It’s a bright, crisp day in Carmel, and on the long, white-sand beach dogs of every shape, size, and parentage cavort about in leash-free bliss. Terriers dig, smiling Labs paddle in the gentle surf, and Springer Spaniels effortlessly pluck chucked balls out of midair.
Up the hill in the well-heeled village, dogs dine beside their people at the patio seating of fine restaurants. At the French-inspired Porta Bella, a Malamute mix tries to inhale the coq au vin off the table, but eventually gives up and laps water out of a large champagne bucket provided by the waiter. A server at a nearby restaurant, Forge in the Forest, brings a Miniature Schnauzer his own “Quarter-Hounder” burger, straight off the dog menu.
All around this seaside hamlet, lucky dogs walk in and out of stores and banks (often receiving a treat in exchange for their patronage), visit art galleries, and even attend plays and films at the open-air Forest Theater. And at night, out-of-town dogs tuck themselves in at exquisite inns and dream of the next day’s adventures.
If there could be a dog heaven on earth, this picturesque village less than three hours south of San Francisco would be it.
“We invite our four-legged friends to enjoy Carmel and bring their two-legged friends to do the same,” says Mayor Sue McCloud, whose own dog, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier named Robbie, carries his own calling card (a real paper one, not the kind more frequently associated with dogs.)
Carmel is only one square mile in area, with just 4,081 residents. But while it’s a Bichon-Frisse-sized town, the city government’s devotion to dogs takes on Great Dane proportions.
Carmel spends $10,000 annually on biodegradable Mutt Mitts, placed strategically throughout town and on the beach. The village recently sponsored a swank dog calendar, and more than 314 pooches competed in front of local celebrity judges for dog-of-the-month status. And a big part of Carmel’s website (www.carmelcalifornia.com) is devoted to dogs, with two of its seven short videos focusing on dog-friendly aspects of the village.
The majority of local businesses also strongly embrace the canine set. In fact, Carmel has more dog-friendly businesses per capita than any other community in California – possibly in the entire U.S.
“We love dogs here,” says Le Coq d’Or proprietor Annelore Parsons, who cooks up free beef-rice burgers for dogs who join their people on the large front patio of her French-German restaurant. “We find the people who bring them are very nice, too.”
The most famous pet-friendly Carmel business is the divinely dog-loving Cypress Inn, co-owned by actress and animal advocate Doris Day. (Visitors don’t get to see Day very often, but another dog-loving Carmel resident, Betty White, makes regular appearances at charitable events for animals.) Canine guests at the Cypress Inn get dog beds, treats, and food, and can join their people for tea or drinks at the hotel’s plush library bar.
The Lincoln Green Inn and Vagabond’s House Inn (not to be confused with a Vagabond Inn motel) are delightful, cozy retreats reminiscent of merry old England, and dogs are warmly welcomed at both. In fact, the vast majority of inns in Carmel permit pooches, as do most of the restaurants that have outside seating.
It’s a surprise to many dog visitors that so many stores beckon them inside with dog biscuits and friendly head pats. Robbie, the mayor’s dog, likes to pull McCloud into Wells Fargo Bank, ostensibly to “check his account,” says McCloud. But his ulterior motive is clear: making a withdrawal from the bank’s dog cookie jar.
Dogs are also welcome inside many of Carmel’s art galleries. At the Rodrigue Studio (home of the Blue Dog paintings), the top works sell for nearly $20,000. Dogs are invited inside as long as they don’t do leg lefts on the art. The gallery director provides dog treats, and even bakes special dog cookies during the holidays.
A dog can build up a mighty thirst downing all those biscuits. As luck would have it, Carmel Plaza, where many treats are doled out, sports a fountain made exclusively for dogs. The Fountain of Woof features a carved clay dog with water pouring out of it’s mouth. The water collects in two bowl-shaped pools at the fountain’s base so dogs can wet their whistles.
No town as dog-friendly as Carmel would be complete without a canine columnist. Look no further than Noodle, a happy yellow lab who lives with Megan Terry, who owns the dog-friendly Carmel Stamp & Coin Shop and is on the board of trustees for the dog-friendly Forest Theater Guild. Noodle’s column focuses on important topics like where to find good dog cookies and businesses that are kind to canines.
It’s no surprise that one place Noodle highly recommends is The Forest Theater. Dogs are welcome to attend any Forest Theater Guild productions there, including live plays and films, for free. (Beware: The other group that uses the theater does not allow dogs.) It’s the oldest outdoor theater west of the Rockies, with wooden amphitheater-style seating and bonfires flanking the stage. Most dogs curl up and nap during shows, but some seem riveted by the action on stage – or maybe they’re staring at a nearby theatergoer’s hot dog.
“Dogs and their well-behaved owners are very welcome,” says Terry. “It’s so magical. The stars are pressing on you, the fires are burning, and the dogs and people are so happy to be here – as they are all over Carmel.”
In recent years, lots of businesses across the country have gone dog-friendly as a way of attracting the vast market of dog people to their establishments. But Carmel isn’t just riding a trend. Dogs have been a key part of life there for nearly a century.
Here are some highlights from Carmel’s canine history book:
- Professionals from urban areas and professors from Stanford brought their families – and their family dogs – to Carmel for vacation years before the city was incorporated in 1916.
- In 1927, more dogs than people came to the formation of the volunteer fire department.
- Aside from Father Junipero Serra, the only Carmel denizen buried within city limits is Pal, “the Carmel Dog.” Pal was the only dog ever allowed to freely roam the streets of Carmel to search out sunny napping spots. Pal was so beloved that when he died in 1943, he was buried in Carmel (at the outdoor Forest Theater). An oil painting of Pal still hangs in The Sunset Community and Cultural Center.
- During a Carmel performance in the early 1960s, violinist Isaac Stern took notice of then-mayor Eben Whittlesey’s guide dog when the German Shepherd let out a massively loud yawn before Stern’s encore. Stern is said to have looked up at the dog in the balcony and quipped, “Would you rather I play something else?”
Mayor Digs Dogs
Carmel’s three-time mayor, Sue McCloud, is as dog-friendly as the village she presides over. McCloud grew up in Carmel and returned after a long and impressive career with the CIA in Europe. Nowadays, she often brings Robbie, her two-year-old Dandie Dinmont Terrier, to her office at City Hall.
Because of his lively personality, Robbie doesn’t attend many City Council meetings, and McCloud puts him in day care twice a week so she can work without interruption. “His presence is not conducive to writing mayoral proclamations,” she admits.
Last year, Robbie swallowed the cork from a fine merlot. Try as they might to avoid it, vets decided that operating was the only way to help him. “They called me during a City Council meeting to tell me he needed surgery,” recalls McCloud. “We had to pause the meeting for a little while to discuss Robbie’s uncorking.” Much to everyone’s relief, Robbie came through the experience none the worse for wear.
Robbie is cute with a capital C, has a bright and happy personality, and tries hard to earn his keep. A few weeks ago he killed two rats in the mayor’s yard (egads, rats in Carmel?!). “He lined them up perfectly next to each other with their tails stretched out behind them, then came and got me to show me his handiwork. He was very proud.”
The mayor loves to see so many dogs visiting Carmel and endorses the town’s efforts to attract even more canine tourists. “It’s dog heaven here, and we love to share it,” says McCloud.
If Carmel is going to the dogs, Mayor McCloud (with Robbie at her side) couldn’t be happier. Around here that’s a very good thing.
When You Go…
Here is contact information for the dog-friendly locales mentioned in this story. For the lowdown on many more places, in Carmel and throughout the state, check out The Dog Lover’s Companion to California by Maria Goodavage, available at major bookstores and through the author’s website at www.caldogtravel.com.
Carmel City Beach
West end of Ocean Avenue
Forest Theater Guild
Forge in the Forest
Le Coq d’Or
Lincoln Green Inn and Vagabond’s House Inn
The town’s passion for canines appears to be headed for infinite encores, and if dogs could applaud, they would. In fact, they’d give Carmel a standing ovation. And this sunny little village by the sea should take a well-deserved bow.
Maria Goodavage is the author of The Dog Lover’s Companion to California. She and her dog, Jake, frequently visit Carmel to research dog-friendly spots for new editions. “It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it,” she says. For more on Goodavage’s books, see www.caldogtravel.com.