'Where the Pines Meet the Sea'

Cambria complements its natural beauty with unusual food, distinctive crafts

By: M.J. Smith

There are many lovely areas along California’s Central Coast, but few are as much fun for a weekend getaway as Cambria, a small town “where the pines meet the sea.”

The main attraction is Moonstone Beach, one of several spots along this stretch of coast halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

You should see Moonstone in the late afternoon, when the low sun is glinting on the water and spray adds a misty fog to the air. A few surfers should be trotting to the waves while a damp dog races back and forth along the tide line, refusing to play catch despite his human’s best efforts.

The combination is magical and even more exciting if you find some especially good examples of the small semiprecious stones and bits of glass that are tumbled smooth by the ocean and thrown up on the beach with each high tide.

Grey whales may pass through the scene as they migrate south from late December through early February and make the reverse trip during March and April. Seals often sun themselves on the rocks and gigantic elephant seals use the beaches to mate and calve.

Away from the ocean, the hillsides are covered in Monterey pine and full of wildlife so taking a hike or a scenic drive is a pleasant way to spend a morning. But be sure to look up occasionally, or you’ll miss the hawks wheeling through the air or the woodpeckers hammering away on a dead tree.

Cambria’s full-time population is only about 6,500, including the residents of outlying ranches and farms. But lots of those people are artists, craftspeople, shopkeepers and restaurateurs so there is an unusually broad range of places to eat and shop in its two major commerce areas, the East and West villages.

An example: The Paper Omelette is a small specialty stationery shop on the edge of the East Village. But its owner, Sandra Saenz, also uses it as a studio to produce her letterpress papers and other handmade works.

The surrounding region has many attractions too, such as newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s striking home in San Simeon, only six miles north of Cambria.

Several wineries are in the area and some Cambria shops, such as Fermentations on Burton Street, feature daily tastings of the local labels.

It would be easy to keep driving along Highway One, anticipating the spectacular vistas of Big Sur just to the north, but now you know what you’d be missing.

There are lots of motels and bed-and-breakfast spots in town but the grand lady of them all is Cambria Pines Lodge, built in 1927.

The cottages and two-story buildings that make up the lodge complex haven’t been renovated recently and the lack of soundproofing between the rooms is particularly annoying. But all those shortcomings fade as you walk through the lodge’s lovely flower gardens, listening to the burble of its many fountains, and visit its well-designed organic kitchen garden.

The lodge and six other Cambria properties are owned by Moonstone Hotel Properties, which pays 10 percent commission to travel agents.

The Brambles, 805-927-4716. The Greek owners have some of their favorite dishes on the steak and seafood menu, but consider dinner in the bar. The atmosphere is cozy and you’ll still be able to get the sauteed mushrooms.

Coffee Den Roasting Co., 805-927-0670. The best coffee in town and a barrista that, one patron declared, knows “everything about everyone.” So there’s always a bit of a wait but it’s well worth it.

The Tea Cozy, 805-927-8765. The shop serves typical English meals, including Cornish pasties, a ploughman’s lunch and a set tea with scones, small cakes and sandwiches. No watercress, unfortunately.

Linn’s, 805-927-0371. The olallieberry, a blackberry-raspberry combination developed in Oregon, grows well around Cambria and is featured on just about every dish in this somewhat chain-like restaurant.

The Cambria Chamber of Commerce has a lengthy posting of hotels, restaurants, services and other features at cambriachamber.org.