La Playa Carmel (Carmel, CA)

La Playa Carmel (Carmel, CA)

Famous for the artists, writers, and bohemians who first flocked here a century ago, Carmel by the Sea, located on the Monterey Peninsula's southern end, tends to draw more upscale visitors nowadays but still offers plenty of small-town charm. And of course there are the amenities, too: the bleached-sugar, white sand beaches and world-class Pebble Beach golf courses, all within spitting distance of a low-key town that's home to myriad fine restaurants, shops, and galleries. Carmel boasts an impressive history of locals, for sure – everyone from Jack London to Clint Eastwood – but it's the town's natural beauty and old-California charm that keep people coming back. And the best place we've found to experience that vibe and allure is in a century-old converted mansion, La Playa Carmel.

Tucked politely into a quiet neighborhood two blocks from Carmel Beach, and a mere a 10-minute walk from the town center, La Playa Carmel's 75 unique rooms sport ocean views through the cypress trees and make it feel like you're staying in some gracious patron's private artist colony. And indeed, at one point, it actually was: Designed in 1905 by the landscape artist Christian Jorgenson as a gift for his wife, a member of the Ghirardelli family, La Playa almost immediately became a gathering place for artists and writers, and a cornerstone of the upstart community focused on the arts (it officially became a hotel a decade later in 1916).

The venerable estate recently went through a multi-million-dollar renovation that truly touched every aspect of the entire place: from soundproofing to pillow-top mattresses to complimentary champagne breakfast buffet. The elegance and eclectic charisma of the hotel is still completely intact, but now there's a youthful twist with an emphasis placed on eco-friendly practices (we loved the sustainably sourced birchwood key cards) and tech amenities like iPod docks and flat screens in the rooms. The stylish bar has stayed the same and is a great place to grab a cocktail and watch the sunset from the patio.

The courtyard's red brick walking paths, graceful gardens, fire pits, and heated pool, along with the communal spaces within the hotel, are warm and welcoming, and help create an ambiance where guests feel comfortable mingling. We were even invited to join a jovial group of local residents and hotel guests for dinner at a wonderful local restaurant called Christopher's after sharing a drink with them at the bar. Apparently that sort of thing happens quite often at La Playa. [from $360; laplayahotel.com]