A look back at the deliciously creative former life of the Hyatt Carmel Highlands in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Hotel De Mer

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: History Issue: May 2017
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Plenty of hotels have cool backstories. In Arizona alone, we have B&Bs that were once brothels, Airstream trailers turned hostelries and at least one inn that began life as a Wild West jailhouse. But no property we’ve visited has had quite the deliciously creative former life as the Hyatt Carmel Highlands in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this July.

“This was built as an artist commune,” hotel sales and events coordinator Sheena Staveley says as she walks the grounds, built “literally on a rock” abutting the Pacific Ocean and overlooking the beauteous Big Sur coastline.

“They had little cottages all around, and people would come and rent the cottages and be able to work on their art,” Staveley says. The setting – indigo waves rhythmically seesawing between the tree-lined shore and the unfathomable depths beyond the horizon – no doubt enticed the muses to sit and stay awhile.

The artists eventually migrated and the property became the Highlands Inn, which in turn became a favorite haunt of a scrappy California cook you may have heard of named Julia Child. The French-trained chef and TV pioneer regularly held events – often doing the cooking herself in the hotel’s kitchen – in the inn’s wine room, an intimate private dining room surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine. “This was her favorite room,” Staveley says. “Sometimes her family will still hold things here.”

Her culinary legacy lives on in the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival, which started as a smaller gathering in the wine room. “It used to be called the Masters of Food & Wine Festival,” Staveley says. “It just got so big that it outgrew our property, and that’s when Pebble Beach took over.”

The property was acquired by Hyatt in 2014 and is in the finishing stages of a massive renovation to celebrate its centennial. The cottages of old have become 94 time-shares and 48 hotel rooms, with four
original fireplaces enduring from 1917. The hotel’s two restaurants have merged to become one dining destination, California Market at Pacific’s Edge. Preserving its artistic and gastronomic history is important, Staveley says.

“To think about the amazing chefs that have been here and have cooked in our kitchens… Every time I say it, I still get goosebumps.”

— Leah LeMoine


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