Carmel, California canines are among the world’s most pampered in this Pacific Ocean hamlet. Restaurants here seat them, hotels greet them, and the countless boutiques fete them. Anyone who has strolled the famed silken sands of the frenzied go-fetch known as Carmel Beach
is aware that four legs are better than two in these parts.
For this reason, it is entirely appropriate that Carmel be the nation’s first town with a city-sponsored dog calendar.
A couple years ago, the town organized a noon casting call at the beach. They expected maybe 50 dogs to audition. They got more than 300, with a line stretching up Carmel’s famed Ocean Ave., winding its way for nearly half a mile amid the town’s quaint shops, patisseries and art galleries. It was an afternoon of canine pageantry that resembled a hybrid of “American Idol” and “Best in Show.”
Contestants in the audition ranged from the big (a Bernese mountain eog named Matterhorn and a 210-pound Leonberger called Gustav) to the small (a lhasa apso named Truffle and an Italian Spinone called Lady Godiva). Some were fabulous, including a standard poodle with painted toenails and an Italian greyhound named Armani. Still others came in Carmel casual: Several dogs—including winners Wilfredo and Twinkie—were just plain mutts.
Famed chef Kurt Grasing, who with partner Narsai David owns iconic Carmel restaurants Grasing’s and Kurt’s Chop House, joined the congregation with his Chihuahua Frankie. “He knows the difference between Kobe beef and Black Angus,” Grasing said of his pet’s special talent.
Local poet Don Blanding once wrote, “In Carmel-by-the-Sea, it is an unwritten law that no one shall have less than one dog.” Indeed, misty, mysterious Carmel—with its crashing waves, piney woods, meandering trails and crackling hearths—is consistently rated as one of the world’s best cities for dogs and their owners. Located two hours south of San Francisco, dogs have been part of this precious village’s fabric from the start.
The town acquired dog-capital status as early as 1906, when artists and other bohemians living in quake-shaken San Francisco fled here. As a creative haven perched on the edge of the wild Pacific, the town let people be people, and dogs be dogs. And while the village’s real estate has been bought up by a decidedly upscale crowd (60 percent of the houses in Carmel-by-the-Sea are second homes), the village still cherishes its pup eccentricity as a link to its rougher youth.
One of Carmel’s early artistic settlers was poet Robinson Jeffers, who built the famously craggy Tor House
on the town’s coast. Sitting in his stone spire known as Hawk Tower, Jeffers wrote the poem “The House Dog’s Grave,” which is an elegy from a late dog to its owner. It reads, “… I was your friend. / I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures / To the end and far past the end …"
Townsfolk even revere dogs that no longer live in Carmel. The only grave allowed within the city’s limits is for a dog named Pal, a stray who wandered Carmel’s streets from 1929 until his passing in 1943. Buried near the Forest Theatre, the oldest outdoor theater in the West, his tombstone reads, “Here lies Pal. The friend of all who knew and loved him.”
Today, dogs are welcome at various hotels, restaurants and retail establishments throughout this canine Shangri-La.
At the Doris Day-owned Cypress Inn
, pups get a famous doggy-biscuit turndown service. While the place is elegant and subdued, dogs are welcome overnight in guest rooms with their masters, and they are invited to the inn’s daily afternoon tea (though they must have reservations). The desk manager says the dogs are generally well behaved, aside from the occasion when a Jack Russell terrier decided to leap from a second-story window. The dog was unharmed. “Jack Russell’s land like cats,” he says.
One restaurant, PortaBella
, brings a champagne-bucket water bowl presented on a chic napkin-covered plate; while another fine-dining establishment, Forge in the Forest, seats canine companions with their masters in an outdoor area called The Pound.
The landmark Cottage of Sweets
includes doggie treats in its mix of American and European candies. Down the road, Carmel Camera
has a special section it calls “pet heaven,” where customers bring in photos of deceased pets, and clerks give them paper wings and attach them to the ceiling.
Pups are also allowed in many of Carmel’s 100-plus art galleries. One might cringe as tails wag precariously close to crystal vases and delicate pottery, but owners rarely seem to bat an eye.
While some shops boast hitching posts outside, most allow dogs to come right on in. Pet boutiques like Diggidy Dog
and Mackie’s Parlour
sell feather beds, canine cologne and upscale squeak toys. “We cater to the most spoiled dogs in the world,” says a Diggidy Dog clerk, whose bakery items include Boston terrier cream pies.
The Carmel Plaza shopping center even provides a dogs-only drinking fountain known as the Fountain of Woof for thirsty shoppers. In fact, when high-end Plaza newcomer Wilkes Bashford opened his new Ocean Ave. store two years ago, he included designer dog collars to his inventory of couture. Another Plaza fixture, Tiffany & Co., has sterling water bowls outside its doors.
But Carmel Beach
is the epicenter of the town’s “your dog is our dog” philosophy. For more than a century, folks the world over have come to stare in reverence at a Carmel sunset and feel the white sand ooze between their toes. The experience is made the better for those whose toes number 20 rather than 10.
Dogs and owners stretch their legs leash-free, and yet there is no confusion—just harmony and sharing.
As her two Labs frolicked in the surf with an odd confection including an Aussie and an Airedale, a visitor from Portland yelled to a companion, “This is the most incredibly dog-friendly place I’ve ever seen.”
Locals say there is a loose social order of dogs and their owners that show up on the sand at designated times to converse or cavort along the shoreline. Soon after sunrise and just before sunset, a cadre of canines convene at the beach for a little exercise, as their owners stand clustered like kelp on the shore, tossing sticks and catching up on local news.
At one point, a golden retriever bounds over to an unattended picnic basket, grabs a mini pizza in her mouth and swallows it whole. The dog’s owner offers a $20 to the surprised pizza purveyors, who just laugh. They have a dog roaming free, too, and the spirit is infectious. On what must be one of the world’s most beautiful crescents of land, it is an entirely merry romp.
Gear up for Carmel at the CityDog Shop
Carmel, California: carmelcalifornia.com
Cypress Inn: cypress-inn.com
Svendsgaard’s Inn: innsbythesea.com
Tradewinds Inn: tradewindscarmel.com
Forge in the Forest: forgeintheforest.com
Mackie’s Parlour: mackiesparlour.com
Diggidy Dog: diggidydogcarmel.com
Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House: torhouse.org
Carmel Mission: carmelmission.org
Forest Theatre: foresttheaterguild.com
Carmel Walking Tours: carmelwalks.com