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Colourful Pottery shop in East Cambria

It’s hard to find small towns that offer urban amenities while still keeping their original charm and slower pace of life that make them so attractive in the first place. But Cambria, California seems to have struck that perfect balance. This pretty coastal town four hours north of Los Angeles and just off the Pacific Coast Highway ticks all the right boxes with its friendly residents, eclectic shopping, art galleries, great food and wine, and a boho vibe that harkens back to California’s hippy dippy sixties. Between the town itself and the attractions nearby, there are more than enough things to do in Cambria that make this an ideal California getaway, something we discovered almost by accident.

Why Cambria?

Jane at clock in East Cambria
Jane at clock in East Village, Cambria

When Henk and I were looking for a place to stay that was near one of California’s major attractions, Hearst Castle, we chose Cambria because it was one of the closest communities to the Castle, without knowing too much more about the town itself. But we discovered soon after arriving here that this town was exactly the kind of hidden gem we had hoped to find on our mini road trip to the West Coast.

East Village in Cambria Had Me at Hello

There are actually two different ‘villages’ that make up Cambria’s Main Street, each with its own cluster of businesses and amenities, which is pretty unusual for a town of only 6,000 people. Henk and I first arrived in the East Village, having come from visiting King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Park, and our first impression was a great one: plenty of free parking! (you gotta love small towns for this reason alone).

liquor store and murals East Cambria
The beautiful mural on the liquor store in East Cambria

We weren’t out of the car five minutes before Henk had struck up a conversation with Matt, one of the local businessmen who owns the Velo Cambria bike shop in front of which we had parked. After chatting all things bike-related with Henk and after learning that we were new to Cambria, Matt was happy to offer up suggestions for local restaurants and things to do in Cambria for us first-timers. Tucking that information away for future reference, I switched into my ‘explore’ mode, and started my deep dive into the shops and businesses along the streets, which turned out to be one surprise and delight after another.

A Retail Treasure Trove

With no chain stores in sight, shopping in Cambria felt like a treasure hunt: I found everything from really affordable vintage stores (“all-clothing-$5” affordable), to beautifully curated home decor stores and unique boutiques.

Encore vintage merchandise West Village Cambria
Vintage stores and boutiques are part of Cambria’s DNA

In some of these stores, I wanted to take home the store decor itself, it was so cool. Inside and out.

Funky home decor store East Cambria
I wanted to take home this couch AND the tree!

At Antiques on Main in the East Village, we wandered through room after room looking at antiques and collectibles, everything from a weathered hood ornament from a 1958 Belair (which Henk actually fell in love with and bought) to groovy hand-sewn 1960s mini-dresses.

Many of the owners that we talked to had been in Cambria for decades, having come here in their younger days to enjoy the laid back lifestyle, and their hippy influence could be seen not just in some of the artisanal merchandise they sold but in the community events they organized.

GOWA Creative Arts womens boutique East Cambria

One night during our visit, the owner of GOWA Creative Arts clothing store organized an intimate ‘evening under the stars’ outside his store with a travelling musician couple providing the entertainment and a local astronomer providing the visual slideshow. Sitting there with local residents listening to really good music from a couple who live out of their van, and make their living playing at small venues around the country, it felt like we had been transported back in time to the days of flower children and free love.

…and Yoko Ono, Too

And speaking of flower children, a casual drop in at the Vault Gallery turned out to be one of the most delightful encounters we had with a local resident. Laylon Whittaker is a force to be reckoned with, not just as a discerning art gallery owner who has sold over $16 million dollars in artwork, but as an individual.

Laylon Wittaker Vault gallery
Laylon Whittaker, owner of the Vault gallery

Originally hailing from Carmel, California, where she started her career selling art at various galleries, Whittaker came to Cambria in 1991 to open her own space. And she did that with her first major exhibition, ‘A Show of Peace & Love” featuring John Lennon prints and signed lithographs that are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It also gave Whittaker the chance to meet the ultimate flower child, Yoko Ono (a photo of Laylon with Ono from those days is still on Laylon’s gallery desk).

Laylon Whittaker and Yoko Ono photo at Vault gallery Cambria
Laylon and Yoko at the Vault Gallery show

Now in her 80s, Laylon is a youthful, outspoken, independent free spirit with an infectious laugh and a no-nonsense business acumen. Boasting exclusive U.S. representation for some of her artists (like Steve Johnston, a contemporary of Banksy), she is still killing it with her Cambria gallery, and plans to do so for the foreseeable future. I can only hope that in another twenty years or so I am even half as engaging and vivacious as she is.

smug_mug_Scott Dykema Vault Gallery
“Smug Mug” by Scott Dykema, Vault Gallery Cambria

West Village in Cambria Sealed the Deal

If Cambria’s East Village hadn’t already won us over, its West Village a short kilometre or so farther along Main Street, locked in our infatuation with this town. It’s here you’ll find more stores and restaurants, and even more of Cambria’s art galleries.

West Cambria street shops
West Village in Cambria

After popping into Ephraim Pottery featuring one-of-a-kind ceramic items, Henk and I were on the hunt for an ice cream when we discovered another treat instead: the dynamic sculptures of artist Riccardo Spizzamiglio.

Riccardo Spizzamiglio artist West Cambria
Riccardo Spizzamiglio in his studio in West Cambria

Spizzamiglio first came to Cambria years ago, following a “transformative drive down the Pacific Coast Highway” that left him so inspired by the natural beauty of the coastline that he decided this was where he wanted to live and create his art. He works in different media, but it was his metal pieces that really captivated me – dynamic sculptures with components that are so delicately balanced that they move with the slightest of touch or movement of air. The individual elements in each sculpture engage in a graceful dance with each other, too: in one piece two lovers’ faces, seemingly sketched in the air like three-dimensional line drawings, orbit each other, lips never quite engaging in a kiss but always coming close. Another sculpture features an Icarus-like winged figure that moves in a silent dance that somehow manages to perfectly interpret whatever music is playing in Spizzamiglio’s live/work studio.

The art is as authentic and unique as the artist, and it was a real pleasure talking with Spizzamiglio who, despite several really tough years due to Covid and highway closures slashing visitor traffic, is still as committed as ever to pursuing his passion here in Cambria.

More Things to do in Cambria: Hit up Mozzi’s Saloon

Mozzi’s Saloon in the East Village came up more than a few times in conversations with residents, so we knew we had to check it out. Originally built in 1866, it is the last remaining ‘cowboy bar’ in Cambria (there had been five establishments like it at one time). The wooden building managed to survive a fire in 1899, but when it was sold to the Camozzi family in 1922, the original structure was torn down and replaced with the concrete building that is still there today.

Mozzi's Saloon exterior CAMBRIA

Since then the bar has been many things and changed hands many times, but today “Mozzi’s” is a quirky dive bar with politically incorrect decor, a surprisingly eclectic clientele, and an intriguing $3 Mystery Shot tradition: a bottle is hidden inside a velvet bag behind the bar, and for a mere $3, patrons get a shot at guessing what it is they just threw back. (It’s a challenge that some locals take very seriously, carefully studying the characteristics of the visible bottle top for clues as to the identity of the liquor.)

Mozzi's Saloon Mystery Shot Cambria
Mozzi’s Saloon’s $3 Mystery Shot is a tradition here

Henk and I had a great conversation at the bar with a few locals, all while enjoying a hilarious walk down memory lane thanks to a music playlist of non-stop classics from the 70s and 80s. Don’t be looking for any Taylor Swift tracks here (although you might find a Swiftie or two in the bar), but if you love Bob Seger or the Eagles, you’re definitely in the right place at Mozzi’s.

Things to do Near Cambria: Hearst Castle

It was Hearst Castle that first lured Henk and I to Cambria, so we headed there early in the morning of our second day in Cambria to catch the first tour and try to get ahead of the larger crowds. This extravagant country estate was built over the course of 28 years by multi-millionaire and media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who put his love of all things European to work in creating his ‘castle’ masterpiece on the hill near San Simeon. Today it is run as a State Historical Monument and there are a number of different guided tours for visitors, no single one of which can take in the entire estate.

Hearst Castle Main Entrance
Hearst Castle is a huge draw for visitors

Disappointed that the marine fog had settled in on the day of our visit, Henk and I were sure that the Castle would be shrouded in mist, but we were pleasantly surprised when our shuttle bus from the visitor centre took us above the low-lying cloud and revealed a sunlit Spanish Colonial mansion set against a backdrop of a perfectly blue sky. Apparently William Randolph Hearst, who spent his childhood years here, was well acquainted with ocean fog in the area, and so he built his castle at the top of what he called ‘the Enchanted Hill’, to ensure there would always be sunshine on the estate. (Good job, Bill!)

Hearst Castle on hill San Simeon
Hearst built his castle so it would be above the clouds.

Touring the Castle, it was almost impossible to take it all in with so much art, architectural details and extravagant furnishings everywhere we looked. Hearst had apparently purchased three entire Spanish monasteries to use as decorative materials for some of his interiors, and anything that he hadn’t been able to source, he designed from scratch using the most talented and authentic artisans to bring his vision to life, regardless of the cost.

Hearst Castle Neptune Pool
Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool has seen the likes of Johnny Weissmuller as a visitor

Our 90-minute Castle tour seemed to fly by, with all of the information and gossipy details about the life and celebrity guests provided by an exceptionally well-versed docent.

Hearst Castle Billiard Room tile decoration
Detail from inside the Billiard Room at Hearst Castle

One thing was clear, however, and that was that if walls could talk, there would be stories to tell here – but that will have to wait for another article!

Enjoy Coastline Views at Ragged Point

Hearst Castle may have been constructed above the clouds, quite literally, but the low-lying fog back at sea level proved to be a problem when Henk and I headed to an iconic viewpoint a few miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway – Ragged Point.

Ragged Point is a rocky headland about 24 miles north of Cambria and is described as one of the most scenic coastline views south of Big Sur. Since a section of the highway to Big Sur itself was closed due to a landslide during our visit, Henk and I would have to satisfy our coastal view craving with a drive to the Point instead. We were expecting this to be just a pullout on the highway but instead, it’s a tourist destination itself, since there are stores and a gas station here, as well as the Ragged Point Inn and Resort. Because of the foggy conditions, we chose not to hike down to the beach, but did capture the views through the ‘Portal to Big Sur’ art installation, as well as some of the colourful flowers on the grounds near the Resort.

Portal to Big Sur at Ragged Point lookout
“Portal to Big Sur” sculpture at Ragged Point lookout

We can only imagine what those views would look like on a clear day, which gives us an excuse to return in the future.

Bird of Paradise at Ragged Point lookout
Bird of Paradise at Ragged Point lookout

Elephant Seal Rookery

Wildlife lovers who come to Cambria are in for a rare treat: about 10 minutes north of Cambria right on the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most interesting lookout points Henk and I have ever visited: the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. It is here that thousands of elephant seals congregate on a small stretch of beach where they come to mate, give birth and molt, with their numbers peaking during pupping season in January, at the beginning of May, and again when the young seals return in October. But all throughout the year you can find seals here, and the viewing areas are open every day with no fees required, making it one of the best things to do in Cambria regardless of the season.

Elephant Seal Rookery beach view
Elephant Seal Rookery near Cambria, California

There are viewing platforms and walkways along the coastline, above the beach where the animals are, which allows visitors to get a close look at these animals without disturbing them, and it’s a unique opportunity to observe them in the wild. Henk and I were there in early May, during molting season, so the beach was packed with females and young males, not the much larger adult males with the oversized snouts (hence the name ‘elephant’ seals).

Elephant Seals

Still, we saw every shade of seal from brown to black, and every size from pups to teen males and adult moms. Although all the grunting and snorting sounds were a little comical, not to mention their ungainly way of shuffling their blubber to move on the sand, just getting this close to these animals was impressive and fascinating.

Time for Wine at Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles

There’s no shortage of excellent wineries in California, and one of the best wine regions in the country is only a half hour drive east from Cambria: Paso Robles. This wine region has historical roots but it really exploded in the last 30 years or so with the introduction of new varietals and international investment. With more than 200 wineries, Henk and I were open to recommendations, and after hearing about Niner Wine Estates and their reputation as having one of the top 10 winery restaurants in the country, we were thrilled when we could get a reservation there for a wine tasting and lunch.

Niner Winery buildings
Niner Winery in Paso Robles

The winery is beautiful, surrounded by rolling vineyards that include Heart Hill, an iconic landmark that has been here since the 1950s when the property was owned by Dick and Claude Booker, a farming family. The heart was originally a natural oak tree grove that had the rough shape of a heart, and when two of the Bookers’ workers saw it, they decided to do a little trimming at the top of the grove to accentuate the shape. The heart has remained ever since and has become a living legacy in the area.

Heart Hill at Niner winery
Heart Hill at Niner winery

Niner’s tasting rooms and restaurant facilities are housed in beautiful stone buildings surrounded by gardens that are both decorative and functional, as many of the ingredients for the restaurant are grown and sourced from right here. Since the weather was beautiful, Henk and I opted for the outdoor shaded patio for our tasting, sampling 4 different reds including a 2019 Zinfandel from the Heart Hill vineyard that I particularly loved.

Niner Winery red wine lineup

For our lunch we got to sample some of the garden-fresh dishes from Executive Chef Jacob Burrell’s kitchen, including a mouth-watering prosciutto on focaccia appetizer and a delicious, herbaceous chilled asparagus salad that tasted like California on a plate. We followed this with a pasta entree with peas from the garden, and sole with seaweed-caviar butter.

Sole with seaweed caviar butter at Niner Winery
Sole with seaweed caviar butter at Niner Winery

It was easy to see why this winery was winning awards not just for its wines, but for its kitchen: this was probably one of the best meals Henk and I had in California.

Sample the Legacy Wines at Hearst Ranch Winery

A little closer to Cambria is the Hearst Ranch Winery, just opposite Hearst Castle on the shoreline of San Simeon. The ranch includes over 83,000 acres of land that stretches inland from the coast and also includes property in Paso Robles, where the wines for the Hearst cellars are grown.

Hearst Ranch Rose
Lifting a glass of Heart Ranch Winery’s 2023 Julia Rosé

While you can certainly reserve a tasting at their Paso Robles estate why not enjoy ocean views at Hearst’s San Simeon Seaside Tasting Room, which is even closer to Cambria? The property just completed an extensive renovation, and is now open for reserved tastings on their large outdoor patio that offers sweeping views of San Simeon Bay. And if you feel like a bite to eat to pair with your wine and your view, you can order some fresh-crafted sandwiches or smashburgers from two of the Ranch’s long-time vendors: Seaside Foods and The Cruiser Food Truck.

Hearst Ranch Winery San Simeon Tasting patio
The patio is open! *Photo from Hearst Ranch Winery website

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: a Visit to Harmony, California

Sophisticated wining and dining is amazing, of course, but any visit to Cambria has to include another little side excursion, because while Cambria may have its own share of ‘quirky’, its near neighbour, Harmony, may take the cake when it comes to kooky destinations.

Rusted truck and sign Harmony

Harmony is only a 10-minute drive south of Cambria, and the sign welcoming visitors to this place says it all: Harmony Population 18, Elevation 175.
Yes, you read that right. Blink and you might just miss Harmony altogether, in fact. This town was once a going concern, and the centre of dairy production in the region back in the days when William Hearst was hosting Hollywood celebs at his estate, but after the creamery closed in the 1970s, the town shrunk to near oblivion.

Today, Harmony has seen a rebirth of sorts, for two reasons: it is home to high quality artisan workshops that operate in some of the buildings that once formed part of the town’s ‘Main Street’. Harmony may only be a block long, but the pieces that are made in its shops by its artists are the real deal, and it’s interesting to watch the glass blowers at work in the open studio workshop, or browse the unique ceramics in the Harmony Pottery store.

Harmony glass work vase
Harmony glassworks has beautiful artwork and functional glass pieces for sale

The second reason why Harmony is back on the map is the Harmony Valley Creamery, a small-batch craft ice cream company, that has been operating out of here since 2015, breathing new life into the ‘dairy legacy’ of Harmony. Its locally-made “Udderly Awesome” ice cream is sold on-site from its Scoop Truck and at small retail stores about the San Luis Obispo (SLOCAL) region of California.

Frisbee cow in Harmony CA

The ice cream was delicious, and the town itself is a photographer’s dream come true with all its quirky charm and historic character. Harmony’s footprint and population may be small, so small that Henk and I almost drove by it, but we were really glad we stopped in as this is exactly the kind of unique community we love to discover by accident. And it felt like the perfect way to end our visit to Cambria and this part of California.

FUN FACT: You can actually rent the entire town of Harmony as a private venue for a special event. (Anyone looking for a unique Wedding Chapel?)

Harmony Chapel
How is this for the coolest wedding chapel ever?

Coastal, Artsy, Quirky and Cool: What’s Not to Love About Cambria

Cool buildings in downtown west Cambria
Cool buildings and boutiques in Cambria’s West Village

One of the best things about having little or no expectations about a place is that there is so much more opportunity to be pleasantly surprised by what you discover there. Cambria turned out to be a hidden gem of a town that checked all our boxes, (and some we didn’t even have listed) for a quintessential California getaway. More than just a base for visiting an extravagant castle on a hill, this town charmed us with its twin villages, friendly residents, arts community and quirky, boho vibe. Add in some amazing food, wine, and a beautiful coastal setting, and it’s easy to see why some people who come here never leave. We were tempted to do the same.

WHERE TO STAY IN CAMBRIA:

What happens when a gardening enthusiast becomes a hotel developer? You get properties where the grounds get as much attention as the guest rooms, and this is exactly what you will find at Cambria Pines Lodge. This property sits on 25 acres of land just a short drive up a hill from Cambria’s East Village and consists of a main Lodge with traditional rooms as well as a collection of spacious, comfortable suites in separate 2-story buildings scattered throughout the property.

Main reception at Cambria Pines Lodge
Main reception at Cambria Pines Lodge

The Main Lodge has a rustic aesthetic with an exterior boasting huge timbers, an expansive front porch and uniquely carved wooden doors. Inside opposite the reception desk, the lodge vibe continues into the Fireside Lounge with a cozy bar adjacent to a huge stone fireplace that acts as the centrepiece for the room. A bonus? Guests can enjoy a drink accompanied by live nightly entertainment on the small stage, and the performers are only too happy to take requests!

But the unique charm of Cambria Pines Lodge is outside in the gardens. You will definitely want to make time to follow the meandering paths and discover little garden rooms tucked into spaces between hedges or through picture-perfect garden gates.

Garden door Cambria Pines Lodge

There are whimsical touches everywhere, from the mini fairy homes to the “Flower Bed” (a painting of which was featured in our Deluxe Suite’s bathroom).

Flower Bed at Cambria Pines Lodge
“The Flower Bed” featured in a painting in our suite

Even the garbage and recycling bins are thoughtfully integrated into the Lodge’s garden aesthetic.

Trash and Recycle bins Cambria Pines Lodge
A working water wheel on this miniature mill decorates this recycling bins!

As for the rooms themselves, our Deluxe Suite was on the second floor of one of the property’s standalone buildings and was so enormous it felt more like an apartment than a hotel room. The decor was casual and cottage-y but with all the modern amenities including two gas fireplaces (one in the front living room and one in the bedroom at the back of the suite), comfortable furniture to sink into, a huge King bed with comfy linens and a pretty view from the private balcony overlooking the valley below the property.

View from our room at Cambria Pines-2
View from our Deluxe Suite balcony at Cambria Pines

As a base for exploring the Cambria area, we couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable place with more than enough space to stretch out and relax.

WHERE TO EAT IN CAMBRIA:

Robin’s Restaurant is a bit of an institution in the East Village in Cambria, and after speaking with another couple who have been returning here for years to dine, the salmon bisque appetizer is one of the reasons. Another might be the beautiful outdoor garden room and its midsummer night’s dream ambiance, or the wide variety of items on the menu: you’ll find everything from asian curries and stir fry dishes to more traditional pork chops and filet mignon entrees. With a menu as eclectic as Cambria itself, Robins caters equally well to both its loyal clientele as well as visitors coming here for the first time.

Robin's Restaurant Cambria
Robin’s Restaurant in East Village, Cambria

Madeline’s Restaurant A recommendation from Matt at the cycle shop led us to this restaurant in the West Village for a delicious French-inspired dinner with California touches. The restaurant is known as much for its selection of excellent local, small-batch wines as it is for its food, and regularly offers wine tastings at the Cambria Shores Inn on Moonstone Beach Drive. But Henk and I were here for the dinner as much as for the wine, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our choice. The only thing better than our delicious scallops, veal chops, stuffed chicken breast and decadent dessert(s) was the unpretentious service and friendly staff. Definitely a great recommendation that we are happy to pass along.

Madelines entrees Cambria
Entrees at Madeline’s Restaurant in Cambria

Linn’s Restaurant started as a farm that was known for its fresh fruits and vegetables and expanded over the years to become a full service casual restaurant offering breakfast, lunch and dinner options. We came for the breakfast and to sample their legendary Olallieberry products (Olallieberry is a Loganberry/Youngberry cross that is grown on Linn’s family farm and tastes like a blackberry and raspberry mix.) In Cambria, Olallieberry is definitely a thing, so you might want to indulge your sweet tooth with a taste during your visit, whether as preserves on a scone or in a slice of pie.

Yummy treats at Linn's in Cambria
Just some of the yummy treats at Linn’s

Special thanks to Visit Cambria and their partners who hosted Henk and I on our visit.

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Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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