Beautiful coastline, forested hills, acres of wildflowers, delicious cuisine, artisan boutiques and wine tasting galore. Cambria is California − country style.
The first time I came to Cambria was by accident. It was after dark on a July 4th weekend some 15 years ago. I arrived with no hotel reservation, not realizing that this charming seaside village would be jammed with visitors celebrating a three-day holiday. Half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s a coveted destination for city-dwellers seeking respite from the urban rat race. New to California, I thought it was just another little town on the Pacific coast – hardly!
Well, yes, Cambria is small – just 6,000 residents – but it’s big on what makes California a prime vacation destination for people from all over the world: breathtaking Moonstone Beach, a Monterey Pine forest, acres of wildflowers, and in Cambria itself, art galleries and charming shops on Main Street, wine tasting rooms, colorful Victorian houses, unpretentious restaurants with gourmet farm-to-table cuisine, and a kick-back vibe that says put down the cell phone and take in the beauty that surrounds you.
I’ve been back many times since then – unusual for me – the type who likes to discover new destinations rather than return to old ones. But Cambria is an exception. A scenic four-hour drive north from Los Angeles, it’s close enough for a weekend getaway while offering enough diversions to keep you happily occupied for a week or more – even if “occupied” means doing nothing more than snoozing in a hammock or finally getting to that book you’ve been dying to read. It’s the place to go when you really do need to unwind, relax and reconnect with what really defines “quality of life.”
When choosing a hotel in Cambria, I’m always torn between a “turf and surf” theme, since Cambria offers hotels on Moonstone Beach as well as lodges nestled in the pines. On my most recent visit, I decided to sample both, starting with “turf” − two days at Cambria Pines Lodge located on four acres of lush gardens. I stayed in a charming cottage with a gas fireplace and a small private patio – perfect for starting the day in tranquility.
Cambria Pines Lodge is just up the hill from Cambria’s East Village, the older part of Cambria that includes Victorian homes built in the late 1800s. Take a quick hike down the hill and you’ll find one of the best eateries in town: Robin’s Restaurant. This indoor/outdoor venue specializes in “global hand-crafted cuisine.” I had a delicious dinner in their enclosed outdoor patio, designed to be airy and filled with sunlight. The menu offers gluten-free and vegan options, produce is locally grown and portions are generous – making an after-dinner stroll through the historic village a near necessity.
A great way to kick off a relaxing Cambria vacation is with a massage. There are several venues that offer treatments. I opted for a 90-minute massage and facial at Therapy by the Sea, starting with their signature warm-stone massage and concluding with a facial with a red wine, honey and chocolate masque. I justified the luxury since it came with a gift bag that included a $25 gift certificate to another one of Cambria’s finest restaurants, Madeline’s, where I dined that night. Madeline’s features classic cuisine and has a huge selection of wines. I chose the special of the day: fresh sea bass with herb butter, rice and seasoned veggies – simple and perfectly prepared. For dessert, pure decadence: Bananas Foster, a dessert made from bananas and vanilla ice cream, with a sauce made from butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, dark rum and banana liqueur. How’s that for some wicked self-indulgence?
For my next two nights, it was time to enjoy the “surf,” so I was off to the FogCatcher Inn on Moonstone Beach. Voted one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in California by US magazine, Moonstone Beach has a mile-long boardwalk that meanders along the coastline. I selected an upstairs king room with an ocean view and as soon as I entered, opened the windows wide to experience the delicious salt air and the sight and sound of the waves. Nothing makes for a good night’s sleep like snuggling under a fluffy comforter with the gas fireplace lit and the ocean right outside your window.
After four days in Cambria, I could see the difference in my face and my eyes. Did it really matter that I couldn’t check my phone for messages all day long? Sometimes you just need to detox from the stress of big-city life and connect with the kind of organic beauty you’ll find in abundance in Cambria. It’s a great way to rediscover who you are and who you want to be – whole, healed and ready to be your best self. I can’t wait to go back!
Things to See:
Hearst Castle – It’s no wonder that media mogul William Randolph Hearst chose this part of the world to build his dream home. Formally named “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill), Hearst’s 28-year-long project resulted in an estate with 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield and the world’s largest private zoo. Once a retreat for Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, and heads of state such as Winston Churchill, the Castle was donated to fulfill the wish of Hearst to create a public monument to his mother Phoebe, who inspired his interest in art, history and art collecting.
Since it opened to the public in 1958, thousands of visitors have toured the estate, taking a shuttle bus on a winding road to the top of the hill, where they can wander through rooms filled with the priceless antiquities that Hearst collected from all over the world and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding hills and spectacular coastline. Ticket prices start at $25 for adults and $12 for children. The castle is about 10 miles north of Cambria at 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA. For tour reservations call (800) 444-4445 or visit the Hearst Castle website.
Elephant Seals make their home on the beach just a few miles north of Hearst Castle. The one-ton males lounge around on the sand, dozing in the sunshine and occasionally raise their heads with elongated snouts to let out a snort that can be heard half- way down the beach. This part of the coast is home to some 17,000 seals. Watch for road signs along PCH for the viewing areas open year-round. No reservation is required and admission is free.
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse is just a bit farther up the coast, six miles north of Hearst Castle. This historic lighthouse, first illuminated in 1875, once guided sea captains around the dangers of the rocky coast. Tours are available year-round. A good plan is to see Hearst Castle in the morning, then have lunch at Sebastian’s General Store and Deli in the tiny town of San Simeon (right across from the entrance to the Hearst Castle Visitor Center), then continue north to see the elephant seals. Top off your day trip with a late afternoon tour of the lighthouse.
Nitt Witt Ridge was created by local junkman and garbage collector Arthur “Art” Harold Beal, who used people’s discards to create his home on a hill overlooking the east village of Cambria. If you ever built a treehouse or fort as a kid, you’ll appreciate his effort. Once considered an eyesore and now a historical landmark, you can tour Nitt Witt Ridge with an equally quirky tour guide. It’s the antithesis of Hearst Castle, even though some of the building materials from the castle ended up here when Beal found them in the town junk heap. 881 Hillcrest Drive, Cambria, CA. (805) 927-2690.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is located right above the village of Cambria. It offers a variety of hiking trails that wind through 437 acres of forest, grasslands and river bank habitats. You can take a docent-led tour or explore on your own. The most outstanding natural feature of the preserve is the dramatic ocean bluff that runs more than a mile along the shoreline. The rocky coast rises to a 400-foot ridge with breathtaking views of migrating whales, birds and otters before sloping to the willow-edged creek. It’s free and open to the public every day of the year from dawn until dusk. An office at 604 Main St. (in the West Village) has maps and information about tours.
Places to Stay:
Cambria Pines Lodge – 2905 Burton Drive, Cambria, CA 93430 (805) 927-4200
Fogcatcher Inn – 6400 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria, CA 93428 (805) 927-1400
(There are many hotels, motels and B&Bs to select from; click here for a complete list of Cambria accommodations.)
Things to Do:
Antique hunting is a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon in Cambria. There are some half-dozen shops in the village available for treasure hunting. From priceless to kitschy, browse at your leisure for something special to commemorate your trip.
Wine tasting opportunities abound in Cambria – after all, you are in wine country. If you like sampling California vintages, you’ll love the many tasting rooms and fine wine selection in its restaurants. I stopped in to check out the $5 for 5 one-ounce tastings offered at Fermentations, which offers a big selection of wines from a variety of wineries. The tastings are a great way to “prime the pump” toward the purchase of a bottle or two, or the temptation to join the wine club. If you don’t imbibe alcohol, try a tea tasting at Verde of Cambria, where you’ll find a selection of healing botanical and complimentary tea tastings.
Shopping in Cambria is stress-free and fun. You’ll find all kinds of boutiques and art galleries on Main Street — and no chain stores. One of the favorites is The Shops at the Garden Shed at 2024 Main St., where you’ll find 10 eclectic boutiques all located in an open area behind a charming garden shop. As you wander from one to the other, you’ll discover hand-crafted items, sewn goods, repurposed junk and more treasures in a 6,000-square-foot artisan’s wonderland.
Things to Know Before You Go:
Cambria hotels book up fast for holidays and the summer vacation season. Be sure to book your hotel early. Better rates are available on weekdays.
Festivals abound in Cambria, so check this Cambria events calendar for events that might pique your interest. There are wine and art festivals, a Scare Crow festival in the month of October, an annual fish fry in March, an annual chili cook-off, a car show and more.
That fresh ocean breeze can get chilly, even in the middle of the summer. Be sure to bring a jacket and don’t forget the sunscreen.
The Wi-Fi at hotels is good, but don’t rely on your cell phone to stay in touch with the outside world. In fact, it’s a good reminder not to! After all, you came here to get away from all that, right?
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