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Hot Pursuit of Cool Times in Carmel

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

It starts round about October out here in Avocado-by-the-Sea.

It’s a kind of clucking, with overtones of tsk, and it starts down on Santa Monica Beach, working its way to poolside Encino and out to the patios of Pasadena.

It’s a sound not unlike that of a pen of peahens just before the first frost. It’s occasioned, in fact, by the weather reports from back in America--or the East Coast, if you prefer.

Out here, October is one of the year’s more glorious months, but back in America it’s a time for shutter-snatching, long john-yanking, a time when the poor benighted Easterners start travel-folding for a run south in search of winter warmth.

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So we cluck and tsk and make sympathetic sounds we don’t mean for a minute, and stroke our surfboards and keep our secret to ourselves. . . .

Dreams of the Poconos

Our secret? Sure. Our secret is July, and especially August, and even early September, when we , for our part, dream furtive dreams of the Poconos and the White Mountains and the breezy Jersey shore.

Hey, all you folks back East, it gets hot out here, and humid as hogs’ breath in Houston. And the pool comes down with terminal algae and the air conditioner can’t cut it and the wife sweats and the dog scratches, or vice versa, whichever comes first.

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So is anybody back there shedding a tear for the poor Southern Californian in search of estival coolth?

Sure, and the same to you, fella. Listen, we have our own reverse Florida out here, mate. It’s called Northern California and it’s cool in the summer and twice as pretty as the Poconos. Put that in your galosh and squish it.

Fact is, you’ve got to get out of Southern California in August. You’ve got to get dank and damp and downright uncomfortable, if only for a few days, if only so you can come home and really appreciate that ungodly heat you came out here for in the first place.

Barnyard instincts point toward the north, where help is only 300 miles away as the peahen flies. Help is on Monterey Bay, the Clammy Crescent that arcs from Santa Cruz up top to Pebble Beach in what passes in those parts for the south.

Packing a Sweater

It seems almost obscene to throw a thermos and an Aran sweater into the trunk of the car in 105-degree heat, but if you’re lucky, you’ll need them. If you’re really lucky, the fog will sock in at about Ventura, and by the time you hit Cayucos you’ll be tempted to punch the heater button. Resist. Remember, you’re here to get cool .

Right away, even as far south as Cayucos, you’re going to encounter another phenomenon, a recurring one that you must ignore if you want to stay in the spirit of the thing. From out of the windows of Cayucos’ cozy Salzburg Cafe--where you’re having lunch, a hot lunch--you will glom a number of bodies in bathing suits stretched out on sand the color of cedar chips. That is an illusion. The alleged bathers are not sunning themselves. They are fogging themselves.

Reflect on that as you chug over Big Sur. Reflect too on where you’re going to stay on the Clammy Crescent.

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There’s Santa Cruz, of course, and Moss Landing and Monterey and Pacific Grove, and even Carmel, if you can afford it. Hell, even if you can’t afford it. You’re only going to be there a few days, after all. Too cold.

Carmel hotel rooms start at about $75, which is more than somewhat. What you’re paying for, though, is a chance to rest your chilly cheeks in what has to be the prettiest town in California, maybe even America.

Filthy With Flowers

You will be walking in Carmel--it’s that or freeze--and you will be walking through streets, lanes, courtyards and alleyways lined with cypresses and absolutely filthy with flowers.

It’s the flowers that get you first, flowers you don’t see in Southern California because they’d wilt there. There are flowers growing up the berms and in window boxes and along the curbs and behind the ears of shoe-store clerks, and when you lift the lid of a garbage can you expect to see flowers there too. (And sometimes you do--the faded ones. Legally, nothing is allowed to fade in Carmel.) Don’t let the blossoms con you, though. You’re not here to smell the flowers, bunkie; you’re here to shiver.

There are other reasons to walk in Carmel, too, besides keeping the blood circulating. For one thing, there are hundreds and hundreds of shops and boutiques, each more charming, imaginative and original than the next, and twice as expensive. Do not stop. A moment’s hesitation can cost the price of a flight to Helsinki.

For another thing, driving in Carmel is virtually verboten, or at least parking is. This is Clint Eastwood country--he’s the mayor, of course--and where the curb is marked “20 Minute Limit,” you don’t want to be schmoozing for 21, stranger. The traffic trikes are out in force, making everybody’s day--as are the other enforcers.

Curb Your Dog

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They keep their town just so, the Carmelites, which is a large part of its charm. If you don’t believe it, check the T-shirt shop on Dolores Avenue. In the window is a shirt bearing the likeness of hizzoner brandishing a six-shooter. Underneath, the legend: “I said curb your dog!”

All of that tramping around in the heavy haze builds up a powerful appetite, and here too, Carmel fills the void. There are almost as many restaurants as shops--again, charming, imaginative, original--and by some Blessed Law of Compensation, many are as cheap as the boutiques are dear ($10-$20 for two is the norm).

Should the sky clear a bit--say, from gloomy to just glum--a favorite outdoor hangout is the Royal Danish Cafe, as gorged with nosegays as Tivoli Gardens. Pull up a three-inch smorrebrod, uncap a Carlsberg and pretend you’re in Copenhagen in November.

Should the fog remain palpable and you still want to eat outdoors through some atavistic notion that it is August, repair to the patio of Souvlaki, a regular grape-leaf Grindelwald. The chair backs are painted with the names of the rich and famous--Merv Griffin, Sen. Paul Tsongas, Doris Day, Jack Kramer--whose gelid glutei have huddled on those very seats.

It’s a comforting thought, somehow. Even more comforting is the way the chairs are scrunched up to singe point of the round coal-fire irradiating the dining area.

Stroll to the Beach

To burn off the ouzo, muffle up and walk down Ocean Avenue to the beach, an enchanted white-sand cove where the tourists lean into the wind and watch the surf roll in from Alaska. (Only tourists, mind; Carmelites never, never go to the beach in August, except to walk their huskies.) Elsewhere, one lies on the beach, or at least sits. In Carmel they just stand there, immobile and in various poses and attitudes, looking, from a distance, like so many terra-cotta foot soldiers from Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s army. Then they walk back to town. Go figure.

Benefiting from the wind-chill factor, meanwhile, is the cast of “No Sex Please, We’re British,” a mid-town dinner/theater troupe where ticket taker, maitre d’ and waiter double as actors. The play turns out to be about the worst stage production since Dobbs Ferry Junior High put on “Big Hearted Herbert,” but the applause deafens. It’s just about the only way to keep the hands warm.

Which is not to say that one must remain in Carmel to keep one’s cool. One can be just as chilly in Santa Cruz, or even nearby Monterey. In Monterey a good seafood dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf only whets the desire to stroll over to the Cannery Row Aquarium to pay homage to those noble finned friends who have died that we might pig out.

Splendid Aquarium

The aquarium is a splendid facility, attended by a gallimaufry of mammals, many of them battened against the Monterey sea spray by raincoats. The garb becomes particularly poignant in view of a neat lettered sign to the side of one of the displays: “Please Don’t Flash the Cuttlefish.”

Eventually, you will head back to your Carmel hotel, if only to try to recoup a little of your investment in its well-being. From your bedroom you will look longingly at the unused lanai just outside the door, and while you change from a damp wool sweater to a dry one, the charms of sweltering Southern California will begin to sweat back into the conscious.

Sooner or later--three or four days ought to do it--you will steal out to your car and drive back to Los Angeles.

You will bake again on your patio, but gratefully this time. Even the algae in the pool will take on its own charm; Oz-like, you’ll tell yourself.

And wonderingly, almost smugly, you will recall a phone call of a few days ago from a friend in Pebble Beach, just north of Carmel.

“Why don’t you come over for a drink?” asked cartoonist Hank Ketcham, in mid-August.

“We’re not doing much. Just sitting around the fire.”


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