Explore: Carmel Valley

explore carmel valley
The organic garden at Carmel Valley Ranch.

In Carmel Valley, people enjoy fine food and wine, plus scenic meadows and mountains, away from coastal fog.

I was afraid I might panic in the suit. Freak out. Flail my arms and shriek. Run away, with insects swarming around my head.

But I remained quiet while a guide named Cyrus stood in the midst of our group. He talked about the ways of the community we would be visiting: The women do all the work; the men are there only to mate. Laughter rumbled through the gathering of adults and children. “Sounds familiar,” a woman muttered. Laminated photographs were shown around as Cyrus told us more—about workers and royalty and death.

We were gathered in the organic garden at CARMEL VALLEY RANCH, a sprawling, 500-acre resort that’s nestled against the Santa Lucia Mountains. Beneath a huge oak, we sat on benches and stumps near sun-drenched planters bursting with blooms. Cyrus asked if anyone felt nervous. Hands went up (not mine). Cyrus went on to explain—after he gently asked a couple of impatient boys to stop horsing around—that no one who followed the directions had ever been stung.

We were participating in A Bee’s Life, one of Carmel Valley Ranch’s artisanin-residence experiences. For $135 a person ($95 for kids), we would get a tutorial about honeybees and how the hives work, and the relationships between pollinators, plants and people. Then we would don protective gear and head into the apiary to explore the bee boxes, then come out and taste some honey.

“Has anyone here been stung by a bee?” Cyrus asked. Hands went up, including mine. He pointed to me. “How did it happen?”

“I was washing the car and I stepped on it with bare feet,” I said, remembering the burning sensation across the bottom of my foot and, almost worse, what I saw when I turned my foot over: a scrunched, muscular insect attached so fiercely that it was impossible to brush away.

Cyrus explained the reason I got stung was because I stepped on the bee. He then called on other people, who relayed stories of being stung while waving bees away, sitting on them, picking them up. Honeybees aren’t interested in stinging, he said, because it kills them. But in extreme circumstances—and who knows, exactly, what a bee perceives as extreme?—they will. Mostly, though, their goals are simple: Serve the queen and maintain the hive. We learned how queens come to be, the purpose of royal jelly, and much more.

We moved through the garden, where Cyrus showed us hardworking bees among the flowers. By now, we could tell they were all female and identify their pollen baskets (where they store pollen to bring back to the hive; they look like saddlebags). We knew not to wave our arms or jump around. Even the two unruly boys had quieted down. We then proceeded to the shed, where we suited up—jumpsuit, headgear, gloves—and headed into the apiary with Cyrus and another beekeeper. The beekeepers each carried a smoke pot, which would help them control the bees’ movements. Among other functions, a puff of smoke helps drive bees deeper into their hives, Cyrus explained, because in the case of wildfire, they instinctively gorge on honey. Blowing smoke is a distraction technique beekeepers use when inspecting the colonies.

By this point, I wasn’t nervous anymore. For one thing, I figured if the little kids could handle it, so could I. But a lifetime of swatting bees away—which Cyrus had told us is a great way to get stung—isn’t easily squashed, and I did have to remind myself “no arm waving” when bees buzzed around me or landed on someone’s suit. When Cyrus opened the bee box, a collective gasp went up, and real oohing and aahing happened when he carefully extracted a teeming frame clotted with bees and began passing it around. Once everyone got a chance to hold the bees, he put the box back together, and we exited the apiary (got checked for ride-alongs as we left), unsuited and gathered on the other side of the garden for honey tasting.

A Bee's Life in Carmel Valley
The apiary at Carmel Valley Ranch. Photo by Carley Rudd.

A Bee’s Life is just one of several enriching experiences available at Carmel Valley Ranch. We also participated in Equine Connection, which involved learning about horses and how they socialize in herds and with humans. Dr. Robert Magnelli, a clinical psychologist whose organization Horsepower brings equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted  learning processes to mental health and wellness programs, taught us how to brush Valentina, Geronimo and Vinnie, and how to tap into our own senses as we interacted with the beautiful animals. We met other members of CVR’s “herd,” including goats (some sweet newborn ones, too) that produce milk for the on-site cheesemaking operation, and also alpacas and sheep. Other ranch experiences include falconry, cheese making, sea salt sourcing, archery, naturalist-led hikes and more.

Carmel Valley Ranch is a full-service resort, with upscale, condo-style suites overlooking the property’s golf courses, vineyards and gnarled oaks. Its restaurant, VALLEY KITCHEN, sits adjacent to a swimming pool and has a lovely patio—an ideal spot for an omelet (made from eggs collected from CVR’s chicken coop) and some stiff coffee for breakfast, a cheese board (with CVR honey and cheeses) for lunch and seafood stew or fresh catch of the day for dinner. The house Swing wines are made from grapes grown on-site. The spa menu includes a long list of massages, facials and whole-body treatments—the

Be Beautiful scrub will leave your skin softer than a baby’s butt, as they say—and much of the activity calendar involves yoga and outdoor workouts.

Although it’s in Monterey County, Carmel Valley feels far away from the hustle and bustle of Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Fisherman’s Wharf and the other attractions that Monterey central is known for. To be clear, it’s also not Carmel—the pretty little dog-friendly village by the sea with the shops, galleries, restaurants, courtyards and Clint Eastwood fame. Inland, Carmel Valley is rolling hills and vineyards, mountainsides and meadows, equestrian properties, gardens and nurseries, tasting rooms and resorts, all beneath fog-free skies. It’s scenic, wide open and oak studded, casual and sophisticated at the same time. Aside from honeybees and horses, here are a few more ways to fully enjoy Carmel Valley.

Lunch from Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand in Carmel
Lunch from Earthbound
Farm’s Farm Stand.

Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand—Before Earthbound Farm became “big organic” and put salad mixes, spinach and arugula in all grocery produce fridges, it was just a little 2½-acre spread in Carmel Valley. Today the bucolic farm stand makes a wonderful stop. Wander among the gardens and rows of veggies, pick bundles of fresh herbs, and purchase snacks and made-to-order items (organic, of course) at the cafe.

Folktale Winery
Folktale Winery

Folktale Winery—This lively place (formerly Chateau Julien) includes a tasting room, scenic grounds and its Wine Garden, which provides convivial space for groups small and large to enjoy wine and elevated snacks. The kitchen turns out flatbreads, salads and boards loaded with nuts and cheeses, and servers line up multitudes of flutes and goblets for wine pairings. Live music and fairy lights add to the charm. Take a walk out to the castle-like event space lined with barrels. It’s magical and feels like, yes, a folk tale.

Folktale Winery
Folktale Winery
Studio accommodations at Carmel Valley Ranch
Studio accommodations
at Carmel Valley Ranch.

Carmel Valley Village—The primary commercial district in Carmel Valley is the village, which has a couple of markets, several restaurants, a few shops and galleries, and many tasting rooms—wine mostly, but also some for beer and olive oil/balsamic vinegar (THE QUAIL & OLIVE). It’s walkable, which can come in handy with wine tasting. Art enthusiasts, check out the CARMEL VALLEY ART ASSOCIATION, PERIDOT FINE ART, WILLIAM ARTHUR GALLERY and EDGE GALLERY. OLIVIA & DAISY BOOK BOUTIQUE has a curated collection of books and gift items—it’s always fun to see what’s on display. In the same center, JEROME’S CARMEL VALLEY MARKET is a great stop for a sandwich from the deli and some house-made potato or egg salad. WILD GOOSE BAKERY CAFE inside VILLAGE MARKET has good coffee, house-made baked goods and breakfast burritos. KATHY’S LITTLE KITCHEN is best known for tacos, quesadillas and weekend menudo, but the breakfasts pack ’em in, too. Be ready to wait on Saturday and Sunday. The French onion soup at ROUX is a house specialty; so are the Cantimpalitos Chorizo Corn Dogs. Sit on the patio beside fi re pits and heaters on cool nights. Word to the wise: cash or Venmo only. At CAFE RUSTICA, a long lineup of wood-fired pizzas includes Jose’s with tomatillo sauce and chicken and an Alsatian-style one with dried prosciutto, caramelized red onions, fresh herbs and crème fraîche. Entrées run the gamut from beef goulash to salmon. Big portions of ribs, steak and chicken dominate the menu at RUNNING IRON, and the adjacent STIRRUP CUP PIZZA dishes up a fine Chicago-style pie. Other hot spots in the village include CORKSCREW CAFE (beautiful, rustic garden setting) and TRAILSIDE CAFE (live music, pet friendly). Seats can be hard to come by in CARMEL VILLAGE, so try for a reservation, be ready to wait and keep an open mind about changing the game plan if necessary. On a Tuesday night with no reservations, we found several places closed and all chairs taken at dinnertime in the village, so we cruised out of the valley, about 12 miles west, to the Crossroads center at the corner of Highway 1 and Carmel Valley Road, where we had great hunks of wild salmon at one of our favorite Monterey-area seafood houses: SEA HARVEST.

Olivia & Daisy
Olivia & Daisy

Wine Tasting—A cluster of tasting rooms makes it easy to winery hop in Carmel Valley. It is less than a 15-minute walk between CHESEBRO and MASSA ESTATE, with a dozen or so tasting rooms in between. Pace yourself! At the east end of Carmel Valley Boulevard, a lineup includes WINDY OAKS, PARSONAGE, REXFORD and I. BRAND. THE WINE HOUSE has beer, wine and small bites—sit outside by the fire pit. Stop into SCRATCH WINES, where winemaker Sabrine Rodem produces mostly small-lot grenache, pinot noir and riesling. Also in the area: BERNARDUS WINERY, GEORIS (adobe mission-style winery with lush landscaping), BOEKENOOGEN, COWGIRL, JOYCE VINEYARDS and HOLMAN RANCH (a 1920s-era tasting room), among many others.

CARMEL VALLEY WINE TROLLEY—Pick up this ride in Monterey for an easy way to taste in Carmel Valley. Tours start at $159 and may include a rundown of area history on the ride out, then tastings of wine, olive oil and balsamic, and a catered lunch at the trolley stop in Carmel Valley Village.

MOTO TALBOTT MOTORCYCLE MUSEUM—Some 170 motorcycles from 17 countries make up this collection of bikes amassed by Robb Talbott, former owner of Talbott Vineyards and lifelong motorcyclist and artist. The bikes on display span decades, restored, unrestored, some rare, some iconic, you name it. General admission is $10, and it’s open Thursday through Sunday.

Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel
Garland Ranch Regional Park

GARLAND RANCH REGIONAL PARK—Stop for a short hike along the Lupine Loop trail, a 1½ mile flat and sun-drenched trek that skirts the Carmel River and this time of year should include a waterfall. Lupine Loop is also an on-ramp for other trails in the park that lead into shadier, more wooded areas. You could spend days out here. The park is immediately charming just off the parking lot with its seasonal footbridge spanning the river, which burbles off into the tunneled brush, heading for the sea.

Lucia Restaurant & Terrace
Lucia Restaurant & Terrace

BERNARDUS LODGE & SPA—At this award-winning Carmel Valley resort, Mediterranean inspired guest rooms and suites include luxuries such as fireplaces, soaking tubs for two, French oak floors and king-size featherbeds. Bernardus Winery’s wines are poured at the lodge. Relax by the lap pool, play a round of croquet or a bit of tennis, indulge in a massage or other spa treatment, and dig into a farm-to-table meal at Lucia, where the menu celebrates the region’s bounty.

A suite at Bernardus Lodge & Spa
A suite at Bernardus Lodge & Spa