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Coastal Splendor in Cambria, Calif.

Let a fairy-tale town and the magical beaches of the Central Coast cast a spell on you.

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  • J. Patrick House, woodsy inn in Cambria, Calif., image
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    Cambria's J. Patrick House offers a woodsy retreat.
  • Rubber duck at Cambria Village Pharmacy, Calif., image
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    Rubber ducks at Cambria Village Pharmacy seek bathtubs.
  • Woman on boardwalk at Moonstone Beach in Cambria, Calif., image
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    Moonstone Beach in Cambria, Calif., beckons strollers with a boardwalk.

On a windy afternoon at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a 439-acre open space in Cambria, Calif., I paused and surveyed a stunning showcase of California seaside beauty: before me, stretching north and south, more than 40 miles of shoreline. Behind me, the coastal prairie rising to a ridge crowned with rare native Monterey pine—and beyond that, out of sight but less than a mile away, Cambria’s galleries, cafés, and shops.

Apart from its sheer physical beauty, Fiscalini is remarkable for how it came to be. With developers looking to build a golf resort and 600 homes on the land, citizens organized, bought the ranch, and dedicated it to public use. In November 2000, elated Cambrians gathered at the ranch to celebrate the deal.

The story of Fiscalini says a lot about Cambria, a town of 6,032 that’s roughly equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Though half of Cambria’s homes are second residences, full- and part-timers alike feel a deep connection to this scenic Central Coast hamlet on Highway 1 just eight miles south of the entrance to Hearst Castle.

The heart of town is Main Street, with businesses grouped into two villages: East and West. The West Village is newer; the East Village boasts historic buildings such as the Old Santa Rosa Chapel, a whitewashed church from the 1870s, where the likes of Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby once attended Sunday mass while visiting William Randolph Hearst. In modern times, locals restored the chapel, as well as the 19th-century Guthrie-Bianchini House, where the Cambria Historical Museum resides. Its displays recall the pioneers who settled Slab Town—Cambria’s original name, derived from its early buildings of rough pine.

Shopping in both villages is wonderfully varied. Home cooks can find Swiss-made sauté pans, cranberry-ginger salad dressing, and tons of kitchen supplies at A Matter of Taste. Seekers Glass Gallery specializes in museum-quality glass sculptures, paperweights, and other objects from more than 200 top U.S. artists and small studios. Need vintage costume jewelry? A restored oak icebox? Or a 1930s Union Pacific toy train? Antiques on Main is the place. And don’t miss Cambria Village Pharmacy’s amazing stock of more than 750 duck-themed gift items, among them rubber duckies done up as Elvis, pirates, and hipsters in porkpie hats.

Menus are diverse, too. With much of its produce coming from the town’s lively Friday farmers’ market, Robin’s features its own take on global cuisine such as lamb curry burritos. At Indigo Moon, you can enjoy coriander-crusted chicken with roasted poblano sauce or a tangy-sweet Meyer lemon tartlet. The Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Restaurant serves oysters on the half shell and seasonal catches including halibut and swordfish; it’s located on Moonstone Beach, about a five-minute drive from Cambria’s commercial core.

With its 1.5-mile boardwalk and sand studded with smooth, translucent quartz agate rocks known locally as moonstones, the beach attracts walkers. Strolling there one morning, I came across some ramshackle driftwood shelters. One in particular captured my fancy—a nine-foot-high, five-sided tepee—and I briefly considered its potential as a second home for myself in Cambria. Not much in the way of amenities, but boy, what a view.

Photography by Chris Leschinsky

This article was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.