It’s a cool Saturday in March when we arrive in Cambria, Calif. for a weekend visit. We are greeted warmly at the front desk of the Cambria Pines Lodge, but our room is not quite ready. No problem, we’ll use the time to check out the town and stop for lunch.
Cambria is a small town located about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It sits on the ocean’s edge with its back to the rolling hills of California’s central coast. The area was once a part of the lands of the Mission San Miguel, later a part of the 13,000-acre Rancho Santa Rosa of Don Julian Estrada.
By 1880, Slabtown (as it was then named) was the second largest town in San Luis Obispo County. Cambria was made the official town name in 1870, likely because the residents were tired of trying to explain why their town was named Slabtown (apparently it got its name from the rough slab wood construction of the buildings). A devastating fire wiped out Main Street in 1889, but the town survived and rebuilt.
Today Cambria is a charming town of small shops and restaurants. My husband Kent and I and our traveling companions, another couple, opted for lunch at Linn’s Restaurant. The Linn family purchased a plot of land outside Cambria in 1976 and went to work creating a farm that today produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including seasonal citrus, berries, apples, apricots, lettuce, herbs and avocados and its signature item, the olallieberry.
These items make their way into the recipes at the restaurant and you can taste the difference the fresh, locally grown ingredients make. Our group’s lunch selection runs the gamut from a classic Reuben sandwich to a Dungeness crab salad, a quiche and a lobster BLT (which is what I’m going to order next time). Everything was delicious and even though we were stuffed, we split a piece of olallieberry pie which was worth every calorie.
Cambria Pines Lodge
After lunch we do some window shopping and then head back to the lodge to finish our check-in. The Cambria Pines Lodge is a sprawling complex with a large main building that houses the front desk, restaurant, bar and conference rooms—and a cozy spot near the front desk for the resident cat, Smokey.
The rooms are located in buildings set around the property. Some of these buildings are single-story cottages, some duplexes, some two-story condos and there are a couple of buildings that are laid out more like a traditional two-story hotel.
Our room is located on the second floor of one of the condos and has a living room with fireplace, a dining area, a small kitchenette and bedroom and bathroom. The décor is a bit dated, but the room is very clean and comfortable. The 25 acres on which the lodge sits include wooded areas and gardens that are perfect for strolling.
We decide to try dinner at the lodge and everyone in our party chooses the filet mignon, which turns out to be an excellent choice and a great value, too. A good dinner and bottle of wine shared with friends by a fireplace—I call that a good evening.
Exploring Moonstone Beach and Hearst Castle
We’re up early the next morning to grab breakfast and then head up the coast to San Simeon to visit Hearst Castle. We stop on the way to spend a little time wandering Moonstone Beach. There are signs in the park warning one not to feed the wildlife, but the ground squirrels are urging us to ignore the signs by being cute and begging for (demanding, really) food. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring any food and we’re forced to retreat to the beach.
We spend some time poking around tide pools and enjoying the view and then it’s time to leave. The remainder of the short drive up the coast to the castle reveals more of the gorgeous scenery of this area. On our left, the glittering Pacific—here a brilliant deep blue—and on our right, the green hills dotted with oak trees and cattle and—was that a zebra? Can’t be. Must have been a horse.
From the highway we see Heart Castle on a high point in the hills and soon we’ve arrived at the visitor center. There are four tours available at Hearst Castle: the Grand Rooms Tour, Upstairs Suites Tour, Cottages & Kitchen Tour and the Evening Tour. Reservations for tour times are strongly suggested as there are a limited number of slots for each tour and they fill up quickly. We are on the Upstairs Suites tour and board the appropriate bus.
In 1919 William Randolph Hearst inherited 250,000 acres of ranchland on the coast of California. Hearst had spent many happy days camping on the property with his family and friends, atop a steep hill whose ascent was a dirt path accessible only by foot or on horseback over five miles of cutbacks.
Looking to take in the fabulous views in more comfort than a tent could afford, Hearst asked architect Julia Morgan to build him “a little something” on the site. Construction began in 1919 and continued until 1947. The three guesthouses were completed first to provide shelter while the main house—Casa Grande—was being built. The guesthouses range in size from 2,550 to 5,350 square feet, but Casa Grande is an incredible 68,500 square feet with 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, 42 bathrooms and 14 sitting rooms.
The drive up to the top of hill which Hearst named La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) is a treat in itself offering views of the surrounding landscape and Hearst Ranch which is still a working cattle ranch.
At one point on the way up we spy the airport. This airport replaced the original which had two runways and was used by visitors to the castle and to bring Hearst the daily issues of his various newspapers. Unfortunately, the Rancho San Simeon Airport (66CA) is closed to the public.
We arrive at the top of the hill at the foot of the castle and all I can say is wow! The view all around—the grounds, the buildings—are amazing. We don’t have much time to look around outside before the tour begins, but our tour guide assures us we can spend as much time as we like wandering the grounds after the tour, as long as we catch the last bus down.
I had seen photos of Hearst Castle, but never before visited and I can tell you photos don’t do it justice. To see it in the small slice that a photo affords misses the sheer scale of the place, the way that the view fills the windows and the light softens the elaborate interiors.
The amazing woodwork, the paintings and sculptures, the carved ceilings imported from old European castles and churches and reinstalled on site, the tile work, the marble, the pools—all these looked a bit like cheap movie sets in photos. In person, in this setting, all that over-the-top decoration works.
Our tour guide is knowledgeable and our time in the castle passes too quickly. We spend some time exploring the gardens and terraces and pools before catching a bus to take us back to the visitor center.
It’s on the ride down that we find out about that weird-looking horse we saw on our drive to San Simeon. As the bus stops to give us a look at the remaining cages and enclosures that once housed Hearst’s wild animal collection, the bus driver tells us that descendants of the zebras that were a part of that menagerie continue to roam the Hearst Ranch. So our eyes did not deceive us after all.
Back in Cambria we stop for lunch at Robin’s Restaurant and once again are not disappointed. Then it’s off to visit the shops and enjoy a late afternoon wine tasting.
Our dinner choice for the evening is the Black Cat Bistro: flat iron steak, shrimp linguini, pan-roasted maple leaf duck breast. Yum. And then, since we’ve had a full day of sightseeing and have stuffed ourselves with more good food than we probably should have, we call it a night.
We’re up early the next day to head home, but we vow to come back soon. After all there are tours untaken, restaurants untried, wine untasted and more great days just waiting to be spent in Cambria.
Jennifer Dellenbusch is president of the Piper Flyer Association. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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