A wonderful stretch of white sand backed by cypress trees, Carmel Beach City Park is a bit of heaven on Earth (though the jammed parking lot can feel more like a car rally). There's room for families, surfers, and dogs with their owners (they can run off-leash). If the parking lot is full, try Ocean Avenue. It has some spaces, though they're mostly good for 90 minutes, and you will get a ticket if you park all day.
Farther south around the promontory, Carmel River State Beach is less crowded, with white sand and dunes, plus a bird sanctuary with brown pelicans, black oystercatchers, cormorants, gulls, curlews, godwits, and sanderlings.
The Mission San Carlos Borromèo del Carmelo, on Basilica Rio Road at Lasuen Drive, off Hwy. 1 (tel. 831/624-1271; www.carmelmission.org), is the burial ground of Father Junípero Serra and the second-oldest of the 21 Spanish missions he established. Founded in 1771 on a site overlooking the Carmel River, it's one of the largest and most interesting of California's missions. The stone church, with its Moorish bell tower and curving walls covered with a lime plaster made of burned seashells, was begun in 1793. The kitchen, the first library in California, the high altar, and the flower gardens are all worth visiting. More than 3,000 Native Americans are buried in the adjacent cemetery; their graves are decorated with seashells. The mission is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30am to 5pm, Sunday from 10:30am to 5pm. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $4 for seniors, $2 for youth, and free for children 6 and under. Docent-led tours are $7. Call the tour office (tel. 831/624-1271, ext. 213) for schedules.
One of Carmel's prettiest homes and gardens is Tor House, 26304 Ocean View Ave. (tel. 831/624-1813; www.torhouse.org), built by poet Robinson Jeffers. On Carmel Point, the house dates from 1918. Its 40-foot tower has stones embedded in the walls from around the world (including the Great Wall of China). Inside, an old porthole is reputed to have come from the ship on which Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815. No photography is allowed. Admission is by guided tour only on Friday and Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and reservations are requested. It's $7 for adults, $4 for college students, and $2 for high-school students (no children 11 and under).
If the tourists aren't lying on the beach in Carmel, then they're probably shopping -- the sine qua non of Carmel activities. This small town is home to more than 500 boutiques plying unique fashions, baskets, housewares, imported goods, and a veritable cornucopia of art galleries. Most of the commercial action is packed along the small stretch of Ocean Avenue between Junipero Street and San Antonio Avenue.
If you want to tour the galleries, pick up a copy of the Carmel Gallery Guide from the Carmel Business Association. Serious shoppers should also head south a few miles to the Crossroads Shopping Center (from Hwy. 1 south, take the Rio Rd. exit west for 1 block and turn right onto Crossroads Blvd.). As malls go, this one's a doozy, with oodles of shopping and a few good restaurants.
Carmel Walks offers 2-hour guided walks through gardens, hidden pathways, fairy-tale-like cottages, and the homes of famous writers, artists, and washed-up movie stars. You'll learn about Carmel's seemingly endless spirits, strange customs, and juicy gossip. The $25 tours run Saturdays at 10am and 2pm, and Tuesday through Friday at 10am. Call tel. 831/642-2700 or see www.carmelwalks.com for reservations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.