Updated: Aug 14, 2019
The joys of the coastal small town along California’s coast cannot be overrated. Quaint inns, coffee houses, amazing restaurants, surf shops, herb stores, bakeries, and jewelry and art galleries abound along the entire ocean-line of the West Coast. Add lovely, mild summer weather and “coastal paradise” is not too strong a phrase.
As an avid traveler of my own state for years, I know the highways and byways, the hip and the quaint, the historic and the exquisite. So imagine my surprise when, on a recent trip to Cambria, we stumbled upon a town I’d never heard of, and, should we have blinked a moment too soon, we would have missed it perched along a downslope on the side of the road.
Harmony, population 18, is every small-town charmer’s delight. Nestled in a geographic triangle between Cambria to the north, Paso Robles to the east, and the authentic little beach town of Cayucos to the south, Harmony looks like a barely there turn-off from Highway 1, and once visited, we were sure the locals like it that way.
A terrific intuitive guess on my husband’s part had us pull over, back up, and head down the road’s slope into the little town’s central hamlet. First and foremost, at a population of 18, we wondered just how the town survives at all. But as soon as we got out of the car, the artistic vibe of the place took over and we knew just how it has thrived.
The first stop was an old, white-stone creamery building, which has housed the post office since 1914 and is also a place where artists work with recycled doors and metal objects. The architecture in town is pure California bungalow and stone structure, set in a tiny valley of farmlands. Though the highway runs just nearby, we never noticed it in the shelter of the town’s hillside.
We wandered in from the post office to a darling brick patio that led the way to the Harmony Cafe—as tranquil a place as we’ve ever stumbled upon. Built in stone with sparse and clean-lined wood accents and tables, the light shone through the windows and transported us to another, quieter time. The food is organic, California café fare and just right for a morning or mid-day meal.
Down the path we found the ceramics shop, filled with local artisan’s fired works and jewelry. The setting—a building in old stone—was just right for works of clay, and the back end of the building houses tons of wood and artist’s materials, offering the sense of a working art community.
Harmony’s history—written in old script on an outside wall near the café—is something to be reckoned with. The town was founded around the creamery (which is now the post office and artist studios) sometime around 1869. Around 1907, feuding among the local dairy farmers caused a great rift in the valley. After a shooting, a truce was called; all agreed to live with goodwill toward each other from then on, and to remind themselves, they named their town Harmony. Later, in the 1950s, the dairy business moved to nearby San Luis Obispo and the town was abandoned. Then, in 1972, the restoration of the town began again by local artisans who recreated the soul of the town’s message into a creative spirit.
A few steps north from the historical wall, we found the Harmony Chapel, an amazingly lovely wood-in-stone door shaped like the top of a wine barrel. Seating just about 40 with another 20 to 30 standing, the site is the quaintest of places to wed. Just outside is the restaurant site, an indoor-outdoor antique spot for a reception or event shaded by trees and supported by a weathered wooden deck. “Charm” just doesn’t come close to explaining the ease and tranquility of this entirely beautiful and exquisite setting.
Around the backside of the restaurant, we found a frame hanging from a tree—a photo op in nature’s best setting. Light, cool breezes began to come up through the trees, easing the still-mild August heat, and the whole effect was sweet, unabashed pleasure.
Along the backside of the restaurant, we found a recording studio—no kidding—and were amazed at what a few souls can do to make art the heartbeat of their town’s center.
Across the street, we discovered Harmony Glassworks, a more-than-worthwhile stop along the coastal path. Individual lessons are offered in glassblowing, and we stood for long moments mesmerized by the hot flame, the glowing glass, and the craftsmanship of the place. There is plenty to buy in all sorts of shapes and objects, but one of our favorites was a glass nail file that never gets dull for $6. Outside the weathered building a small vine had been shaped into a heart, and we knew why. Who couldn’t love this tranquil little spot?
After a hop over the fence and a short walk along a path that could have easily been Frost’s “road less traveled,” we got back in the car, refreshed and quieted. And we remembered: It’s the simple things that bring joy. The easy afternoon spent with art, the pleasant solidity of wood and stone surrounding us, the ease of trees and fields and ocean breezes, and the remembrance—once again—that harmony is a commitment we make to ourselves, to our lands, and to each other.
We’ll be back.