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Why Cambria Is Central California’s Most Relaxing Weekend Break

By Tim Chester

May 13, 2021

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Cambria’s beach will blow away the cobwebs.

Photo by randy andy / Shutterstock

Cambria’s beach will blow away the cobwebs.

Spend your days watching whales, strolling on the sand, and sipping local wines on the Central Coast.

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Four hours’ drive from both San Francisco or Los Angeles, Cambria is just slightly too far for a weekend trip from the big cities for many. It’s those extra few miles that keep the tiny town of some 5,000 people sufficiently remote, free of the masses that descend on other Californian coastal spots.

Cambria rewards those who do make the trip and extend it by a day or two, with a blissfully relaxing break. It’s known locally as where the pines meet the sea, and both its stretches of Monterey pine forest and untamed shoreline are worth exploring.

The main town is split into two—East and West Village—but don’t expect chain restaurants or big box retailers; everything here is locally owned and has been for some time. You’ll probably divide your days between this walkable downtown and nearby Moonstone Beach where a long boardwalk and miles of sand await. Farther north, tiny San Simeon and Big Sur beckon, while eastward and inland you’ll find Paso Robles and wine country.

Here are few ways to make the most of a local getaway to the heart of California’s Central Coast. 

Where to stay in Cambria

Cambria’s East and West Villages are walkable and filled with quirky boutiques and locally owned restaurants.

Oceanpoint Ranch

Book now: from $117/night, expedia.com

Set across nine acres at the far north end of Moonstone Beach, Oceanpoint Ranch is perfectly positioned for strolls along the boardwalk, explorations of rocky tidepools, and bracing hikes on deserted stretches of sand. There’s also plenty to do at the family-friendly spot too, from cornhole to outdoor shuffleboard, croquet to horseshoes. An onsite restaurant serves a range of to-go breakfasts and hearty suppers, including short ribs and chili, and comfortable rooms (many with wood-burning fireplaces) are furnished with bold plaid bedding and animal prints.

Cambria Pines Lodge

Book now: from $104/night, expedia.com

High in the woods above the main town, Cambria Pines Lodge is the kind of archetypal forest retreat the name suggests. The Fireside Lounge is a fine place for a glass of local pinot accompanied by the crackle of logs, and the grounds invite meandering among the pines. The annual Cambria Christmas Market sees pathways bedecked with thousands of twinkling lights, too.

Where to eat in Cambria

Cambria goes to bed early, which means most people eat around sunset. Several restaurants on Moonstone command great views of the day receding into the Pacific, including Moonstone Grill and a local seafood favorite, the no-reservation, cash-only Sea Chest Oyster Bar (get there early for the best tables; many people line up with a bottle of something long before it opens at 5:30 p.m.).

In town, Robin’s serves contemporary fare in a pretty garden, Madeline’s is popular for steak and fish, and Linn’s is a must-stop for dessert. Linn’s encompasses a restaurant, café, bakery, and gift shop, and more than a few cars head home loaded up with its olallieberry pies and jams. (Olallieberries are a mix of blackberry and raspberry.) If you’re just after coffee, the Cambria Coffee Roasting Company is your best bet. It’s right next to the tourist information office in West Village.

Several miles of boardwalk line Moonstone Beach.

Things to do in Cambria

Part of Cambria’s charm is how laid-back it is. Some of the best ways to spend a day include a meander along the sandy beach inspecting driftwood structures, or a hike along the bluffs spotting birds, whales, and otters at Fiscalini Ranch. Or perhaps browsing the singular boutiques along Main Street before a bite to eat and a glass of something local and a good night’s sleep with the window cracked and the ocean providing the white noise.

That said, there’s plenty to keep you busy, too. If it’s your first time, Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s sprawling, 165-room mansion packed full of European art, is a must (it was closed at time of writing but planning on a phased reopening)—as is a pit stop to see the elephant seals sunning themselves at Piedras Blancas. Nitt Witt Ridge is a popular folk art landmark, a house and garden exhibition built by the late artist Arthur Harold Beal from natural resources like shells as well as car parts and beer cars. It’s preserved as a California Historic Landmark.

Cambria is on the 100-mile Highway 1 Discovery Route, a stretch of Slo Cal coast offering a host of new experiences from seaweed foraging down in Cayucos to mineral springs at Avila Beach. We also love driving half an hour down to Morro Bay, where the imposing Morro Rock separates a surf-friendly beach with a calm harbor perfect for kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and tasty seafood at several waterside joints.

Winetasting in Cambria

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Cambria sits on the edge of the Paso Robles Wine Country AVA, where more than 200 wineries grow mostly zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and Rhône-style varietals like shiraz on rolling hills where ocean breezes meet hot dry summers. The soil here is uniquely diverse and in parts fairly calcareous (or chalky), which means it retains water better—good news for winemakers. 

One of the producers taking advantage of that is the aptly named Calcareous Vineyard. It is a little drive out of Cambria, about 45 minutes, but it’s a stunning journey along hilltops that command views of the ocean out to Morro Bay and through wooded valleys. Its impeccable tasting room, outdoor space with games atop a hill, cheese boards, and wines (like its ZSM or zinfandel, syrah, and merlot blend) make it worth the drive. There are plentiful other spots worth checking out, like Opolo or bigger producer Tobin James, or you could take a drive and see which driveway calls you in. Most close by about 5 p.m.

There are a few tasting rooms in Cambria itself, and Hearst Ranch Winery (of William Randolph/Hearst Castle fame) has opened an oceanside terrace at San Simeon that’s perfect for sipping chilled chardonnay with a view of the pier. (Hearst also just installed solar panels at its vineyard, which will reduce its annual gas emissions by 221 metric tons, the equivalent of sequestering carbon through 228 acres of forests, according to a recent members’ brochure.)

The best way to reach Cambria from Los Angeles or San Francisco

By car: Cambria is about a four-hour drive from Los Angeles. You could shoot up the I-5 and head west at Paso Robles, but by far the more scenic route (and usually comparable in drive time) is to follow the 101, which hits the coast at Ventura and winds alongside the ocean past Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, heads inland to Santa Maria and weaves back to the water by Pismo Beach before detouring through San Luis Obispo and north through tiny Harmony (population: 18) and ending at Cambria.

Similarly, the journey from San Francisco to Cambria could take you four hours inland on the 101 via Gilroy and Paso, or you could take your time along the recently reopened PCH through Big Sur. 

By train: Amtrak trains stop at both San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, but you’ll need to find a car to get you onwards from there.

By air: San Luis Obispo County Airport is served by Alaska, American Airlines, and United. Otherwise, LAX and SFO are good places to begin your road trip. 

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