Three Days in Cambria: From elephant seals to elegant homes
By Kathy Chin Leong
It was raining sheets, buckets, cats, dogs, and what-have-you the December Sunday we left for Cambria from the Bay Area. We wondered whether our entire vacation would be drowned out, but our jaunt to the Central Coast proved to be one of the best trips ever. This artist colony yields much, much more than galleries. The glories of Cambria are subtle, and you will have a grand time unearthing its vast treasures.
When you do your homework, you’ll find a plethora of kid-friendly stores, restaurants, inns, and activities. If you want to head south to Cambria for a retreat with the kids, two to three days is plenty of time to explore this charming seaside town.
Take note that in January, on Jan. 27 and 28, the town hosts its annual Art and Wine Festival. There will be shopping specials throughout the village and food and special art demos. At $20 per person, the tickets give you plenty of food and drink and entertainment.
The drive down Hwy 1 is your most scenic bet as you head down the coast. The myriad of photo opportunities are everywhere along the way; pull off to the side, and you can picnic while looking at one of the most spectacular postcard ocean views on the face of the planet.
However, if you want to shave 30 minutes or more off your travel time, go inland and hit Hwy 101, to Hwy 46, and to Hwy 1. Estimate that it will take approximately 4 hours from San Francisco.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at two distinct lodging establishments, both good for families. The Whitewater Inn, directly across the street from the beach, is located on Moonstone Beach Drive, along a boulevard of inns with fetching names such as Cambria Shores Inn, Little Sur Inn, Blue Dolphin Inn, Sea Otter Inn, Captain Cove Country Inn, and so on.
With sunny yellow paint, porches, and individual cottages, the Whitewater Inn is comfortable and unpretentious. We stayed in one of the two ocean-facing mini-suites priced at $190 to $240 per night. Ocean lovers will be enthralled with this clean and homey suite. Each day, a generous continential breakfast is brought to your room. (See Review in Index.)
While the Whitewater Inn is your beachside destination, the Olallieberry Inn is great for families desiring proximity to shopping and eating establishments. These are all within walking distance from the Olallieberry. Run by owners Marjory Ott, her sister Marilyn and husband Larry Draper, this historic bed and breakfast inn is a traditional and elegant B&B with no TVs or phones in the room. (See review in Index.)
I’d recommend this place to families with older kids who are well-behaved and quiet. Boisterous, rambuncious youngsters would have a hard time as it is simply inappropriate to run around the premises. After all, many couples are coming here for R&R, and many a honeymooner has been known to visit. The night we came to the wine cocktail hour, we were the only couple toting offspring, so my kids, ages 13 and 15, quickly disappeared after they grabbed a cookie and returned to the room.
If you ever have the opportunity to stay, I recommend the Creekside Suite which is comfortable, roomy, and situated away from the main house. Rates for the inn start at $120, and the Creekside Suite runs $190 to $210 per night including breakfast and cocktail hour.
WHERE TO EAT
Linn’s Main Bin Restaurant was a complete treat for our family. Not only does it have gourmet food at fair prices, Linn’s fresh ingredients and homemade jams and pies make it popular for takeout and online purchases during the holidays and year round.
Linn’s Main Bin is a casual restaurant with wood tables and chairs, warm wood flooring, and soft task lighting dotted about on high beamed ceilings. Countryside and still life paintings by local artists are hung on all the walls and are for sale to the public. The cozy atmosphere and friendly service reminds me of an upscale Marie Callender’s.
The menu is well rounded with everything from cilantro crab cakes ($9.95) as appetizers to homemade clam chowder ($5.95 bowl) to braised beef with polenta and mushrooms ($12.95) to its infamous pot pie dinners that start at $10.95 with potato, veggies, bread, and soup or salad. I had the chicken pot pie that was both tasty and satisfying. Gwen and Aaron both ordered fried chicken which was crunchy, not greasy. Frank loved his steak with red wine sauce, and he commented that it was particularly tender for the T-bone cut. We all ate with smiles on our faces.
When you come to Linn’s be prepared to save room for dessert. The Linn’s dessert menu runs two pages long featuring a pantheon of pies, cheesecakes, torte style cakes, and ice cream wonders. I savored every bite of my olallieberry cream cake ($4.95) while Frank lapped up his café mocha sundae ($5.95), a classic hot fudge sundae with Brazilian coffee ice cream. Yum!
Of note is the Linn’s dessert sampler platter ($14.95), which is comprised of six half-sized servings of their desserts, including a miniature ice cream sundae. Worth the price for up to six people!
Before you leave, be sure to wander through its gift shop and bakery which carries delightful cookware, jams, muffin mixes, and desserts to go. Yep, going to Linn’s is an experience in itself.
From casual to upscale, Cambria has it all. The Brambles Dinner House is the kind of place you’d take grandma on her birthday or a date you want to impress. Elegant furnishings, plush carpet, candlelit tables also means that kids should be on good behavior. The night we came I felt as though we had been whisked off to France as I gazed upon the elegant draperies and oil paintings of sailing ships and European farmland.
Prices for dinners begin at around $20 for chicken dishes and go up to $30 or more for rack of lamb, lobster, etc. The Brambles serves up a multi-page menu of seafood, prime rib daily, steak, pasta, and Greek fare. I thoroughly enjoyed my sea bass cooked to perfection with a light cream sauce that was so delicate I was able to taste the flavors of the fish. Aaron, my son, cut into his $25 prime rib and found that even though he ordered medium, it arrived medium rare. They brought back a new piece swiftly to the table. Frank cut into his perfect $31 rack of lamb with a joyful zeal, and we all begged for a taste.
For dessert, the sweets hover in the $5 to $6.50 range, very reasonable for this award-winning restaurant. I had the strawberry shortcake, which was okay. Frank liked his tiramisu, but thought it was pretty strong on the alcohol. Aaron and Gwen’s fresh sorbets were scarfed up within seconds so their poor mother didn’t get to sample a spoonful at all!
WEST END SIGHTS
The town of Cambria is split into two villages, east and west. Both run along Main Street and reveal an eclectic lineup of galleries, gift shops, restaurants, coffee and smoothie shops. The sweet Victorian architecture may remind you of being in a movie set.
We started our village visits in the west end, and we found sanctuary at the Visitors Center. Mary Ann Carson, executive director of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, was more than helpful in arranging our stays, making recommendations for places to eat, and activities to enjoy. Be sure to take advantage of the services the chamber and visitors bureau has to offer. Honest guides can save you endless frustration and prevent you from frequenting a bad restaurant or snobby inn.
On the west end, the kids loved the Artifacts Gallery where we spent nearly 45 minutes admiring the Disney prints and paintings, surreal paintings by famous European artists, and other memorable sculptures and works of art.
The Soldier Gallery is a fun stopover to view and purchase miniature soldiers from different wars in different countries from various time periods. The store even features a miniature of Hitler and his troops, and specifies that it is displaying the pieces as historical reference only. Aside from war items, the store sells dolls and other collectibles. We loved seeing the tiny scenes of the old Hong Kong and little figurines performing duties of ordinary life such as playing mah jong, cooking, and catching fish.
Froggies is a children’s clothing and toy store near the Soldier Store. With heaps of froggie togs and playthings, it carries ever-so-soft blankets, baby outfits, and upscale tops and bottoms for little ones.
Willows Bend Antiques and Fine Gifts may not appeal to little ones, but for mommies, this is a fun find. This two-story corner store features tasteful ornaments, lovely linens, table ware, and enough tea settings to dress your dining table throughout the year. After tantalizing your eyes, you want to buy all the beautiful home décor items you see and throw a party. You could do some dangerous shopping at this place and empty your wallet if you are not careful.
The East Village was also a visual delight. The Cambria Village Pharmacy is your one-stop shop for rubber duckies of all flavors, from the sailor ducky to the American Indian ducky to the groom and bride ducky. This place also carries basic pharmacy needs as well as a spiffy array of cards and gifts. Call 805/927-4231.
Rumplestiltskin Books, a teensy, but alluring bookstore with high-quality products was our favorite stop. My daughter Gwen and I didn’t mean to stay long, but we were lulled by the myriad of popular picture books and wonderful selection for parents and older children as well. I loved the fact that we could enjoy this non-chain, independent bookstore and support it with our purchases. Another place with no website, the bookstore does have a phone. Reach ‘em at 805/927-7228.
For real eye candy, venture into Seekers Gallery. Actually two Seekers Galleries are spaced only yards apart on Burton Avenue. Representing over 250 glass artists, this facility carries glasswork so stunning that visitors whisper, "How did they do that?" We loved seeing ordinary things rendered in glass such as a glass woman’s hat, glass fish, glass pumpkins and more.
WHAT TO DO
For rustic and natural surroundings, to visit San Simeon Beach or any of the beaches along the coast is to feast on God’s handiwork. Right on Moonstone Drive, parallel to Hwy 1, a wooden boardwalk that’s wheelchair accessible with lookout points makes it easy for anyone to take a stroll. The day we went to walk after the rains, families with babies were taking in the salt air and breathtaking sights of jagged rocks and crashing waves.
Between December and March, the elephant seals are breeding and basking near Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, two miles north of Hearst Castle. A lookout point is not marked by any words referring to the elephant seals, but a host of cars are usually parked off on a coastside parking lot with visitors all viewing the mammals. A short stroll with plenty of info placards along the boardwalk and wood railings gives visitors a view of the hundreds of seals in action.
An attraction not to be missed at least for once is Hearst Castle . The opulent tour runs $20 for adults and $10 for kids ages 5-17. Operated by the State of California, the castle features three separate tours that show different aspects of the main house, guest houses and gardens. (See story in Index).
On our recent trip, a small ad promoting a place called Nitt Witt Ridge caught our eye. Billed as the poor man’s Hearst Castle, we took a tour of the two-acre property built long ago by trash man and junk collector Art Beale. One hour tours run $10 per adult and $5 per child. The entire house built with recycled lumber from the beach, empty beer cans, and abalone shells is a sight to behold. Cambria residents either love it or hate it. Visitors learn about the eccentric life of this Bay Area icon who lived until he was forced to leave by the county and sent to live out his years in a rest home. He died at age 96 in 1992. There is no website listed, so here’s the phone number: 805/927-2690. (See detailed story in Index).
Cambria, the charming village by the sea, has more to offer than meets the eye. Opulent castles, recycled palaces, elephant seals, unique shops, and scenic beaches will draw you back again and again like hypnotic waves that are pulled repeatedly back to the ocean.
NOTEWORTHY WEB SITES:
www.cambriachamber.org : All the info you need on places to stay, food, etc.
www.hearstcastle.com : Get tickets for the tours online and learn more about this exotic place.
www.linnsfruitbin.com : Order food baskets, get restaurant info, and download a few of Linn’s treasured recipes.
www.bramblesdinnerhouse.com : Obtain menus, pricing, and see photos of this award-winning eatery.
www.olallieberry.com : Photos, reservations, and details on this historic bed and breakfast inn.
www.whitewaterinn.com : Get photos, outside and inside views, prices, and recommendations for dining at this motel-like establishment.
www.seekerscollection.com : Pictures of museum-quality glass artwork and more posted on this website for Seekers Glass Gallery.
www.visitcambriacalifornia : Offers places to see and things to do. Listing of local businesses.
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