Escape to Cambria by the Sea with three-day itinerary
Vacations affect your happiness and planning one can produce enough positive vibes to justify a three-day getaway. And, according to a 2010 New York Times article, the effects of vacation anticipation can boost happiness for up to eight weeks.
While I have led tours to New York City, Europe, and the central coast many times, I still get positive endorphins as I did drafting those trips more than 20 years ago. The key? Planning and dreaming about vacations before departure.
With today’s busyness and hectic pace, many long for sounds of seagulls, rhythm of the waves, sweet smells of pine forests, beach or bluff walks, and air as clean as mother nature intended.
So when a three-day window arose for Geena and I to enjoy Cambria, California, a pre-planned agenda helped ensure a relaxed, no hassle weekend. And, to top it off, planning and anticipating the vacation for a few weeks beforehand may be even more important to a feeling of relaxation than just the days away from home.
Cambria is a sleepy “just off the beach” town a few miles north of Morro Bay, Cayucos and six miles south of San Simeon and Hearst Castle fame on California’s central coast.
Cambria’s pristine beaches, tide pools, wine tasting and forest, bluff and other docent-led Fiscalini Ranch walks are the perfect slow-pace agenda we wanted and longed for. We knew a leisurely drive could easily take a visitor to the Piers Blancas Light Station, Paso Robles wine tours, the Edna Valley and SLO County wineries or the college town of San Luis Obispo. But Cambria’s beauty, beaches, paths and slow pace was calling.
We wanted to escape to Cambria and take in its natural wonders.
And, central California visitors or Central Valley residents will tell you, there is PLENTY TO DO during a three-day mini vacation in Cambria, thank you.
Tip No. 1: Get to Paso early for a winery pit stop
While our Cambria getaway did not start until 9 a.m. Friday, we took care of a few last minute details, grabbing a coffee and pastry at a local java shop on the drive out of town. If you love the aroma of tea, coffee or a warm beverage on a cold morning, this adds to the anticipation and promise of a great start. In fact, the two plus-hour drive from Fresno to Paso Robles was made all the better with some hot black gold and a light, flaky and buttery delicacy.
Paso Robles wine tasting teaser:
We left early enough to arrive in Paso Robles and had time to stop in at one of the area’s wineries: Giornata Wines just off the CA 101 and Highway 46 interchange. They are a part of the new Tin City development. We called ahead and made sure winemaker Brian and/or wife, Stephanie, Terrizzi had the winery open. We were in luck and spent an hour tasting and purchasing a bottle of our favorite Sangiovese. We love their award-wining California-style Italian juice.
However, while there are hundreds of winery choices in the Paso area, and acknowledging Tin City is a destination itself, that was not our purpose for this trip.
Cambria: Day 1
One of the best feelings about arriving in Cambria is the sight of its wooded hills and tall Monterey pines. Motorists can enter the town via the first stoplight at Ardath Drive/Main Street as they travel the California Highway 1 (Cabrillo Highway) heading north.Turn right on Main Street to travel the whole town of Cambria, taking in the charm of its 19th century cottages, motels, turn of the century shops and quaint character in Cambria East.
Cambria history interlude
The villages of Cambria took their shape in the 1860s, and as lumber, ranching and mining interests increased in the region, the village became more prosperous, according to the Cambria Historical Society. And late in the sixties, it adopted the more dignified name of Cambria.
But it was not until Swiss dairymen set the pace for a major industry during 1880s that prosperity came to the region. By the turn of the century, Cambria was shipping over a ton of butter per day to San Francisco via the wharf at San Simeon. Cheese production is said to have averaged over a half-ton daily.
I appreciate Cambria’s past and enjoy the stories of settlers and their influence. Yet, our planned full walking tour of the historic East Village will have to wait for a future visit.
Cambria is divided in to two villages: Cambria East and Cambria West.
However, while we noticed spots on the walking tour map we wanted to visit, our first stop on this trip was the weekly Friday Cambria farmer’s market, just west of Main and Cambria, across the street from the Cambria Public Library at 1000 Main. This is about the center of town and a great way to meet the locals, area artisans and farmers. We spent over an hour wandering, chatting and generally slowing our pace. Even though we were there in mid January, a surprisingly wide variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers, gourmet cheese, crackers and wine, local shellfish, coffee and fresh squeezed juices were available.
Cambria businesses, shops and restaurants have quaint and charming facades, drawing the visitor to indoor and outdoor spaces.
Cambria East Village is where visitors will find shops, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries as well as Victorian houses dating back to the 1870s and its nature reserves. This is a place to take a deep breath and maybe enjoy the Historical Cambria Walking Tour. We would return to its antique and specialty shops on Saturday.
Arrive in Cambria on Fridays by 2:30 p.m. for their farmer’s market. Buy local fresh produce, dairy, seafood, flowers, nuts, wine and more.
The Cambria farmer’s market is on Main across the street from the public library.
Cambria West Village has vibrant artist community including designers, artists, craftspeople and you will find special treasures you will not see anywhere else. There are no chain stores or restaurants. They along with the Farmer’s Market, as well as day spas and wellness centers are all locally owned and operated. You will be charmed by the eclectic array of shops from antiques to apparel plus unique gifts and specialty shops.
The key to a successful Cambria trip is to keep the itinerary simple. Walk the town, browse the shops with a coffee, tea or bag of confectionary in hand. We slowly made our way through the art galleries, local artisan, specialty, antique and craft shops.
After an hour getting reacquainted with village life, we drove the short distance back to Cutruzzola’s Tasting Room and tasting room at the edge of West Village near Windsor and Main Street, just off Highway 1. While the tasting room is in Cambria, their estate vineyard is just outside of town, only a few miles from the waters’ edge.
We met Reyna Jonas at the tasting room who shared the Cutruzzola story and wines with us. I was especially impressed with Cutruzzola’s Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
We spent over an hour listening to Reyna talk about the passion of local winemaker Stephen Dooley of Stephen Ross Cellars who has used time spent in the Napa Valley, the Australian outback, and the South African Cape to helped shape Cutruzzola’s wines. Owners Francis Cutruzzola and his partner Lisa Miller, longtime wine connoisseurs, moved from Sonoma County to the Paso Robles wine region, falling in love with the landscape, the people, and most importantly, the wine.
They have two acres of Riesling and five acres of Pinot Noir in small blocks, utilizing multiple clones to develop depth and complexity in the wines. These are fabulous sipping and food wines. I am very impressed with Cutruzzola Vineyards and highly recommend these award-wining wines that score 90+ and above.
Cutruzzola estate Riven Rock Vineyard vineyard is located in a coastal valley just outside the town center, lies 6.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean and just east of the town of Cambria. Seven acres of vines grace south-facing slopes in a cool climate frequented by ocean breezes and morning fog. Lean, rocky, marine-origin soils and steep hillsides produce very small yields of extremely concentrated fruit, while the maritime influence keeps the acids fresh and vibrant.
Tip No. 2: Slow your pace, set awhile with a coffee, tea or juice and people watch
We decided to meet up at Linn’s Restaurant in East Village for a coffee and pastry. And while we sat at a little table near the baked goods counter, it was so good to just sit and people watch. No agenda, no bustle. Just people watching, sipping and relaxing.
With art hanging close by at The Vault and other galleries, soft music playing, and two more days ahead of us, we spoke of a walk along Moonstone Beach, a leisurely hike on Fisalini Ranch, and wine tasting. It’s good to anticipate, even when its as close as tomorrow.
With daydreaming done and a visit to a couple of antique dealers discovering toys, dishes and furniture from our youths, we headed to Moonstone Beach and a walk along its famed boardwalk.
Tip No. 3: Walk Moonstone Beach Boardwalk
The Moonstone Beach Boardwalk is where a Cambria visit should begin and end. During its length, visitors will be guided along its 2.85-mile wooden boardwalk on an easy slope and with many spots to sit on benches, sink your feet into the sand or water or watch from the bluffs the surf, sea and ocean life. With viewing platforms and only 40 feet of elevation change, this is a must for anyone.
Geena and I walked hand in hand, listening to the seals, egrets and rhythm of the waves. We explored a few of the tide pools as well, finding sea anemones, spiny purple sea urchins, snails and crabs.
And with plenty of restaurants, motels and picnic areas, we ended up getting a drink at a couple of spots along the Moonstone Drive over the weekend. Try the Sea Chest Restaurant for great oysters and a glass of Champagne or Sauvignon Blanc. We also visited Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill for a bowl of clam chowder and a citrusy zest of a Riesling. The lemon and lime cuts the silky, rich broth and starch in the potatoes. Cheers to good eating and relaxing with spectacular ocean views.
To get to the trailhead: From San Luis Obispo, drive 34.2 miles north up Highway One to Cambria. Continue through three lights and turn left at the traffic light onto Windsor Boulevard. Drive a hundred feet and make an immediate right onto Moonstone Beach Drive. Go 0.1 miles and turn left into the trailhead free parking area just past El Colibri Hotel. If you are coming from the north, Windsor Boulevard is 7.2 miles south of Hearst Castle Road.
Checking in to Cambria’s Fireside Inn on Moonstone Beach Drive
With dinner still two hours hence, we checked in to our hotel: The Fireside Inn right on Moonstone Beach Drive, overlooking the ocean and an entrance to the boardwalk.
With the USA recently posting Moonstone Beach as one of California’s Top 10 best, we just had to stay within walking distance. Nestled just off Highway 1, the Fireside Inn is perfect spot to get away from it all. Just footsteps away from the beach, our Superior King Oceanfront room had a fireplace, spa tub, and patio overlooking the ocean.
We loved lounging in the lush bathrobes, sipping in-room gourmet coffee. No problem getting a great night’s sleep on a Sleeper Mattress and luxurious bedding. In fact, a late night dig in the hot spa poolside was also a bonus!
Dinner No. 1: Madelines on Main Street
Highly recommended, we loved our evening at Madeline’s Restaurant in Cambria. Not only did our hotel recommend it but others in town as well. A wine shop and wine club by day (a good one at that), and fine dining each night, we were greeted at the Madeline’s door by owner and Chef David and seated. Loved the linen tables, finely appointed with flowers.
I took a few moments to browse the wine tasting shop as would return on my own. Many of the wines and dinner menu items are based upon locally sourced and seasonably available products. Chef Dave is proud to say “the best organic food and local wine is what’s grown closest to you – and it tastes better!” He’s been open for 13 years and by the way the restaurant was bustling and full, I’d say he will be on Main Street for some time to come.
Light music played in the back ground as we enjoyed our five course Chef’s Tasting Menu ($110 per couple). We added the wine flight ($40 per couple) and let our host guide us through local foods and wine tasting. We enjoyed our evening and recommend Madeline’s Restaurant and appreciate owner David Stoothoff’s hospitality.
First course: Caucus Red Abalone (Panko crusted, topped with lemon butter capers over arugula salad. This was paired with a 2015 Andrew Adam Pinot Gris from Edna Valley. Perfect. Second course: Wild forged Chanterelle mushroom soup (unspeakable deliciousness) with a Baker and Brain 2015 Grüner Veltliner from Edna Valley.
Third course: Pan-seared link cod topped with compound butter, blood orange and saffron sauce with creamy risotto and wilted greens. The 2014 Alban Central Coast Viognier from Paso Robles was outstanding.
Fourth course: Venison tenderloin with red wine jus and shallots with mashed butternut squash and seasonal vegetables. Chef David paired this with a 2014 Line Shack Cabernet from Paso Robles. The tenderloin was fantastic but when we didn’t like the pairing, he poured a glass of the 2014 Kamal Cabernet Sauvignon El Pomar District. Oh my, my food pairing became an immediate winner. Fifth course: We had a choice of homemade desserts and our choice of aperitif.
We had a most fabulous dinner! The dishes were all excellent and plated with attention to aesthetics, plus each side dish was delicious in its own right. All around attention to detail and the service was excellent. Definitely would return and try Chef Dave’s other seasonal menu pairings. Reservations are recommended.
Cambria: Day two
With a hot cup of coffee to go from the Fireside Inn breakfast room, I walked right over to Moonstone Beach boardwalk to catch the last rays of sunrise and watch day two begin. There is nothing quite like morning java with dawn and the beach to start one’s day. And while this mesmerizing scene could keep me there for hours, we were excited for a leisurely hike.
Tip No. 4: Hike the Fiscalini Ranch forest or bluff trails
A weekend highlight for us has to be our Fiscalini Ranch Preserve docent-led walk. While there are many to choose from, we met our guide Brian for a Fiscalini Ranch hike on the corner of Tipton and Warren in the Lodge Hill area of Cambria.
We spent over 2 1/2 hours exploring the mostly level trails through through the Monterey pine and coastal oak forest. He was so knowledgeable about the geological, historical background of the area and most helpful with the flora and fauna of the preserve.
The hours flew by as we strolled along paths with fresh wood chips. A few spots of standing water and mud but very walkable. At first Brian shared about the plant and animal life in the forest but weaved in appropriate talks on poisonous plants, tree insect and disease issues as well as information on native peoples and their history. We loved the walk from forest, to grasslands to amazing ocean views from the bluffs!
As it was January, much of his talk centered on mushrooms and other forest flora. His information was encyclopedia-eek and very personable and relational.
And while I absolutely loved finding and talking about nearly 20 variety of mushrooms on our walk, Brian brought us to where at least 10,000 Monarch butterflies congregated during their annual migration. At times hundreds were clumped together and suddenly they took off to fill the sky with their orange and yellow hues. This was a spectacular moment!
Be sure to read and make plans to sign up for one of five docent-led Fiscalini Ranch walks. These include a bluff, forest loop, grasslands and loop, special interests walks and school-related walks. Download a Fiscalini Ranch map for an idea of where you will travel. January through April are great months to return to the ranch as every couple of weeks the flora and fauna change dramatically. For instance, February – April are whale watching months.
After a yummy taco lunch from Boni’s Tacos, who by the way sets up on the corner of Main and Burton, we spent some time in Fermentations Wine Shop and The Vault Gallery. These are great examples of locals celebrating what they do best and we laud their efforts.
There are 10 wineries from Morro Bay to San Simeon along the Pacific Coast Wine Trail. Cambria alone has five wineries. Can you name all five? Four of them have Main Street addresses and the fifth, Stolo Family Vineyards is on Santa Rosa Creek Rd.
Tip No. 5: Wine tasting in Cambria
Besides Cutruzzola Vineyards I mentioned earlier, we also visited drove out to Stolo Family Vineyards. We met up with Tina, the tasting room manager, and had a fabulous time chatting with her about the Stolo story and wines on a most gorgeous day.
Tina shared how owners Don and Charlene Stolo’s desire to escape southern California to Cambria to reset and relax. After 20 years of visiting the area, Don and Charlene decided that this would be the place to retire. They found it on the rural road of Santa Rosa Creek and purchased the 53 acres of beautiful coastal land with an 1880s farmhouse and a huge redwood dairy barn in 2002.
The nine-acre Hillside vineyard was planted in 1998 under the guidance of renowned Rhone-style vineyard owner and wine maker, John Alban. Its varietals, clones and rootstock are an ideal match for the climate and soils on the property. This piece and their other vineyards are in a perfect spot to grown Burgundian varietals of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Northern Rhone Syrah. The Stolo wines are fabulous. I picked up two bottles and look forward to pairing them with future TalesoftheCork dinners.
We tasted through many of these and need to return to better appreciate this amazing winery. The property is gorgeous with plenty of room for picnics, parties and group wine tastings. Their first vintage was in 2004 and Stolo Vineyards has scored 90+ for many of their wines. Take the time to drive out to Stolo Family Vineyards and be sure to allow time to wander the property besides time for wine tasting.
With the afternoon winding down, Geena and I headed back into Cambria. We weren’t ready for dinner so a stroll in East Cambria sounded wonderful. It’s easy to stop and chat with shopkeepers and those doing much the same as us. We ended up browsing a couple of antique shops, sat at an outdoor table, chatting over a half sandwich, coffee and a smoothie.
Plus we also fit in a shorter walk along Moonstone Beach boardwalk to beef up our appetites for dinner. And while there were plenty of walkers and joggers, we found lots of spots to lose ourselves in the cool breeze, birdwatch and listen to the seals.
Dinner No. 2: Black Cat Bistro
We heard that chef and owner Mauricio Lopez and chef Joel Magana have created quite a name for Black Cat Bistro since 2002, so dinner day two was anticipated. The eclectic combination of decor and art in the small 45-seat three room bistro was originally a house built in the 1930s.
The Black Cat Bistro in Cambria provides intimate dining appeal with excellent service. Wood floors, lots of colorful fabrics, down pillows adorn the rooms.
Chef has taken great care in not only selecting local farm produce but in pairing the foods with local wines.The restaurant has a Wine Spectator award of excellence the last nine years.
We ordered a three-course meal off the Black Cat Bistro menu, beginning with New England style clam chowder. The Black Cat Bistro’s clam chowder has a reputation for this dish and previously won Best of Show and Chowder/Bisque Award winner at the annual Soupabration in Morro Bay in 2015. This was a no-brainer and definitely a beauty and bowl-licking good bowl!
After the earlier trip to Cutruzzola, I just had to open a Cutruzzola 2013 Pinot Noir Giacomino Reserve. I couldn’t wait to pair it with the chowder, beet gnocchi and duck. Oh my gosh, this wine is a MUST for Pinot lovers.
The Giacomino Reserve is a Wine Enthusiast Editors 94-point wine. The longer barrel aging in new oak is perfect. Aromas and flavors of blackberry and black cherry compliment the toasty oak, savory herb and earthy notes in a lush mouthfeel and finish. This is a fabulous wine that paired very well with all part of my meal.
The beet gnocchi and shrimp dish with shiitake, cremini, saffron martini cream, radicchio, asiago and sage was also tasty. Love the sauce and earthy flavors. The gnocchi was also recommended and did not disappoint.
Finally, the server recommended the Maple Leaf duck breast with mushroom red wine barley risotto, baby boo chop, cherry duck jus and thyme. I’m a weakling for duck so I jumped at it. My mouth still waters thinking about this pairing. Well done chef.
Geena ordered the sea scallops topped with crab, in a corn pudding, tomatillo cream, mushrooms, cilantro and butter. This is perfect for those seeking a top shelf seafood meal. She paired the seafood with a Tablas Creek 2015 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (white Rhone blend). Without a doubt, a delicious pairing. Not counting the Cutruzzola Pinot, the bill was just over $88, plus tip. Again, well done.
Put the Black Cat Bistro on your list of dining to-dos the next time you are in Cambria or on the Central Coast. Reservations are recommended.
Cambria: Day three
The best way to ease into a last day of vacation is to already know where your coffee or tea is coming from, plan a spot to enjoy it and let most of the morning pass without a destination. We enjoyed the ocean view from our Fireside Inn patio. With choices like Sandy’s Deli and Bakery and Cambria Coffee Roasting Company in West village just a couple of minutes away, I didn’t mind driving Moonstone Beach Drive for fresh goodies.
Tip No. 6: Visit elephant seals
A mid January through March visit to Cambria also should include a visit to the elephant seal vista point at San Simeon. This is a great way to explore north of Cambria with not a lot of extra driving, especially if a visitor would like to take one of many Hearst Castle’s tours the same day.
The Elephant seal population along the beach swells to over 17,000 individuals as the come ashore. Females give birth during January and February. These mammals spend eight to ten months in the open ocean each year and migrate thousands of miles twice a year to birth, breed, molt and rest on San Simeon area beaches. Tours to the area are organized by the Friends of the Elephant Seal. For a 30-90 minute docent-led tour and information about the elephant seal rookery, call ahead for reservation and visit them as they assemble at their San Simeon address.
Geena and I drove to the elephant viewing area north of San Simeon. It is only a 20-minute drive from Cambria along some of the most gorgeous coastal scenery. The rolling hills and occasional sightings of whales off the coast or zebras on the Hearst Castle ranch make the 14-mile trip fly by.
The view of the elephant seal rookery from the viewing area north of San Simeon.
There is plenty of free parking at the elephant seal viewing area. Kiosks are stuffed with pamphlets and signage to help visitors understand what they are seeing. Friends of the Elephant Seal provide invaluable information both on site and online. Elephant seal males can weigh in at over 5,000 pounds and are as large as small pickup trucks. With babies born at 70 pounds and nearly four feet long, the whole spectacle is an amazing experience. We’ve been numerous times and are in awe each visit.
Looking ahead: March is also the perfect time to spot whales off the central coast from Morro Bay to Monterey. Book a whale watching excursion out of Morro Bay and/or a tour of the famed Piedras Blancas Light Station. Take the time to visit their websites, call ahead and tour the light station or go whale watching.
In the past we also walked the pier at San Simeon Bay. There are also picnic areas and a great stretch of sandy beach. Be sure to stop in at Sebastian’s Store as well for your deli sandwiches and you might even taste Heart Ranch Winery offerings there.
Tip No. 7: Eat a Red Moose Cookie
Finally, we ate a late picnic lunch we purchased at Sebastian’s on a pullout along Highway 1, overlooking the ocean. Priceless. . . . and arrived back in Cambria by 3 p.m.
However, the coastal retreat weekend would not be complete without a stop at our favorite Cambria shop: Red Moose Cookie Co.
It’s as local as it gets and only two people make, market and sell the amazing Red Moose Cookies from an industrial park of all places. Using only love, butter and the finest ingredients, owners Roger Wall and Caren Hammond use their passion for cooking and baking to create memorable cookies for immediate consumption and for the ride home and beyond.
So with cookies in hand, a bag for the road and freezer once we got home, Geena and I decided on one last stop before driving the 2 1/2 hours back to Fresno.
Tip No. 8: Scout lodging options for next trip
With another visit to Cambria already a given, a little pre ‘next trip’ scouting of one of Cambria’s most talked about lodging was the last item on the ‘check it out list’: Cambria Pines Lodge.
While nestled in the Monterey pine forest area of Cambria, Cambria Pines Lodge encompasses 25 acres or world-class gardens, therapeutic day spa, sparkling outdoor heated pool, soothing hot tub, lovely restaurant. We found the grounds and rooms to offer a peaceful, relaxing setting.
While Moonstone Beach is two miles down Highway 1 and Cambria’s Main Street is at the bottom of the hill, I’d love to stay at the lodge. The rooms are well appointed and the whole place exudes my earlier focus: I want to escape to Cambria and the Pines Lodge is a place to dream that escape.
After touring Cambria Pines Lodge, I could see why many desire its amenities and location despite not being on the famed Moonstone Beach Drive.
Their website promotes itself as a property which provides space for reflection, serenity, and rejuvenation. I walked the gardens and even in winter they provide an inviting respite for travelers in search of peace and inspiration.
Just walking the grounds and hanging out in the common areas of the lodge provided ample reasons why another Cambria trip will be a successful retreat. There is yet so more to be explored in this quiet, serene, clean and peaceful environment.
Yet even with this being said, the Fireside Inn is a fabulous place to stay on Moonstone Beach. But whether you choose this ocean side spot, there are many other Cambria lodging options and hotel packages available on VisitCambriaca.org or on Facebook. Plus Cambria’s Trip Advisor page is also a great way to book hotels.
It will take many more trips to unpack Cambria’s offerings. Whether the villages will be my home base for day excursions or a place to settle for another three-day vacation, Cambria remains on my list as a best central California coastal escape.
For another perspective on a wonderful central coast wine experience with a base in Cambria, read travel writer Irvina Lew’s “Wines, waves and wonder along the Pacific Coast Wine Trail.” And in addition to Moonstone Cellars in Cambria’s West Village, there are a host of other quality winery stops in the area. In fact there are 10 great wineries along the Pacific Coast Wine Trail from Morro Bay to San Simeon.
Traveling to Cambria
Cambria is 240 miles south of San Francisco and 240 miles north of Los Angeles. For information, contact the Cambria Chamber of Commerce (767 Main St.; 805/927-3624). Another great resource when planning a vacation to the central coast is VisitCambriaca.com.
Be sure to read TalesoftheCork’s previous blog post, “Giornata Wines: Story behind top California Italian brand.” And if winemakers, wineries or restaurants are interested in a TalesoftheCork wine and/or food review on the blog, Instagram, Twitter and/or Facebook, please send us a request via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or use DM on social media. TalesoftheCork also offers social media seminars for businesses.