Tiny little towns abound along California’s coast — many of them small enough to be appropriately called ‘villages,’ and each one full of the gifts of quaintness that such a word evokes. Enter Cambria, the tiny town just south of San Simeon’s Hearst Castle — a beachside ‘burb, just a stone’s throw beyond the tourists, that charms with its hippie-vibe spirit.
To get to Cambria, simply drive three hours from San Francisco, down Highway 101 towards Paso Robles, then make an easy jump over the mountains on Highway 46 through the gorgeous, winery-strewn valleys heading toward the coast.
There are tons of vacation rentals, if you’re so inclined, but to get the local flavor, stay instead in one of the lovely little historical inns in the town. The best may just be the 1800s historical landmark The Olallieberry Inn, just a half block from East Cambria’s enchanting downtown. With reasonable prices, sumptuous breakfasts, and the old world feel of the guest rooms, you’ll feel yourself wrapped in the charm of the place within seconds of arriving.
Cambria is divided into East Cambria — think ‘up the slope’ — and West Cambria, just down the road a half mile. Taken together, the two form a really long strip of all things groovy: jewelry stores, hippie clothing shops, novelty shops, and dozens of adorable places to eat.
On your first outing, take the locals’ recommendation and eat at the Harmony Café — a tiny dining room just outside the local Pewter Plough theater, where actors pop in between scenes for a little sip of wine. Giovanni, the owner, is known affectionately and jokingly by residents as ‘The Soup Nazi’ for his refusal to make substitutions on his old-home menu, but the easy-on-the-pocketbook prices (entrées are less than $20) and the delicious fare make the place well worth visiting (and strike up a conversation with ‘Gio’ – he is plenty charming). Salmon in a light, flaky pastry crust with spinach and pesto coulis or a roast chicken served simply with autumn vegetables make for a lovely entry into the culinary soul of the town.
Robin’s Restaurant — a popular hot spot — serves California cuisine with a twist: Indian curries dot the menu, and delicious stir fry with seafood rounds out the restaurant’s appeal. Robin’s charm is that it’s set in an old house with newly constructed wings —a tiny living room seats a few patrons in one area, a more open solarium seats more, and, if it’s warm enough, a brick patio with eucalyptus trees in view opens into a lovely, garden-like side-street. Robin’s makes for a lovely evening.
The Linn family has been in Cambria for many years and lays claim to one of East Cambria’s side streets, with a deli, a candy store, and a full restaurant situated along the main drag. Linn’s pies are not to be missed, and the town’s claim to fame — the Ollalieberry — is aggrandized here in a delicious dessert that sweetens the taste buds and melts away every bit of city angst.
Head down the road to Soto’s Grocery for wonderful mid-day sandwiches and to Mojo’s Ice Cream for creamy sweets. Pull up a chair at the bar at Las Cambritas for guacamole and tacos, and don’t miss The French Corner Bakery for delicate croissants and rich coffees.
On Sunday mornings, take your car out along the coast just north of Moonstone Beach to Centrally Grown, an organic food store and exotic garden. Every Sunday morning at 10AM, behind the store, a free yoga session is offered. As you practice, the sun rises over the hills and lights the valley with an exquisite golden glow matched only by the lightly salty sea air you breathe. The class is free, and it’s a great way to meet up with some of the locals.
When class is over, wander just across the street to Moonstone Beach and walk the length of its pristine, shell-strewn shoreline. Hunt for moonstones and, should you desire a terrific Cambria keepsake, head to the groovy jewelry store Artifacts in East Cambria.
Wandering is an art form in this town. Hippie herb stores, boutiques with flowing tie-dyed dresses, co-op art galleries, culinary stores, candy shops, and much more butt up against each other and offer their delicate wares. The vibe is absolute arty — kind and friendly and sweet, and a wonderful throw-back to the unspoiled beach towns of the years before T-shirt shops dominated tourist locales. Everything in Cambria feels unique and genuine.
Since it’s an art town, don’t miss the Cambria Center for the Arts, supported by the local (and all-volunteer) Allied Arts Association. Set in an old school on the west side of the road between East Cambria and West Cambria, it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, so definitely do keep your eyes peeled. Inside you’ll find hallways full of local artists’ paintings, sculptures, and installation art and a lovely, small theater where you’ll find such performances as a Sunday cabaret review with a singer from New York and musicians from the local college.
Wander out to Fiscalani Ranch Preserve for a lovely stroll along the wooden boardwalk built upon the path that lines the sea. Bird life, sea spray, amazing views, and the feeling that there’s room in the sky for all your thoughts and every sensation will rise up in your spirit and leave you refreshed and calm.
Cambria is everything that a California beach town ought to be: quaint, lovely, historical, charming, and easy-as-pie on the spirit. You’ll want to return again and again.
JoAnneh Nagler writes travel, books, plays, essays and music, and is the author of the new book How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass (2016), and the Amazon Top-100 book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: www.AnArtistryLife.com.