A cooling fog rolled in that afternoon, followed by a late-night storm that steamed in off the Pacific. For hours the sky boomed and flashed as a waterfall of rain drenched the rocky shoreline and heavily forested hills of this coastal stretch known as the Gateway to Big Sur.
Earlier that day, humidity and a blazing white sun made things unseasonably warm as we turned off Highway 1 and up a steep driveway to the Carmel Highlands Inn, which is really two adjoining properties under one umbrella – a Hyatt hotel and a timeshare “residence club.” The inn is 4 miles from Carmel and a short hike from Point Lobos State National Reserve. Non-guests are invited to stop by for a look-see, a bite and a bike rental.
The charmingly retro inn opened in 1917 and rented “cabins in the Monterey pine forest.” At the time, owner J. Frank Devendorf told the Monterey Herald that his inn “combined the rustic qualities of its setting, yet offered travelers all the luxury that the progress of the new century could offer.”
After various ownerships and several expansions, the 48-room hotel became a Hyatt property in 1995. A year ago, it and the adjoining timeshare – 94 condominiums that are rented as available – were purchased by Interval Leisure Group of Miami. It has a long-term licensing agreement to run the hotel under the Hyatt brand.
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The buildings form a well-landscaped 11-acre oasis that has long resisted the trend among many older hotels to “sanitize” much of their character in the name of modernization. Still, some of the structures have looked dated for a while. To keep up, the condos were “gently remodeled” two years ago, with grander updates in the works for the hotel, said managing director Mel Bettcher.
“We’re planning renovations of the hotel rooms, the restaurants and the lobby area, but absolutely we’re looking to preserve our rustic coastal feel and enhance what we’ve been building on for the past 10 years,” Bettcher said. The project is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2016.
The Highlands Inn has been a special destination for generations of Californians, and for the celebrities-of-the-day who have stayed and played here over the decades – Ansel Adams, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julia Child, Robert Redford, Steven Tyler and Christina Aguilera among them.
One of the hotel’s primary draws has long been as a wedding and honeymoon destination. A wedding chapel was part of the grounds from the 1950s through the 1980s (when brunch was $5), and the brass bell that hung in its spire is now an attraction in the lobby. “(Hundreds of) couples young and old came to the romantic retreat to exchange and renew their wedding vows,” reads the plaque.
These days, the hotel hosts about 60 formal ceremonies a year, and their attendant rehearsals, dinners and receptions. The “I do’s” literally take place on an outdoor deck-gazebo that – like everything else here – overlooks the Pacific in dramatic fashion. During our visit, a jubilant wedding reception for 120 guests briefly brought to mind some of the more amusing scenes from Vince Vaughn’s “Wedding Crashers.”
A less-stressful and more economical option to a full-on wedding is the midweek Elopement Package for eight to a dozen guests, which includes “romantic evening turn-down service with rose petals, a chilled bottle of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.”
Weddings aside, the inn’s biggest attractions are its prime location, hidden on a hillside above twisting Highway 1, and its reputation for exclusivity as a “boutique hideaway.” An underlying but pervasive sense of privacy and discretion are included in the room rates, which are adjusted seasonally. Hotel rooms go for $350 to $900 a night, and condos range from $500 to $1,500. Part of what that buys are unsurpassed vistas from dining rooms and decks of sunsets and ocean views, stands of coastal cypress and rocky coastline. As catering coordinator Yuri Orellana put it during a tour, “The sunsets are like no other.”
The good news for visitors to the Monterrey Peninsula is you needn’t be a hotel guest to sample some of the amenities, including the restaurants, and explore the lush grounds, where trails and stone stairways meander through cypress and color-splashed bougainvillea. We strolled past walls of native stone supporting balconies that look over the ocean on one side and up at the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other.
Inside the high-ceiling main lodge are the intimate Sunset Lounge (small plates and drinks) and the sprawling wood-and-stone Fireside Lounge, where local bands show up to play on Friday and Saturday nights. One evening, the space was packed with exuberant couples showing off the finer points of West Coast swing.
The showcase restaurant, the four-star Pacific’s Edge, was included on USA Today’s list of the nation’s top 10 restaurants with a view. Its wine cellar holds 3,400 bottles. We shared wild mushroom-stuffed ravioli and a chunk of grilled wild salmon, the flesh juicy, the skin as crisp as a cracker.
At the more casual California Market bistro, the place to be is on the redwood deck overlooking Yankee Point a few hundred yards offshore. On wet, chilly days, diners can find tables near the pot belly stove inside the dining room, weighty with a 1950s vibe. The small kitchen (which understands the concept of crisp bacon) puts out a staggering amount of quality food for breakfast and lunch, such as the banana-topped, raspberry-dotted pancakes that were easily the best we’ve tasted.
Also, Highlands Inn has a unique program: The public can call ahead and arrange for a picnic to be packed in an old-school wicker basket (for up to four) or a backpack (for two), for $35 a person, with a refundable $50 deposit. Choose your picnic items from a set menu, or custom-create your own lunch, “priced accordingly.”
We asked the Catering Department to surprise us, and ended up with prosciutto sandwiches, fresh fruit (raspberries, blueberries, pineapple), salad, cheeses with apricots, strawberries and candied pecans, and other items. All the necessary cutlery was included.
Instead of renting bicycles and searching for a suitable picnic site, we drove a short hop to Carmel River State Beach, spread a blanket and listened to the whoosh-boom of waves on sand. For a while, the world was on hold.
Carmel Highlands Inn
Address: 120 Highlands Drive, about 4 miles south of Carmel
Information: 831-620-1234, highlandsinn.hyatt.com
Carmel Visitor Center offers an informative visitors guide to the area at its offices on San Carlos Street between Fifth and Sixth streets in Carmel; (800) 550-4333, carmelcalifornia.org., facebook.com/carmelcalifornia.