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All I want for Christmas is Carmel-by-the-Sea without the crowds

Point Lobos at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

The state of California may be broke, but there is no sign of recession in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the uber-charming village south of San Francisco where hotels and inns are booked solid months into the future and expensive boutiques do a bustling trade year-round.

Carmel just happens to be on the most ravishingly beautiful stretch of coast in the United States. A four-night romantic weekend here is a perfect gift to be spent at the end of April when the flowers are blooming, but before the crush of summer vacationers.

Stay at the historic La Playa Hotel, which began life as a Mediterranean-style villa in 1905 and still rests amid exquisite cypress and flower gardens. La Playa is also close to the 202-year-old Mission Basilica and near the start of the "17-mile drive" that winds along the picturesque shore. But don't stray too far from Carmel itself. Have breakfast at Em Le's, a 55-year-old village landmark famous for its French toast, enjoy fresh seafood at Flaherty's Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar, and have at least one dinner at PortaBella, where the menu takes you on a tour of Italy, southern France and Spain. You can spend hours in the boutiques and art galleries along narrow, stone-paved alleyways or loaf in an outdoor café. Before you travel, though, order tickets online for the nearby Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival in late April.

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Rooms at La Playa start at $300 ; 800-582-8900; lap l

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