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Cambria, Calif.: Coastal Getaway

Set in natural splendor and exuding something magical, the town brims with fun shops, inviting inns, and offbeat galleries

Solitary contemplation at Moonstone Beach, near Cambria, Calif.
Photo caption
Solitary contemplation at Moonstone Beach, near Cambria, Calif.

The California coast is thick with picturesque burgs full of refreshing ocean mist, historic bed-and-breakfasts, romantic restaurants, and alluring shops offering blown glass, botanical potions, and statuettes of mermaids and merbabies. Cambria has all this—only more so.

Pine-covered slopes called Happy Hill and Top of the World guard this artistic seaside village about half an hour north of San Luis Obispo. Nearby, pearly semiprecious stones catch the lunar glow on appropriately named Moonstone Beach, where otters are known to frolic and someone builds small subdivisions of driftwood forts. The town of 6,500 stretches a perfect bikable distance back from the shore along a Main Street of coffeehouses, galleries, candy shops, restaurants, and the particularly fun Village Wizard magic store, where the owner entertains with card tricks and a pot of tea.

But the true reason for Cambria's charm may well be invisible to the naked eye. "There's a bubble surrounding the town," explains Cynthia Reese, a local artist who also tends a cash register at Moonstones Gallery. "It's a spiritual feeling like an invisible power field. You're protected here."

Some of this effervescence is uncorked at Fermentations wine shop, offering sips of Central Coast vintages. The town's essence is also distilled in a fruit, the olallieberry, a blackberry-raspberry hybrid grown nearby and available for export in jams and ready-to-bake pies. The aura intensifies at the Sow's Ear, a cottage-style café, which offers grilled fare and has piggy knickknacks peeking from every cranny. The swinephobic will find other restaurants (especially Robin's and Bistro Sole) perfectly sophisticated and delicious.

Here, even the trash can be beguiling. Art Beal, the town's garbageman for many years, built his entire home out of scavenged hubcaps, bathtubs, toilet seats, abalone shells, and his own copious output of beer cans. Since Beal's death, his Nitt Witt Ridge had fallen into disrepair; new owners are restoring it and offer a quirky hourlong tour.

Another, more famous builder, William Randolph Hearst, erected his outrageously opulent castle just six miles to the north. Among the many sightseeing options are an evening's tour (Fridays and Saturdays in fall and spring), when docents in vintage clothing portray Hearst's houseguests playing parlor games or lounging by the pool.

Even the ugliest of creatures, the giant elephant seals, flock here (to nearby Point Piedras Blancas). You can see the males molting this summer or come around Valentine's Day to view plump-sausage babies and the fascinating courtship competitions among the bulls, with their unspeakably flatulent noises, huge proboscises, and nasty battle scars. Had they not been hunted, these brutes would have felt at home here in the late 1800s, when Cambria was a center for mining, farming, and lumbering, and townsfolk drank and fought at the Bucket of Blood Saloon. Today, rowdiness means kayaking in Morro Bay, surfing at Cayucos Pier or Morro Rock, hiking in the hills, or swimming at Hearst Memorial State Beach.

When it's time to go home, take the back way out along Santa Rosa Creek Road, where white sycamores line a gurgling creek, a farm stand sells olallieberry pies, and the towering hills remind you that you're protected. You can drive a long way before the bubble pops.

Photography by Catherine Karnow

This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.