We recently accepted an invitation from Visit Cambria to come and take a look at what their region has to offer, all part of my ongoing efforts to see as much as of California as possible during my time here (see more of my California exploration here).
It turns out Cambria has plenty of things to do, from exploring rambling hilltop castles, to spying on Elephant Seals, to walking on sparkly, moonstone-filled beaches. And that’s before I even mention the food and wine! Of which there might have been some. You’ll have to read on to find out.
In the meantime, you might be wondering where Cambria is. It’s on the Californian coast, exactly half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles (around 3 – 4 hours drive from either). It can be found at the bottom end of the stunning Pacific Coast Highway, or a short detour off US-101.
We spent a three-day weekend exploring Cambria and its surrounds. Here are some of the sights and activities we took in.
Things to Do in Cambria
1. Walk on Moonstone Beach
I love walking on beaches, and it’s probably no co-incidence that Jess and I first really connected on a walk on a beach in Italy, and got engaged on a beach in California. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that when I learnt Cambria is home to one of California’s most beautiful beaches, we put this right at the top of our list.
Moonstone beach is so called because of the shiny gemstones that can be found on the beach, which glitter in the sun in all kinds of colours. They’re not really worth anything, but you’ll find people out collecting them to make jewellery, because they’re so pretty. There’s also a nice boardwalk along the coast here that you can follow, and from where you can watch gorgeous sunsets.
2. Visit Hearst Castle
A highlight of a visit to this part of California has to be Hearst Castle – an incredible construction found atop a hill, just six miles to the North of Cambria.
This National Historic Landmark was built by William Randolph Hearst, the original American media mogul, responsible at the time for the largest newspaper and magazine publishing business in the world. He, and Hearst Castle, were the inspiration for the classic movie Citizen Kane.
As you might imagine, the castle is quite the construction. Hearst wasn’t short of a bob or two, and brought art and antiquities from all over the world to make his dream come true, from entire hand carved Italian ceilings, to church knaves and more. The collection and castle is a testament to just exactly what one can do if money is truly no object, with 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, its own movie theatre, airport and Romanesque bath complex to name just a few of the attractions on offer.
Oh, Hearst also had a zoo, which he filled with all sorts of exotic animals. Many of these had to be sold off when his empire hit upon rocky times, but you can still see herds of zebra roaming the nearby plains. Which isn’t weird at all.
When open, this was the place to be, with film stars, politicians and sporting legends all gracing the property, and after a few drinks, often providing Hearst with the scoop for his next newspaper headline.
These days, the Castle is owned and operated by the California State Park Service, and access is only possible via a tour. A great many people visit every day, so it’s advisable to get your tickets in advance to guarantee entry. You can buy them online, here.
Our tour took us up the hill to the castle along what was once the private drive (an experience in itself), before we had a guided tour of some of the highlights of the castle. I think it’s fair to say my mind was fairly blown by the sheer magnificence of it all. After our tour, we were free to wander the grounds, which we did, admiring the views and the many guesthouses and artworks in the immediate grounds of the castle itself.
I could go on at some length about Hearst Castle, suffice to say, it’s very much worth visiting. Go early, before it gets too busy, and if you want to read more before you go, check out Jess’s guide to Hearst Castle, which is stuffed full of information.
3. Wander Historic Downtown Cambria
Of course, no visit to a town is complete without wandering around the downtown area, and we found Cambria to have a pleasant downtown for a stroll. Studded with antique shops, restaurants (more on eating options at the end of the post) and even a micro-brewery, we kept ourselves entertained for a while.
There’s also a bike hire shop in the centre of town, in case you want to explore a bit more. You can also use the bike to explore the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve described below.
4. Explore Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
Right behind Cambria’s Main Street is a huge green area, known as Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. This 430 acre wilderness area is easily accessible from the town centre, and you’ll find yourself wandering green meadows and wooded hillsides in moments.
The highlight though, in our minds anyway, was the Coastal Bluff Trail, a track that runs along the coastline and offers stunning views up and down the California coastline. We visited in the peak of the wildflower season, and despite it being a tad breezy, very much enjoyed our wanders along the cliffs. If you only go on one walk in Cambria, you need to make it this one.
5. Visit Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
When we visited Hearst Castle, we decided to head up the coast a little further to the Elephant Seal Rookery, around seven miles north of San Simeon.
I’d actually stopped here on a road trip through the area near the turn of the century (I’ve wanted to use that phrase for a while), but this time round it was the height of breeding season, and there were thousands and thousands of elephant seals taking up every available spot of space.
Amorous males were duelling in the sea, largely ignored by the females on the beach as far as I could tell, who seemed very busy napping, or lazily throwing sand around. It was quite the sight, and worth stopping for.
6. Take a Tour of Piedras Blancas Light Station
Visible from the elephant seal rookery of the same name, we didn’t actually manage to get on a tour of the Piedras Blancas Light Station on this trip as the tour times didn’t work with our schedule. So the closest we got to it was the locked gate on the highway.
Still, if you are able to get onto one of the two hour tours (timing and information here) we’d recommend you do so. A lighthouse has been found on this spot since 1875, and today this whole area is designated as an Outstanding National Area, as well as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s on our list for our next trip through for sure!
7. Walk on San Simeon Pier and Visit the Coastal Discovery Centre
On the beach front opposite the Hearst Castle entrance is the San Simeon Pier, found on the Willliam Randolph Hearst State Beach. Yep, that Hearst chap has his own beach.
It’s not notable for anything in particular in terms of length or age, but it is a pretty pier, popular for fishing, and the beach is very nice. There’s also a nice Coastal Discovery Centre in the parking lot with very enthusiastic staff who told us all about the marine life in the area. It’s worth popping into, and they also run a variety of activities including beach walks and geocaching adventures.
8. Marvel at Nitt Witt Ridge
Back in Cambria, we visited a building that could be described as a poor-man’s Hearst Castle, although to do so is perhaps to do it an injustice.
Maybe an alternative Hearst Castle? I don’t know. Whatever, you should make time on your trip to Cambria to take a tour of Nitt Witt Ridge, where one man spent a lifetime building a house out of, well, whatever he could find.
Construction materials include abalone shells, beer cans and drift wood – whatever Arthur Beal, who spent fifty years building the place, could beg, borrow… or acquire through possibly dubious means. Those bits of Hearst Castle that we saw at the house probably weren’t given knowingly!
After Arthur’s death in 1992 the house was largely abandoned and fell into disrepair, before being taken over privately in 1999 by a hugely enthusiastic chap called Michael and his wife, who runs tours of the property by appointment.
The tour, which was just the two of us and Michael, was a fascinating insight into the life of “Art” Beal, who clearly polarised opinion during his lifetime. Michael, despite having run tours for over a decade and receiving almost no support from state authorities, is hugely enthusiastic both about the property and it’s creator, and the tour was both fun and moving. When you visit Cambria, do make time to do this – you won’t regret it!
Eating and Drinking in Cambria:
Wow, where to begin. Well, Jess is going to go into more detail on the food of Cambria in her upcoming post, but suffice to say, we were very well fed during our time here.
Highlights for me included the dinners we had at the Black Cat Bistro (intimate and homey) and Madeline’s Restaurant (romantic, classic dining), as well as the two experiences we had dining with Linn.
Started as a fruit growers in the seventies, Linn’s has now expanded to restaurants, pie making (over 400 pies baked every day!), preserve creation and more. You’ve got to do two things – try a slice of Olallieberry Pie at Linn’s Easy as Pie Cafe (amazing!), and have breakfast at Linn’s Restaurant, where the pancakes are excellent. Not to be missed.
It’s not all food of course. California is famous for wine, and Cambria has its fair share of vineyards. We visited the Stolo Family winery, who produce some fantastic wines, including a Syrah which is grown closer to sea than most. I’m by no means a wine expert, but we certainly enjoyed the tasting – so much so that we picked up a bottle to take home with us.
If wine isn’t your bag, don’t panic, Cambria has you covered. In the centre of town you’ll find the Cambria Beer Co, a micro-brewery who have been brewing craft beers since 2012.
We had a tasting flight of all the beer they have on tap (six at time of writing), and very much enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the bar, full of people playing board games, chatting and making new friends over some excellent beers. Whilst they didn’t have an IPA (I love a bit of hops), they did have some excellent Porters, and we had a lot of fun testing all the beers and seeing which we preferred. The beers change regularly, so drop in and see what they have on offer!
Accommodation in Cambria
We stayed at the lovely El Colibri Hotel and Spa, a luxury boutique hotel that was a short walk from Moonstone beach, and a 2 minute drive from downtown Cambria.
This was a really wonderful spot, with gorgeous rooms, a spa bath and welcoming staff. Our two nights here were comfortable and quiet.
If you’re heading to Cambria, we’d very much recommend the El Colibri Hotel and Spa. However, there are plenty more options to choose from, across a range of budgets.
We were hosted by Visit Cambria for our trip to Cambria, who provided us with our accommodation, meals, fuel expenses, and entry to attractions. Opinions remain our own. Speaking of which, Jess has also written a detailed post on Cambria, so check that out for even more ideas on what to do!