Thursday, September 18, 2014

Cambria - Hearst Castle

Article by Cynthia Dial for
There’s a dramatic coastline to the west and rolling hills to the east, but it’s the scent of pines that announces your arrival in Cambria.  Ensconced in a forest of evergreens, this California village—deemed “one of America’s prettiest towns”—sneaks upon motorists traversing Highway One, the state’s scenic roadway.

Situated equidistance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cambria is the child of neither but rather a destination unto itself.  Admittedly more NorCal than SoCal, this is a region of California where there is more going on than the application of sunscreen.  Far from the tourist track, Cambria feels like a secret.  Operating under the radar, time slows down when you arrive.  There is no rush hour, there are no rigid rules and fast food chains don’t line its streets.  With a single glance, it’s apparent that life rewarded the village with a stop-and-smell-the-roses ambiance, but despite this enviable rep it remains an unknown commodity to many. 

Upon closer inspection, Cambria unfolds like a cozy coverlet.  Let me set the stage.  Tracing the unincorporated town’s main street, actually called “Main Street,” you’ll meander through its East and West Villages—past 20-something art galleries, an assortment of eateries from informal to gastronomic, a collection of locally sourced boutiques and a single grocery store.  The setting is old-fashionedly charming.  It’s a dog-friendly place with many of the town’s attractions found in Victorian-style storefronts that are set in pastel-painted houses.  If you’ve ever wished you lived back in the day, Cambria is calling your name.  It represents a period of time when the reference to “apple” signified a fruit and the word “yahoo” meant hooray.

Let’s explore.  Meal choices are varied and voluminous, whether you’re starting your day with a lobster omelet on the patio of Indigo Moon or dining by candlelight at the Black Cat Bistro while luxuriating in the meal’s finale of sticky toffee pudding.  There’s seafood at Sea Chest Oyster Bar, international cuisine at Robin’s Restaurant and American/French cuisine at Madeline’s.  The list goes on and on.  And the coffee scene is equally plentiful, beginning with Main Street’s Cambria Coffee Roasting Company, a welcome reflection of local java enthusiasts.  

With more than 100 wineries within 30 miles of Cambria, the region additionally tips its hat to vino, but there’s no need to leave the village for a sample. Fermentations, a retail wine shop featuring a variety of Central Coast wines, gives tastings; El Colibri Wine Bar serves its wine accompanied by California tapas fireside in its cozy lounge and you’ll find artisan wines by a single label winemaker at Black Hand Cellars.  But if a visit to a local winery is on your agenda, head into the hills.  The 2,000-acre estate vineyards of J. Lohr in Paso Robles is only one of your tasty options. 

The shopping scene is classic Cambria, teeming with antique shops, gift stores and art galleries.  It’s a renowned artist colony, with artisans often in their gallery studios.  A talented example is Patricia Griffin, who can be found most afternoons in her converted one-room schoolhouse workroom, the Patricia Griffin Studio.
Cambria’s live entertainment ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­landscape equally thrives.  Showcasing concerts, musicals and plays, venues include the 35-year-old Pewter Plough Playhouse and the Cambria Center for the Arts.  And for the make-your-own entertainment crowd, there’s always lawn bowling at the Joslyn Center. 
Though there are ample in-town diversions, the out of doors is plentiful with pastimes.  For the active there’s biking, kayaking, surfing, hiking and horseback riding.  Appealing to the more leisurely appetite are such activities as walking along the cliffs, tide-pooling in the shallow shore and rock hunting along the beach.  A real regional perk is ocean fishing, which is allowed off San Simeon’s pier without a license
Known as the unofficial Gateway to Big Sur, Cambria is blessed with all of nature’s amenities that come with the designation.  At the top of the list are the following.

Moonstone Beach – A shore distinguished by pebbles of amethyst, gypsum, rose quartz and milky moonstone (the area’s locally coveted gemstone), its 1.5 mile boardwalk is punctuated with benches along its path and wooden stairs that negotiate from the cliffs to the surf and tide pools 100 feet below.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve – Located in the heart of Cambria, this natural 440-acre area contains a vast network of trails, from an ocean-side boardwalk to trodden tracks through an endangered forest of Monterey pines.  The most popular trail is the one-mile Bluff Trail, which runs along a cliff overlooking the ocean. The “Ranch,” as it is called by locals, is open from dawn till dusk every day of the year, and offers a docent-guided walk once a month.
Piedras Blancas Light Station – Perched on the rugged coast about eight miles north is this historic lighthouse that promises “a glimpse into our nation’s past when lighthouses served a vital role in sage maritime navigation.”  This is prime property for spotting marine life, such as whales and sea otters, and for listening to the sounds of the sea, from its surf to the barking of sea lions.

Elephant Seals’ Beach Rookery – Approximately 17,000 elephant seals migrate twice a year to this popular beach overlook, their land-based home for breeding, birthing and molting.  Here’s the schedule of activity for these distinctive mammals whose prehistoric-looking males weigh up to 5,000 pounds.  Winter is peak season of seal activity: males begin arriving from their Alaska migration in late November, pregnant females first appear in December and the pups are born from mid-December to early February.  The rookery is ten miles north of Cambria and just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, requires no entry fee and provides countless photo ops.

Hearst Castle – If you fancy the finest, there’s Hearst Castle.  Celebrated for its unabashed, unadulterated and unconditional luxury, William Randolph Hearst was the man behind this ambitious architectural endeavor called La Cuesta Encantada, “The Enchanted Hill.”  Situated on a hilltop in the Santa Lucia Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a battalion of artisans labored nearly 28 years to create the regal estate of 165 rooms sitting amid 127 acres of luscious gardens, numerous terraces and an assortment of palatial pools. 
Known as a 20th century phenom, Hearst is recognized for his expertise in publishing, politics and Hollywood.  In Central California he additionally is associated with the famous estate that bears his name.  The love affair of William Randolph Hearst with the best began at the age ten when he traveled with his mother to Europe and returned with the desire to create his own “castle,” one that years later would become a home for his vast and impressive museum quality art collection of classical paintings, tapestries, religious artifacts, oriental rugs, sculptures and even antique ceilings.  Collaborating with architect Julia Morgan, this masterpiece was the multi-decade realization of his boyhood dream.

Hearst Castle is a place where “spare no expense” was the guiding principle and where the 15-minute drive up the steep hill serves as a statement of arrival.  Here Hearst entertained such luminaries of the Hollywood, political and literary worlds as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes.

Today a visit to the Castle is akin to previewing a private serenade to history within a home that once attracted only the moneyed crowd.  Offering a selection of four tours, it’s a thoroughbred kind of stop.  Options include: the Grand Rooms Tour, Upstairs Suites Tour, Cottages and Kitchen Tour and the Evening Tour (offered seasonally).  Each walkabout gives visitors the opportunity to return to its fabled past as a haven for the rich and renowned, but it is the Evening Tour that allows visitors to experience the Castle as one of Hearst’s guests might have enjoyed.  Docents dressed in period outfits bring the lavish surroundings to life as it existed in the 1930s.  As you walk its grand rooms teeming with its docent “houseguests,” you feel like you’ve trespassed a velvet rope line to time travel back in history.

Located in San Simeon, Hearst Castle is about six miles north of Cambria.  When in route, keep a lookout for the property’s zebras that roam the Castle’s undeveloped land.  These black-and-white striped mammals represent one of the area’s most photographed sights after the Castle itself and the rookery’s elephant seals.

A year-round destination, Cambria’s most popular annual events are the Cambria Art and Wine Festival (January), the Cambria Western Dance Jamboree (February), the Cambria Chili Cook-Off & Classic Car Show (May) and the Scarecrow Festival (October).  Then there’s an old-fashioned July 4th celebration and Holidays in the Pines is celebrated throughout the month of December.

Known for the indigenous moonstone found on its beaches, Cambria is the most precious stone of California’s Central Coast crown.  It’s the perfect antidote for a world that is a little too large and a little too fast.  Cambria is where to go for simplicity and for a landscape and a lifestyle that are generous, authentic and perfect.

The area code for Cambria, California is 805.

Where to Sleep:
Blue Dolphin Inn – As an adult only option, this inn serves up an oceanfront location and a sophisticated environment. Steps from the beach and its boardwalk, it’s located directly on Moonstone Beach. 6470 Moonstone Beach Drive, 805-927-3300,

Cambria Pines Lodge – Set on 25 wooded acres of Monterey pines and gardens, this luxurious rural retreat offers something for every taste, including a butterfly garden, wishing well and the bird house garden featuring “living” birdhouses with flowered roofs.  A nature trail from the Lodge leads to Cambria village. 2905 Burton Dr., 805-927-4200,

Fog Catcher Inn – This combo of old-fashioned England and contemporary conveniences is set in an inn punctuated by a rounded thatched-style roof, flower-lined brick paths and fireplaces in every room. Here guests can watch the sunset from the year-round heated pool, the soothing Jacuzzi tub or one of many benches situated in the inn's gardens.  The hotel holds a wine tasting featuring local grapes the first Friday of each month. 6400 Moonstone Beach Drive, 6400 Moonstone Beach Drive, 805-927-1400,

The J Patrick House – Blending with its wooded setting above the village of Cambria, this authentic log home and carriage house has been recognized as one of the area’s best bed and breakfast inns. The main house overlooks a forest of tall Monterey pines and the carriage house has seven rooms with private baths and wood burning fireplaces.  Each day at 5:30 pm guests and hosts collect in the cozy living room of the log cabin for homemade hors d'oeuvres, fine wines and good conversation. 2990 Burton Drive, 805-927-3812,

Where to Eat and Drink:
Black Cat Bistro – Though small, the three room restaurant is one of Cambria’s finest gourmet eateries, complete with white linen tablecloths, fine china and crystal stemware—all bathed in candlelight.  The Black Cat features traditional American cuisine with a classic French influence, serving such specialties as stuffed fried green olives and three-cheese baked polenta.  1602 Main Street, 805-927-1600,

Madeline's - Best described as fine dining in a casual atmosphere, the restaurant's American/French influenced cuisine includes such selections as lamb en croute, rabbit braised with fresh plums and white and dark chocolate pots de cremes.  788 Main Street, 805-927-4175, 

Robin’s Restaurant – Set in a historic adobe home with a fireplace and garden patio, this restaurant has been known for its authentic international food creations since 1985. Featured menu items include Scottish salmon, lobster enchiladas, tandoori chicken, pad Thai gnocchi and Robin's signature dish, salmon bisque.  4095 Burton Drive, 805-927-5007,

Sea Chest Oyster Bar - Overlooking Moonstone Beach and serving seafood for almost 40 years, the menu is full of specialties, from John D's oyster Rockefeller and fresh New Zealand mussels to the house cioppino.  2616 Moonstone Beach Drive, 805-927-4514, 

What to See:
Hearst Castle – High above the Pacific on a site called The Enchanted Hill, William Randolph Hearst created his private retreat.  Once accessible only to celebrities and famous guests, the Mediterranean-style grand palace estate is open for visitors to explore.  Note: The Evening Tour is offered March – May; October – December.  Highway 1 in San Simeon, 800-444-4445,

Photos by Cynthia Dial

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