Cambria is calling
By Jessica Frakes
If you grew up in the diverse state of California, you have likely been on many road trips. What makes California so great for road trips is that, although it is undoubtedly associated with the beach, you can go from desert, to mountain, to forest, to beach all in the span of a day. And sometimes, in certain magical places, these very different landscapes merge.
The beach and palm trees go hand in hand, of course, but what about the beach and pine trees? It’s something you may imagine in cooler climates like those in the Pacific Northwest; however, on California’s Central Coast, there is a special little seaside town in the middle of a pine forest, one that seems to spring up out of nowhere. The town of Cambria doesn’t just sit in any forest, either; it inhabits one of only three native Monterey Pine Forests in California. Coming from the south, you’ll pass through cute beach towns like Morro Bay and Pismo Beach before hitting Cambria.
When I think of Cambria, I divide it into three distinct areas even though it is a fairly small town, at 8.5 square miles. On one side of Highway 1, you’ll find the famous Moonstone Beach Drive, where all the ocean-view hotels are located, along with a boardwalk and some great restaurants. There are also sleepy neighborhoods — a few of which still have unpaved roads — scattered with wooded trails. On the opposite side of the highway you’ll find downtown Cambria, which is divided into two villages: the historic East Village and the West Village.
The fall season is the best time to visit Cambria, according to locals. The summer fog has lifted, and the days are still warm.
Cambria fall and winter festivities
Since 2009, Cambria has been home to the annual Scarecrow Festival. Visit any time in October, and you will find hundreds of scarecrows created by locals, children, and shop owners, lining the streets of both villages. It will definitely put you in the mood for the fall season! For more info, visit cambriascarecrows.com.
My favorite winter event in Cambria is the Holiday Christmas Market hosted by the Cambria Pines Lodge and Nursery. Every year from Nov. 29 to Dec. 23 you can come see the beautiful light displays, listen to music, shop in the vendor market, and eat some traditional German fare. They outdo themselves every year, and are even being featured on ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight” this season. I love walking through the light tunnel, and the kids love it even more! For more info and tickets visit cambriachristmasmarket.com.
In January, Cambria hosts its annual Art and Wine Festival. Winery and artist participants are all San Luis Obispo County locals. You can read more about it in our festivals feature, or check out their website cambriaartwine.org.
Other things to do in Cambria
• Take a stroll
Local artist Patrick Dennis says the best things to see in Cambria and the surrounding areas are outdoors. San Simeon Cove and San Simeon Pier, across from Hearst Castle, is a local favorite. My husband and I love to fish the pier, and have seen several whales there.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is one of those places that cannot be missed when visiting Cambria. The Preserve offers spectacular views from a mile-long ridge of ocean bluffs — a perfect spot for catching glimpses of wildlife including whales, birds, and sea otters. For a more informative walk through the preserve, join one of their weekly docent-led walks. Visit ffrpcambria.org.
Perhaps the best place in Cambria to take a seaside stroll is on Moonstone Beach’s boardwalk. You can access the 1.25-mile boardwalk anywhere from Moonstone Beach Drive. The beach below is beautiful any time of day, but especially at sunset! I love walking Moonstone Beach in search of moonstones, rocks, and sea glass.
Fun fact: Cambria is known for its moonstones, but they are not what you would typically classify as moonstones. They are actually a type of clear quartz.
If you’re anything like me, the best part of any trip is the food, and luckily, Cambria has some great restaurants. I’ve been to quite a few, but still have a couple on my list I’d like to try. Here are some of my favorites (so far).
Robin’s, located on Burton Drive in the East Village, has a lovely covered outdoor dining area. You feel like you’re sitting in a little garden. Sometimes I come here just for a cup of their salmon bisque.
Another favorite is Sea Chest Restaurant located on Moonstone Beach Drive. If you decide on dining here, note that they do not take reservations. Without fail, there will be a line in the parking lot 30 minutes before the doors open for dinner, so arrive early. Fortunately, if you do have to wait, you can grab a glass of wine at the bar, sit by the fire pit, and enjoy a spectacular ocean view. Everything I’ve ordered here is delicious, but my favorite thing on the menu has to be their calamari strips.
You cannot visit Cambria without visiting one of Linn’s shops or restaurants. Linn’s is known for its baked goods and the Olallieberry. If you find something that you really love at Linn’s, you can order it from their gourmet catalogue. I am especially fond of their jams, jammy muffins, and pies! They source much of their food from local ranches and farms, including their own farm on Santa Rosa Creek Road, which you can also visit!
• Wander around Downtown
There are so many great shops, galleries, and antique stores in each village that you could spend the entire day just wandering downtown.
If you’re into antiquing, check out Rich Man Poor Man Antique Mall in the East Village. My husband and I have spent so much time in this shop that we get what we like to call “junk drunk!”
Looking for some jewelry? Stop into Bronze, Silver & Gold Gallery. At one time they were located in the East Village, but they now reside in the West. They are always very nice, and I even received a hug last time I was there! I purchased a Cambria moonstone pendant from Bronze, Silver & Gold that reminds me of Cambria every time I wear it. Also, check out Casa De Oro on Burton Drive. They specialize in unique stones and custom, one-of a-kind jewelry.
The Garden Shed has been around for 20 years, and carries products for the home, garden, bath, and body. But more than a shop, it is the entrance to a beautiful and eclectic garden courtyard that houses several other shops linked by gardens, fountains, and birdhouses. Owner of the Garden Shed, Ashley Gracey, says the goal of the shops is to bring the inside and outside together, mix the old with the new, and to make people feel welcome and relaxed.
I love art so much that when my husband and I went to Italy, we visited 27 museums in a 12-day period. Now that is probably a bit much for most people, but local art really does tell a story about a place, so if you have a chance to visit even one gallery while you’re in Cambria, you should!
I recommend checking out Patrick Gallery, in particular, which functions both as gallery and studio for Patrick Dennis’ art. His oil paintings are mostly local landscapes, but not your typical landscapes. Patrick’s work begins with a sketch of an identifiable location, but evolves through a process of what he describes as excavation with paint to intentionally remove details, creating beautifully abstract and colorful landscapes. If that isn’t enough to convince you, he has an extremely sweet and fluffy dog who hangs out in the gallery. You can read more about Patrick Dennis, his gallery, and upcoming shows on his website, patrickgallery.com.
If all that walking has your feet sore, wander into Spellbound Herbs on Burton Drive in the East Village and pick up some lavender Epsom salts or a bath bomb to soak in back at your hotel.
• Take a drive
One of my favorite things to do in a new place is take a scenic drive. I recommend taking Santa Rosa Creek Road from downtown Cambria to Old Creek Road to Whale Rock Reservoir in Cayucos, and then work your way back. You’ll find Linn’s Farmstore on the way, where you can peruse the aisles for jams and snacks before getting back on the road. I usually end up with a bag of their decadent and crunchy churro bites!
If you want a more lengthy drive and don’t mind the windy road, you can take a day trip up the coast. I almost never visit Cambria without taking a drive up Highway 1 to marvel at Big Sur’s rocky and breathtaking coastline.
If the conditions are right, and you enjoy some casual fishing, I highly recommend grabbing a fishing pole and making your way to Moonstone Beach just before sunset. I had the best time fishing for surf perch one evening before dinner, and I am not much of an angler! On this particular occasion, I caught a fish almost every time I made a cast. The best bait for this is a plastic sandworm, and you can pick some up at the tackle shop in San Simeon.
There are so many things to do and see in Cambria that I couldn’t cover them all, but part of what makes a place memorable is discovering, for yourself, the things that make it special. The sweet seaside village of Cambria is one of those places I visit over and over again. Of course, there are those spots I like to check out every trip, like Moonstone Beach, but I try to see or do something different each time. Cambria is such a unique town to California’s Central Coast that it definitely should not be missed!