A hint of burning firewood filled the air near the hot tub at Tickle Pink Inn's outside terrace Wednesday.
In the distance, past the cypress trees, waves from the Monterey Bay crashed on shore.
The sound of a man-made waterfall trickled through an elaborate garden of native plants, often home to hummingbirds.
If the romantic scene is too much to handle, no one told the patrons. Based on thousands of reviews, Tickle Pink Inn in Carmel Highlands was named one of the "Most Romantic" hotels in the country by TripAdvisor.com earlier this month.
Also on the list was Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.
"It was recognized before," Tickle Pink general manager Krysty Parker said of the hotel's romantic appeal, "just not in the news."
Romance is part of the allure of the county, said Tammy Blount, president of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In context, she said, the selection adds to the county's status as a premier destination. In November, the county was voted the top North American Golf Destination by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. Last month, the county was named one of the top 10 wine travel destinations in the world by Wine Enthusiast magazine.
"We've been so lucky lately," Blount said.
Parker, who has worked at Tickle Pink Inn for more than 20 years, said guests often head into the community for wine tastings, hikes at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and other sightseeing adventures.
The "small, intimate charm" of the inn is what brings people back, Parker said.
She said about half its customers come from California, but it has recently seen an increase in European patrons.
The inn has 56 rooms and roughly 25 employees. It is currently undergoing a light renovation of its balconies, to be completed in March.
Rooms can range from $289 to $459 a night, with the ocean view suites costing up to $559.
Parker advises making reservations two months in advance. She said the inn is booked until Feb. 21 and typically sells out in March.
The hotel was opened 57 years ago on the original homestead of state Sen. Edward Tickle. It is owned by the Gurries family.
The Post Ranch Inn, a young upstart by comparison, opened in 1992 and also features panoramic ocean views.
In the comparatively shorter time it has been open, the inn has won dozens of major awards, including the top hotel in California from Travel + Leisure magazine.
There are 39 rooms and 200 employees at the inn, according to General Manager Dan Priano.
The modern-style structure, owned by Post Ranch LP, features a variety of small buildings costing from $625 to $2,500 a night.
Priano said couples find the inn romantic because it is secluded and has terrific views of the ocean.
"I think it is the privacy they can attain here," he said.
Phillip Molnar can be reached at 646-4487 or email@example.com.