CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. - A breeze funnels down Ocean Ave., sweeping along sidewalks crowded with the curious - Californians and Hoosiers and others who arrive like returning swallows to escape the real world.

No drive-by shootings here. No crack houses. No smoggy days. Foggy ones, maybe. But nothing that can't be tolerated by donning a warm sweater or a tweed jacket. Or stopping at a cafe with a roaring fire for hot cider - or something a bit stronger, perhaps.The village remains a scene out of a Disney movie or a page from a child's favorite fairy tale, this slice of cypress and Monterey pine called Carmel. Ask "Dirty Harry" or actress Doris Day, for both insist that Carmel is the most priceless piece of real estate in the United States. Indeed, possibly anywhere on earth.

Especially hooked is Dirty Harry, the dude who did a two-year stint as mayor of Carmel and is best known to legions of fans as the actor Clint Eastwood.

While mayor, Eastwood settled an argument over an old dairy farm that had been converted to a B&B and whose owners intended to replace it with a clutch of townhouses. Environmentalists raised a ruckus and as the verbal battle grew hotter, no one budged. Finally, Eastwood pulled out his checkbook and settled the argument by buying Mission Ranch.

The 22-acre parcel behind Carmel Mission takes in a rambling old two-story farmhouse, several rustic guest cottages, a milking barn and the farm's old creamery that serves as its restaurant, all of which Eastwood intends to preserve for posterity.

Carmel is possibly the richest town in America. If not the richest, then certainly the quaintest. Name another village where residents refuse to put up house numbers and, as a result, must get by without mail delivery.

What's more, if one lives in Carmel one must die to get out of town, the reason being that there is not even a cemetery. Heaven can wait, say residents. If indeed it exists, they figure it couldn't be any prettier than Carmel-by-the-Sea.

In a town without house numbers and mail delivery, residents queue up at the post office each morning to exchange pleasantries as well as bits of gossip. On the other hand, because of the missing house numbers, visitors searching for relatives and friends sometimes never make contact. It is the price locals are willing to pay for privacy - an idea born years ago when the first resident refused to put up a house number. Thus, a custom born at the birth of Carmel continues into the '90s.

Shops and inns cater to outsiders while homes remain hidden among cypress and pine.

Waves with rainbows in the spray caress a beach with powderlike sand. White water rushes over rocks and hills are green with ice plant and cypress - and golden with poppies with springtime's arrival.

In the beginning, Carmel was a writer's refuge. Later, artists arrived, followed by tourists who bid for their paintings. Simic Galleries on San Carlos Street exhibits a $325,000 oil by William Bouguereau and a $125,000 Parisian street scene by Edourd Cortes.

Other shopkeepers are into antiques. Nancy Portesi of Interior Traditions displays an English Oak dresser ($8,900) and a vintage Singer sewing machine ($2,000). The upscale Great Things Antiques on Ocean Avenue features a Belgian marble-topped table ($2,900) alongside a 19th-Century French armoire tagged at $5,500 and a handsome turn-of-the-century English walnut wardrobe for $5,900.

While traffic continues bumper-to-bumper in Carmel during summertime, the city still refuses to blacktop one foot of land unnecessarily or to install parking meters. Other than the business district, few sidewalks or street lights grace Carmel. And it would be simpler to destroy a building than a tree. Indeed, it takes city council approval to touch so much as a limb. An ordinance dating from 1916 - the year Carmel was founded - prohibits the cutting, mutilation or removal of trees or shrubbery on city property.

For the visitor looking for action, well, keep driving north toward San Francisco. In Carmel, live entertainment, with rare exceptions, is forbidden. There is a city ordinance to back it up.

Quaintness does not come cheap in Carmel. One resident who paid $40,000 for a two-bedroom cottage 20 years ago insists he would not be tempted with a $1 million offer today. Fixer-uppers start at $350,000 (if, indeed, one can be found), while choice homes go for $4 million and up. Consider that at the turn of the century realtors were selling lots in Carmel for $20. Waterfront property fetched $50 and cottages listed for $500. The agreement: $5 down and $5 a month.

Today at the charming old Pine Inn on Ocean Avenue, where no two rooms are alike, rates for a single night range from $85 to $185. Lobby walls are still red-flocked and guests sink deep in sofas beside a cheery fire while a grandfather clock ticks away the hours. Lunch is served in the hotel's flower-banked gazebo, and locals gather for cocktails in a bar with stained-glass windows and marble-top tables.

A couple of blocks south of Ocean Avenue, guest rooms and cottages at the refurbished, Spanish-style La Playa Hotel range from $95 to $195 a night. La Playa is old Carmel, with touches of early California and the romantic days of the dons.

Budget vacationers zero in on Clint Eastwood's laid-back and relaxing Mission Ranch, where doubles start at $49 and a cottage sleeping six can be had for $125. For a crowd, the better deal could be Eastwood's venerable two-story ranch house with six bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, the whole works figuring out to $500 a night for as many as one can fit inside.

Surrounded by acres of open land, Mission Ranch is the antithesis of Pebble Beach and the opulent homes of the peninsula's Seventeen Mile Drive. At the Creamery, where guests take their meals, windows frame sheep and pastures that sweep to shifting dunes and the waters of Monterey Bay.

On Ocean Avenue, Restaurant Scandia prepares open-face sandwiches like those served in Copenhagen. Next door, the stroller buys a cherry Danish at the Monterey Baking Co., which also displays oatmeal date cookies, raspberry croissants and chocolate tarts.

At Creme Carmel, the restaurant favored by many locals, the menu lists browned jumbo scallops on a potato crepe and lamb roasted with rosemary and garlic and served with chutney. This along with quail stuffed with foie gras and port-and-fresh-thyme sauce.

Up the block, Clint Eastwood's popular Hog's Breath Inn serves a "Dirty Harry hamburger" as well as a "Dirty Harry dinner," which is to say ground chuck with sauteed mushrooms. On the upscale side are prawns sauteed in lemon garlic butter and chicken sauteed in Scotch whisky with a light wine cream sauce.

While the meals aren't particularly remarkable, the setting is. A sunken patio with blazing fireplaces and Old English lamps separates the dining room with its beamed ceiling from a facing six-stool bar. The lamps shed their light. Candles glow. Ivy climbs the walls. While the Hog's Breath may not rate a star in the Michelin guide, it gets high marks for romance.

On Sundays, the brunch crowd steers a course for Gordon and Noel Hentschel's Los Laureles Country Inn in Carmel Valley, the old hangout for the Vanderbilts in the early '30s. Los Laureles' popular dining room does a brunch featuring chicken with wild mushrooms in a brandy and sherry sauce, monk fish in a lemon dill sauce, new potatoes grilled with bell peppers and steak in teriyaki and vinegar sauce, plus other choices that draw tourists and locals alike.

Early on, when Muriel Vanderbilt bred horses at Los Laureles, she dumped gallons of salt in the swimming pool in order to give her guests a sense of paddling about in the ocean. Of late, the stables have been converted to guest rooms and refurbished cottages have been dolled up with Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren patterns. Meanwhile, guests at the Sunday brunches are delivered about the grounds in a surrey with fringe on top.

Barely 10 minutes away, the Hentschels' Stonepine retreat, set on 330 acres, is rated as one of Carmel Valley's premier resorts. With its lavishly decorated Mediterranean-style mansion, Chateau Noel, it appears as a transplant from Tuscany. Walls are hung with tapestries. Guests are delivered about the grounds by horse carriage. A vintage Rolls-Royce is on call. It is, indeed, pure enchantment.

Whenever Carmel is crowded, vacationers slip next door to sun on the beaches of Pacific Grove - "Butterfly Town, U.S.A." - where millions of monarch butterflies return each year, just as swallows do to Capistrano. In October, streets are roped off for a parade featuring hundreds of grade-school youngsters dressed as butterflies. Like the mystical monarchs themselves, they swarm down Lighthouse Avenue accompanied by bands and other marchers. Later, the entire town does an about-face, marching off to a carnival and bazaar hosted by local businesses.

The Music Man? He had nothing on monarch madness.

As far back as anyone can remember, the monarch has wintered in Pacific Grove. The butterflies arrive like clouds, only minutes from the crowds of Carmel and Monterey. Visitors take up residence in fine old inns along Ocean View Boulevard. Particularly The House of Seven Gables Inn, whose windows face Monterey Bay and Lover's Point. It is a family-operated inn with a dozen spic-and-span guest rooms, each with an ocean view and a private bath, a rare Victorian rising beside a rocky cove, crowded with museum-quality pieces that would be the envy of a Sotheby auctioneer.

The House of Seven Gables Inn caters to romantics who take their meals at The Old Bath House at Lover's Point. Classical melodies drift through the restaurant, with its Victorian bar and hissing espresso machine. In the light of flickering candles, couples sense the magic of this unusual setting.

When the fog rolls in, wet and gray, couples stroll along beaches where white water fills rocky coves while moisture drips from the eaves of homes facing the bay. Later, as mists burn away, artists arrive to set up easels and capture on canvas the seascapes that will be a test of time.

While Carmel and Monterey and Pacific Grove ride the crest of growth and prosperity, the bay remains forever unchanged, tides ebbing and flowing, fog giving way to sunshine, sands shifting - a scene that will repeat itself through eternity.