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Nurturing romance in California’s Carmel Valley


A red-tailed hawk floated across the lip of the Santa Lucia Mountains. My husband, Eddie, and I watched the raptor’s solo journey from our private terrace at Carmel Valley’s Bernardus Lodge. Minutes after our arrival, before unpacking our belongings, we chose to unpack our day by stepping into the afternoon sun and enjoying the hotel’s complimentary amenities: a glass of Bernardus Chardonnay, goat cheese, crackers, silence. This was our first extended trip away from our children — a mere two nights, I am embarrassed to admit — and we needed to own the reality before we could connect again.

It wasn’t by accident that we chose the Carmel Valley as our first weekend escape. The Santa Lucia Mountains, the southern border of the valley, had a hand in our love affair that began almost two decades ago. Teens obsessed with Henry Miller (who lived and wrote in these redwood and oak-covered peaks for years), passing his books between us to share an underlined quote, “A couple gets married in the romantic mood, but then there’s nothing to show them how to go on increasing and nurturing their love”; both of us nodding, talking about how we would be different; how our love would never grow stale, empty, obligatory.


Some rooms at Bernardus Lodge & Spa faced the bocce court.Michele Bigley for The Boston Globe

Now, two children later, exhausted by the daily needs of young humans, we wanted a grown-up experience to rekindle our affections, so we selected a weekend in one of California’s up-and-coming wine regions, a community on the precipice of Carmel’s glitz, but still clinging to its quirkiness. We started with dinner at the hotel’s new Lucia Restaurant, the brainchild of chef Cal Stamenov. We settled into the white wingback chairs and followed the recommendations of our waiter, who paired local wine with our valley-grown fava artichoke salad bathed in truffle vinaigrette, chicken-fried quail with saffron horseradish, the decadent duck stew, and the goat cheesecake blanketed with berries.


Over dinner we discussed our preschooler’s latest tirade, his fascination with the power of his screech, and then asked why we don’t escape the needs of our children more often. The woman sitting next to us with her grown daughter kindly inserted her opinion that the greatest joy of being a parent is to accept the changes each phase brings; never cling to what these beings were moments before. Eddie and I considered what our children were now — boys 3 and 7, energetic, excitable, exhausting — and retreated back to our room to indulge in the spacious solace of our luxurious bed.

Like most kids, ours still managed to wake us at the crack of dawn. Our oldest called both our phones to inform us that he lost a tooth at breakfast, confirming the tooth fairy would still arrive if we weren’t home (she sure does!). Our youngest couldn’t be bothered to chat — he was too busy dressing his stuffed animal for school, the sitter informed us.

The Mercedes-Benz lodge loaner.Michele Bigley for The Boston Globe

After breakfast in bed and morning massages at the hotel spa, we borrowed one of the hotel’s fleet of Mercedes SL 55 AMGs to tour the valley. Carmel Valley has long lured Hollywood moguls to construct posh mansions throughout the pastoral landscape. The moneyed have returned in the past decade, planting wine grapes, which thrive in the moderate temperatures moistened by the nearby coast.

We popped into Heller Estate, one of the valley’s sole organic tasting rooms, to sample the dry-farmed chenin blanc and chardonnay. Sitting in the sun in the sculpture garden, I gazed at the intersection of arms and legs on the 15-foot sculpture of a dancing couple crafted by Toby Heller. Suddenly, I wanted to embrace what Henry Miller calls the “quality so often found in children: openness”; I wanted us to continue to blossom in spite of the demands of parenthood; to be like the vineyards yawning across this great valley, getting tougher, more prolific, more complex, yet more grounded in the soil as our roots intertwined.


As if reading my mind, Eddie said it was time to go, and even though our next destination was within walking distance, he put the car’s top down, letting the wind whip our hair into a frenzy, holding my hand, and whooping with childlike joy as we turned into Bernardus Winery. Owned by the same company as the lodge, this handsome tasting room means business. The staff educated us on the various styles of pinot noir in the region; our wine guide poured samples of their newest sauvignon blanc, explaining that it was meant to be drunk soon, not sit in a cellar. I asked about how to know if you should let a wine age, and the vino expert explained, “Bottled wine is wound up; when you add air, it opens, loosens, becomes a new taste.”

This was how I felt. Once I added oxygen, some space to breathe, I suddenly felt the spaciousness of my life, my relationship to my husband, my expansive love for my kids. We weren’t so wound up that we couldn’t see beyond our own corked up selves. Over dinner at Café Rustica, a country chic alfresco restaurant in the heart of the village, Eddie and I giggled through a Jose’s verde pizza (a fun take on Mexican pies) and a hearty salad, before returning our fancy ride to the hotel, where we spent much of the evening in the hot tub, dreaming up our next escape.


In the morning, we strolled the gardens of the hotel before heading out to our last stop — Refuge, a silent spa retreat nestled against the craggy mountains. Donning our cushy white robes, we rotated between the sauna, eucalyptus steam room, cold plunge pools, and the waterfall-fed hot tubs, all hugged by the mossy oaks of the valley wall. As we took a break around a fire pit, I watched a lone hawk soar above the trees. Suddenly, another hawk appeared over the treetops, cutting across the other’s wake, soaring on its own path, alongside its partner, likely searching for food for their offspring, never out of sight of the one chosen to share this life and the little creatures depending on them.

Michele Bigley can be reached at