To me, the town of Cambria is a little slice of heaven on the California coast!
It’s got everything I want for a getaway: small-town feel; gorgeous views; trails to wander; and Wally the Water Treading Whale! Okay, not that last thing (but more about it later).
I first visited Cambria over a decade ago, and I’ve absolutely required a periodic dose of the place ever since. And while just gazing, slack-jawed at the sparkling sea often counts for me as an “activity” these days, I bet there’s a little something for everyone to do in and around Cambria to create the ideal getaway.
If you’re in the mood to tour an opulent piece of California history, the spectacular Hearst Castle is perched on a mountaintop just about six miles north of Cambria. Or, if you prefer your splendor more natural, the rugged and breathtaking Big Sur section of the Pacific Coast begins just a few miles farther on.
The region is also “ripe” with opportunities for wine tasting. You can sample local vintages at a tasting room in town or cruise lovely country roads to go right to the source. For me, the vineyard-lined highway between the coast and Paso Robles (Highway 46) is so pretty that I can actually get stuck driving behind a motor home and (without uttering a single expletive) just think of it as extra time to savor the scenery.
And right in downtown Cambria on its long main street, whether your style is grabbing a bite and doing a little shopping, or dining and browsing in antique stores and art galleries, there are lots of different and delightful options on offer.
I have my own list of “must-do’s” I always cover while I’m in Cambria:
I have to check out the doings of the local elephant seal population beached off Highway 1 (their hangout is marked with signs and has an area to park). There’s just something compelling about these sometimes mammoth creatures who lead dual lives of graceful swimmers in the sea and cigars with fins on land. While hauled out on the beach, it looks like serious work for them to engineer the most comfortable spot to get a little rest from fishing or mating or whatever they’re up to that particular time of year – a process that seems to involve periodically bellowing challenges and complaints, and casually flipping sand all over themselves and their neighbors.
Whether it’s realistic or not for the season I’m there, I have to set aside quality time to scan the ocean for whales. My favorite thing to do is get a room with a view at a motel on Moonstone Beach Drive – a street that borders a stretch of the Pacific Coast – and get right down to the business of kicking back and staring at the water. I also love strolling the wood planked path that runs the length of Moonstone, keeping a weather eye for whales and other sea life as I go.
And it’s essential for me to be outside on Moonstone to view the sunset. I’m not alone. Many folks pour out of their motel rooms at dusk like ants ousted by a sprinkler and, maybe with a glass of fine wine in hand, they head to the bluffs for a sort of front row seat. It’s funny – I know the sun goes down every single day, yet it’s positively magical to stand on the edge of a continent and catch that last gleaming sliver of light before it dips below the horizon.
And I do adore hitting the meandering trails of Fiscalini Ranch – a wisely- and well-preserved open stretch of coastal land between two neighborhoods where (again, depending on the season) I’ve been awed by the sight of migrating whales moving majestically up or down the coast.
For the multi-tasking whale watcher, there’s a restaurant on Moonstone where you can sit outside and face the sea as you dine – no trip is complete for me without a lunch there. On one visit, I was sitting outside enjoying a salad and a glass of champagne (yes, the bubbly is another must!) next to a couple who sounded like they were from back east. They were paying their tab and chatting cheerily about the events of the day when suddenly the woman nearly jumped out of her seat.
“Look! A whale!”
Well, I had to look since I considered myself a veteran whale watcher by then. In addition to my visits to Cambria, I’d gotten to spend one glorious unemployed spring in L.A. with Malibu Beach as my office and ocean-gazing my occupation. It did real wonders for my soul to be able to study the sound that receding waves make over different sized stones, and to learn to differentiate among the various types of disturbances on the ocean’s surface. At a quick glance, it can be awfully hard to tell whether a splash of white water has been made by a pelican’s dive-bombing for a fish, the cavorting of a dolphin or seal (I’m certain it’s cavorting), mist from the blowhole of a whale, or just a tricky play of light on the waves.
But some situations are pretty straightforward – and something I’d learned from my many visits to Cambria is that right off the coast there on Moonstone, the changing tide can offer anything from a teasing glimpse to a substantial view of one or two large rocks not too far out in the water. As often as I’ve seen them, they still catch my eye and get me excited for a moment that I’ve spotted a living creature – but, given their distinct lack of motion, the illusion quickly fades.
And yet the sleight of tide effect was completely fooling this couple.
“There it is again! Look, look, look!”
The husband had caught sight of it, too.
“I see it! A whale!”
As a wave temporarily engulfed the rock, the two were now both on their feet, intently scanning that section of the water. Then, sure enough (much more sure than they realized):
“There it is!”
Too thrilled to keep such a find to themselves, they turned to me.
“There’s a whale out there!” the wife proclaimed proudly.
Oh dear. Was I supposed to humor these poor people or should I set them straight? A spectrum of possible responses came to mind.
“Honey. It’s clearly a rock.”
The simple dodge:
“Darn, you know, I don’t have my glasses with me…”
“Amazing! A whale that doesn’t actually go anywhere! Must be one of those incredibly rare water treading whales!”
The more complicated and hard-to-maintain dodge:
“Anteeksi, mutta minä en puhu englantia…”
All these possibilities were going through my head as I followed the line of the woman’s pointed finger and squinted toward the water, knowing the underwhelming truth.
Then it occurred to me. What if part of this couple’s ideal getaway was to be able to take home a story about having spotted a whale? Maybe this was their only chance. (Well, assuming the landlubbery pair didn’t later mistake a buoy or something for one – I mean, the intermittently flashing light should be a dead giveaway, but…)
But – maybe it would be good for their souls.
I finally made my decision and responded sincerely:
“Wow, that’s awesome!”
As the couple left their table, chattering excitedly, I sat back and took a long, contented sip of my champagne.
Yup. There truly is a little something for everyone in Cambria.
More Cambria views: