POSTCARD FROM CARMEL
Once every five years or so, we join our friends Mike and Jeanine to celebrate their wedding anniversary in Hawaii. We intended to do the same this year, but when we saw the airfares to the islands (close to a $800 per person this summer, and only marginally lower now,) we decided to go to Plan B, and rent a place on the beach closer to home. We were researching options in California when Michael found an ad for a house, perched on a rocky cliff eight miles south of Carmel, removed from lights and civilization, with a hot tub on deck, and views of the coastline as far as the eye can see. When we saw that this could be our dream home for a week at a price far less than the cost of airfare to Hawaii, we said, “Sold!”
It’s rare for a place to look better in real life than in the advertising brochure, but “Sea Swept” has exceeded its billings. You could easily cruise by on Hwy 1 towards Big Sur, and never know the place was here, except for a small white mailbox by the side of the road, and a discreetly set- back wooden appearing fence (concealing the iron electrically operated mechanism) with a small keypad on the side, and a sign cautioning you to “Beware of Dog.” (We later found the final resting place of “Rags” under a Cypress by the ocean, dreaming his eternal dreams of chasing rabbits through the fields, so the sign was not a complete bluff.) As you come down the curving driveway, the majesty of the Pacific unfolds in front of you. The single story house with weathered spruce siding and picture windows on all sides sits off to one side, set back about 20-30 feet from the edge of the cliff, surrounded by a well trimmed lawn, succulents, and low cut bushes. Flagstones lead up to the porch, on which sit comfortable rocking chairs, a wooden chaise lounge, and a few plants in pots. The other side of the house also has a deck, with the hot tub strategically placed to afford views of the sunset and the night skies for the sybaritic visitor. The kitchen is small, but functional, and unusually well stocked with all manner of cookware and implements. The owners, recently here, I’m told, even generously left us several bottles of half consumed wine, as well as an assortment of liqueurs, gin and whiskeys.
The master bedroom (won by Miki and I by a coin toss with Michael) has cathedral ceilings with a wall of giant north facing windows that give the place a planetarium like feel at night, along with a westerly facing picture windows so you can see the sunsets and the pelicans flying in tight V-formation cruising by on their way south. (All day long we watch these large birds flying by in flocks of 3 to 30, and always headed in the same direction. Either they are in a migration pattern, or they get shipped north in trucks during the night by the Chamber of Commerce to give more picturesque views for the visitors as they stream South by the cliffs and glide over the waves with less than a foot clearance for their wings during the daytime.) The back bedroom has a separate entrance to the outside, and sliding glass doors with a view of the ocean to the south. There are two full bathrooms, so we don’t have to step on each other’s morning routines.
To the south of the house sits a bench, surrounded by ice plants turning various shades of orange and red, and an unobstructed view of the coastline with a rocky shoreline pounded by crashing waves. We can see several small islands of giant boulders that dot the shores from Big Sur, and extend up past Oregon and through the Pacific Northwest. We see several seals frolicking in the foam below the house, and can hear their distinctive bark as we hike up and down the coast. Brown seaweed spreads itself out like hair over barnacled rocks; gulls send up plaintive cries. Waves lap in with tongues of foam and recede, the smooth weathered rocks clattering like bones. Harder to see, but easily visible with binoculars, are the sea otters, as they wrap themselves around with seaweed for anchor, and float lazily on their back, often with a stone they hold with their paws on their bellies, used for cracking open the abalone shells, which are the favorite parts of their diet. (Who said man is the only tool using animal?) Having almost been hunted to extinction by Russian fur traders in the mid 1800’s, these small 15 pound aquatic mammals are now abundant along California’s Central Coast, consuming their weight in abalone every four days. That’s a lot of abalone!
We drove up in two cars, so we need not be tied to each other at the hip while here. It was a good thing, because each car was packed with groceries, giving us enough food and wine for the duration of our stay. Jeanine and I both enjoy cooking, but we decided to take off for one of the nights and drive into Carmel for dinner. I used to visit here yearly for the Western Society for Clinical Research meetings, so I knew many of the places in town. However, chefs and restaurants change, so I did a little online research, and came up with Anton and Michele’s, a French-Continental place in a very elegant setting near the center of town. The reviews I read turned out to be spot-on, and the food and service were both exceptional. To top off the evening, Michael and Miki split an order of Bananas Foster, flambéed at table side. It was a dish I hadn’t seen since I lived at New Orleans, where it was originally invented. A taste confirmed it was good as I had remembered.
We have brought a number of books with us, and Jeanine and Miki a couple of 1000 piece puzzles, of which they have already completed one. We have no cell phone reception along this part of the coast, so we are not tempted to break the blissful seclusion this place provides. It is, as Miki likes to say, “the relaxation response.”
I love to hike, and there are over 80 outstanding hiking trails within 40 miles of us, so I am in seventh heaven. Some of the trails wind through the giant redwoods of Big Sur, while others follow streams through narrow, fern laced canyons. Some lead up to waterfalls, or vistas of the spectacular countryside, whereas others meander along the craggy coastline, revealing pristine, empty beaches, scenic coves with white foaming waves, or tide pools with circling hungry shore birds looking for lunch. Miki loves big waves, and this is the place and time of year to see them. Giant, roiling, 15 foot monsters that come on with the power of freight trains, splaying cataracts of froth into Titanic fountains as they crash into the cliffs and boulders along the beach. Each day, the ocean is different, switching from the wine dark seas of Homer near dusk to aqua and green swirls through which we spot playful dolphins thrilling themselves in their freedom. Aquatic palms, anchored in the rocks below us, bend with each watery assault, then spring upright as the waves recede, mull their fates, then bow once more as the waves come roiling back again.
One day, as I’m looking at potential hiking trails, I discover, much to my surprise, that Mike and Jeanine have never been to Point Lobos State Park, arguably the most scenic section of coastline in this part of the country. It was an omission we easily remedied, and chose a good time to do it. Absent of tour buses and swarms of visitors, we practically had the place to ourselves. We came across more docents eager to help us and point out the wonders of the local flora and fauna than we did tourists. M & J got to see the iconic Lone Cypress, the rocks filled with barking seals, and the grand vistas for which the park is justly famous.
We have lucked into Camelot weather. Sunny, clear days, just brisk enough to make a vest or a light fleece comfortable for a hike, with evening clouds rolling in to help make the sunset more memorable, followed by a night time storm, where the howling wind and driving rain makes the comfort of the house even more cozy and welcoming, all disappearing for hopeful morning sunrise. We couldn’t have prayed for anything better. Each day, we remind ourselves how fortunate we are, to be able to be in this magical setting, to share the experience with each other, to be healthy enough to do the things we are doing, to have the abundance of good food and drink we consume each day – we take none of this for granted, and are grateful.