitchenette, dining table, wood-burning fireplace, and two-day beds perfect for kids. The main bedroom was also very spacious and the two full bathrooms made getting ready in the morning easy. While the outdoor corridors and dutch doors (often left half-open within rooms shared by family groups) made it a bit noisy in the evening, Carmel is a very sleepy town and all was quiet and comfortable by 10 pm.
The Hofsas House offers everything most visiting families are looking for: large rooms, continental breakfast, kitchenettes, free WiFi, off-street parking, and a heated pool. They even welcome dogs — as do so many businesses in Carmel-by-the-Sea. In fact, I’ve rarely seen as many dogs as we did in Carmel. The secret sauce at the Hofsas House is the personal welcome that makes you feel as if you are part of the family. Carrie kindly spent time helping me find things to do with kids, recommended some great restaurants, and even lent us her binoculars for our hike to Point Lobos. Hofsas House also offers family reunion packages and special add-ons like their Beach Fire and S’mores Package or their Doggie Welcome Package.
Where to Eat in Carmel-by-the-Sea
There are even more restaurants in Carmel than there are inns, and with the exception of Starbucks, most are locally owned. Many are pricey and not necessarily family-oriented, so you’ll want to do a little research (or just ask Carrie for recommendations!) Also keep in mind that Carmel is a quiet town and people eat on the early side, so if you are eating with kids you might want to make reservations.
Breakfast at Em Le’s Old Carmel Restaurant — While Hofsas House offers a very nice continental breakfast, on our second day in Carmel we wanted something a bit more substantial so we headed over to Em Le’s on Dolores between 5th and 6th Street. Voted best breakfast in Carmel, Em Le’s is famous for its batter-cooked French Toast. We will have to take others’ word for it because that was too heavy even for us. We did love the omelets, waffles, and homey charm of Em Le’s, which seemed untouched for the last few decades.
Lunch at Basil Seasonal Dining — There are plenty of places to eat outside in Carmel and most restaurants offer patio warmers for cooler days. Of these, I’d highly recommend Basil Seasonal Dining. After a long winter back home it was a joy to sit outside on their courtyard patio and our little one was happy to get in on the wine tasting with some grape juice made from wine grapes. Best of all was the fabulous food. My simple salad of arugula, artichokes, chicken, and Edam cheese was so incredibly fresh and delicious, I’ve rarely enjoyed a salad more. Hannah was thrilled with her risotto and Glenn enjoyed his crab sliders.
The Grille on Ocean Avenue — Carrie from the Hofsas House hooked us up with the lovely owners of The Grill on Ocean Avenue. Located right on the main strip, The Grill offers a mix of California cuisine and international offerings at reasonable prices. Also, while the decor is bright and airy, a large stone fireplace gives it a warm, homey feel that fits in so well with the town. Hannah went local and learned how to eat an artichoke (she’s now a fan) and enjoyed the Monterey Sand Dabs, a light, local fish similar to flounder. My strip steak was cooked perfectly and somehow I managed to still have room for their amazing chocolate cake — but that may have just been our dessert stomachs kicking in.
Cantinetta Luca — Located right next to my favorite Blue Dogs (in the George Rodrigue gallery) on Dolores Street, Cantinetta Luca is a beautifully designed Italian restaurant. Cantinetta Luca features a gorgeous bar with high-top tables, exposed brick walls and a semi-private wine room in the back. While there are many amazing pasta dishes to choose from, between the atmosphere, prices and menu, Cantinetta Luca is probably better for a date night than a family outing. But we have a burgeoning foodie who is used to fine dining so it was a great fit for us. We enjoyed our quiet booth tucked away in the back, looking out at both the kitchen and the wine room. Based on OpenTable reviews, they might still be working out some service kinks as we were attended by quite a few different people throughout the evening, but the manager definitely kept an eye on our service and filled in any gaps.
I started off with the oysters but found the prosecco mignonette didn’t add a lot of flavor and switched back to my standard lemon and horseradish. Hannah loved the arancini and the portion was surprisingly large. Ever since our food tour in Rome when she fell in love with suppli she loves to order arancini when she sees it on the menu. For dinner, two of us went with the Bucatino alla Romano–pasta with pancetta, shallots, white wine and pomodoro sauce–and it was amazing. But once again, the dinner was overshadowed by dessert (oh, how we overindulge when we travel). The croissant bread pudding was decadently delicious.
What to do in Carmel with Kids
Looking around at all the galleries, wine tasting rooms, upscale shops and cafes, it may not seem like there is much to do in Carmel with kids, but don’t underestimate how much kids can enjoy this peaceful village with all the neon, chain stores, and “modern” distractions stripped away. My daughter says that it was her favorite town in California and just walking around she told us many times how beautiful she thought it was and how much she loved it there. Plus, there is plenty to do with kids…
1. Carmel Beach — The Carmel Beach is fantastic — a flat, wide expanse of smooth sand with a steady flow of pounding waves. The beach is a short 5-10 minute walk from the Hofsas House down a footpath and a flight of stairs (ask for directions to find this shortcut or walk into town and down Ocean Ave.) Morning is definitely the time to go, not only because the ocean is tamer, but also because dogs are allowed off-leash and it is great to watch them running, digging and frolicking in the water. I was inspired to buy a house in Carmel, get a dog, and spend my mornings exercising on the beach (after I win the lottery of course). Fortunately, some friendly dog owners could see us admiring their canine pals and lent them out for a while so we could play catch too. Although some of those furry friends were eyeing up our frisbee, which was so graciously provided by Hofsas House.
If you are feeling more adventurous, you can also sign up for surfing lessons down at the beach but let me warn you, of the class that we watched we didn’t see too many people able to stay up. The waves are pretty strong here so if you are looking for kayaking or whale watching, head up to Monterey and pick these up by Fisherman’s Wharf.
2. Point Lobos State Park — Just a few minutes south of Carmel on Highway 1, Point Lobos State Park is considered the “crown jewel” of the California State Parks and we could definitely see why. Point Lobos is on a peninsula, so many of the trails offer amazing views of the ocean, but getting around can be confusing. I strongly recommend visiting their website and printing a trail map before you go because they aren’t handed out at the gate and maps and directions aren’t easily found within the park. You may want to pick up a picnic at the 5th Avenue Deli in Carmel before heading out because you can easily spend half a day or more hiking and exploring tide pools.
While hiking you might spot sea lions, harbor seals, elephant seals, sea otters and even orcas. In the winter months you might spy gray whales from land, or see some of the monarch butterflies that winter in this area. On land you could find gray foxes, raccoons, coyotes, striped skunks, opossums, mountain lions, deer, badgers, bobcats and rabbits. On our hike we did come across a beach of harbor seals sunning themselves.
During our visit with branched off to the right after entering the park and headed down towards the Whaler’s Cabin and the small parking lot at Cannery Point. From here, we picked up the 1.4 mile North Shore Trail. The website listed this hike as strenuous, but I think that is overstated. There are some stairs and some roots to step over but the path is clear and the incline, when present, is gradual. We weren’t breaking a sweat. This trail ends at the Sea Lion Point parking lot, where you can pick up other trails or return the way you came. We ended up not making it the whole way because we noticed the fog was starting to roll in really fast and I got nervous about being on the trails when you literally couldn’t see a few feet in front of you. It was truly amazing how quickly the fog came in so I’d recommend keeping an eye on the weather throughout the day.
3. Carmel Mission — On the way to or from Point Lobos, plan a stop at the historic Carmel Mission. Founded in 1770 by Fr. Junipero Serra, it is the second oldest mission in California. If you aren’t familiar with missions, it will be helpful to spend time reading the exhibits in the museum to understand the history and goals of the missions. Fourth grade California students are required to visit a mission so the website also provides some great background information. Entrance to the mission is $6.50 for adults and $4 for children 7 and up (6 and under are free), and you can spend as much or as little time as you want exploring the church, the gardens and the museum (we spent about 30 minutes here.)
4. Exploring Town — If you spend the morning at the beach, spend the afternoon exploring the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Children will enjoy playing in Devendorf Park, a stop into Thinker Toys on Seventh Avenue, or a visit to The Art of Dr. Seuss gallery on San Carlos Street. Just spending time peeking into small courtyards can be such a novelty. Your tween girls might enjoy creating their own all-organic perfume at Anja in the Court of the Fountains.
If you have some time without the kids, or if your kids are like mine and don’t mind stopping by some wine tasting rooms, you might consider participating in the Carmel Wine Walk. For $65 you will get a Wine Tasting Passport, which offers a wine tasting flight at any 9 of the 14 participating tasting rooms. All the tasting rooms are in Carmel’s small downtown so it is easy to walk from place to place, or just pop into a tasting room before dinner each evening. Just be aware that most of the tasting rooms close by 6 or 7 pm. We found that some closed even before their posted hours and only had a chance to visit Scheid Vineyards — but the Passport doesn’t expire so we’ll have to go back!
We found Carmel-by-the-Sea to be just as charming and seductive when visiting with kids as it was during our romantic getaway years ago. It is a perfect place to stay when visiting Monterey and 17-Mile Drive, and an ideal place to kick off a classic California Highway 1 road trip.
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Note: Our stay in Carmel was hosted by the Hofsas House and we thank Carrie for her warm hospitality! We also received a discounted meal at The Grille on Ocean Avenue. All opinions are our own.
Tamara Gruber is the Founder and Publisher of We3Travel. A former marketing executive and travel advisor, Tamara is an award-winning travel writer and recognized expert in family travel. She is also the publisher of YourTimetoFly and the co-host of the Vacation Mavens travel podcast.