Carmel suffers from a paradox that many places would beg to have: It has so many quaint, historic homes, so many gleaming galleries filled with rare artworks, so many beautiful beaches and sweeping cliff-side vistas that the area seems almost a fantasy. But if you work it just right, as my sweetheart, Alice, and I did for a recent stay, you can dodge some of the area's high lodging prices, break an actual sweat charging up those cliffs and even live it up a bit with the locals. The fantasy-free fees: We spent about $425, which included $200 and change for two nights at the Carmel Resort Inn, a modest but welcoming hotel not far from the charming city center.
The Carmel Resort Inn (Carpenter Street between 1st and 2nd avenues, Carmel;  293-8390, carmelresortinncottages.com) has some history: Its cottages are spread over an acre and a half, and each is unique, but all show the good bones of their 1900s breeding. Nothing too fancy here (and we got in at low-season prices), but the good-sized rooms have a fireplace, free Wi-Fi, access to the indoor spa and barbecue facilities on the pleasant grounds. Wolfgang Puck didn't have a hand in the complimentary breakfast basket brought to our door, but the pastries, yogurt and seasonal fruit broke the fast just fine. Sleep on the comfy bed was easy and deep in the area's quiet.
You'll find a bonanza of high and low eating in the area, but we chose the semi-high: the Rio Grill (101 Crossroads Blvd., Carmel;  625-5436, www.riogrill.com. Entrees $15-$23). I was certainly semi-high after working a couple of its whiskey offerings. I had a pumpkin seed-crusted salmon that was anything but crusty, and Alice happily plucked at a local fire-roasted artichoke and crab cakes that had a zingy red-pepper sauce. One thing that struck: People (wait staff included) seemed very happy here. Laughter abounded.
It sounds weird to call a pen (or "writing instruments," as it dubs them) store a find, but we were fascinated by the amazing range of pens — ballpoint, fountain, calligraphy, technical — at Bittner (Ocean Avenue and San Carlos, Carmel;  626-8828, bittner.com). Many of the pens were artworks; in fact, many of the pen cases were artworks. I couldn't persuade anyone to give me a steep discount on one of the $5,500 Bentley fountain pens, but I did get to hold one and dream.
The lesson learned
It's quite true that the inn is a sweet stroll down to the famed white-sand beach (don't miss it) and the city center and its bevy of boutiques. But "down" is the key. Walking back up is a bit of a huff 'n' puff, but if you don't spend too much on pens, you can hail a taxi.
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