Carmel-by-the-Sea for Kids

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By Barbara Noe

The idyllic seaside village of Carmel, California, with its rose-draped cottages, sophisticated eateries, and posh art galleries and boutiques, has long been a romantic retreat beloved by couples around the world. But what do you do if you have your family in tow? I recently visited this cute little town about two hours south of San Francisco with my two sisters and bevy of nieces and nephews, aged 9 to 14, and we found plenty to keep us occupied. Here’s a sampling.

Cottage of Sweets. According to Tommy, Justin, Kaylee, Janie, William, and especially sugarholic Charlie, you can not go to Carmel without stopping by this treasure-trove of candy housed in a quintessential Tudor-style cottage. It’s every kid’s dream, showcasing chocolate, gummies, nostalgic candies, 45 different varieties of licorice, and more, more, more behind glass display cases. Parents: Do not bring your kids in here if you don’t intend to consume; that would be just plain child abuse. Ocean Avenue, between Monte Verde and Lincoln, 831.624.5170, www.cottageofsweets.com.

San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission. Father Junipero Serra dedicated this beautiful mission in 1771, the second California mission built along the Camino Real (King’s Highway) between San Diego to San Francisco and north to Sonoma. Kids can learn about Native Americans and early California history, and explore a padre’s cell and the gardens including a cemetery with grave markers dating from the mid-1700s. The best time to visit is September, when the Carmel Mission Fiesta is in full swing. 3080 Rio Rd., Carmel, 831.624.1271, www.carmelmission.org.

Carmel Beach and tide pools. A mile-long expanse of sand and ocean will tire out even the most rambunctious child. Fabulous for sandcastles, it’s pretty cold to swim here, except perhaps at the height of summer. Surfers in wetsuits negotiate the waves. A sand hill is ideal for somersaulting and sand skiing. At the far northern end, visit the tide pools at low tide, seeking out hermit crabs, sea stars, and sea anemones. End of Ocean Avenue.

Barbara Noe/NGS

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. A trail takes you along the ocean’s edge, a perfect balcony from which to spy splashing sea otters, seals, and sea lions. Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Central Park, laid out the several miles of trails. Weston Beach, named for the famed photographer who lived nearby, is the best place to explore tide pools. The kids enjoyed playing on the rocks and searching for sea stars and hermit crabs in the pools. Keep an eye out for poison oak, which grows along the some of the trails. 3 miles south of Carmel on Calif. 1, 831.624.4909, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=571 .

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park One day we hiked among giant redwoods to a waterfall in this beautiful state park south of Carmel. A few miles farther south awaits Nepenthe, a restaurant aerie beloved by poets, musicians, and artists with a kiddies’ menu—and some of the best panoramic views around. On the outdoor terrace, the kids loved sitting on pillows along concrete, stadium-like benches rather than sitting properly to eat at the table. The waiters were extremely patient. Highway 1, Big Sur, 26 miles south of Carmel, 831.667.2315, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=570

Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can’t go wrong at this world-class aquarium in nearby Monterey, home to sea otters, jellyfish, schools of shimmery sardines, and a touch tank filled with sea stars and crabs. The kids loved petting sea cucumbers (“soft as a kitten”) and watching the penguins swim. The giant Pacific octopus was pretty cool—especially the story about how he would escape his tank at night to snack on fish in neighboring tanks (AstroTurf now makes it impossible for his midnight escapades—his tentacles won’t stick to the material). Outside, they looked through telescopes to find animals in the wild—including sea otters hanging out on their backs in the bay. Watch for migrating whales. 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831.648.4888, www.montereybayaquarium.org.

Dippin’ Dots. Ice cream is served up in tiny beads that have been flash frozen. Given the eye-bugging range of choices, some of the kids decided to have their afternoon treat here instead of at Carmel’s Cottage of Sweets! Favorite flavors: birthday cake, banana split, and bubble gum. 771 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831.655.5080, www.dippindots.com.

Monterey Mirror Maze. The kids loved donning the special 3D glasses and making their way through a blinking-light, psychedelic-colored maze lined with mirrors in their pursuit of the exit, negotiating dead-ends along the way. For an additional fee, kids can also attempt the laser maze. Nine-year-old Charlie wore his glasses for days after—I’m not sure if he thought he looked cool or if he just liked looking at the world through prisms. 751 Cannery Row, Monterey, 831.649.6293, www.montereymirrormaze.com.

Dennis the Menace Playground. My nieces and nephews were probably the oldest kids at this amazing playground, designed by Dennis the Mennis creator Hank Meacham and opened in 1956 (and renovated since), but they still reveled at the lake, suspension bridge, tunnels, moon bridge, slide with rollers and giant curvy, green slide, and a historic steam engine to climb in, over, and under. 777 Pearl St., Monterey, 831.646.3860 (City of Monterey, Parks Division). Yelp review.

Follow our Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip through Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Barbara Noe is a senior editor for National Geographic Books

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