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Cambria : A poem of pine-covered hills, crashing surf, of velvet headlands and peaceful pasturelands

<i> Times Travel Editor </i>

Got an urge to shift out of high gear, put life in neutral and do a detour around the insanity of the cities?

The secret password is Cambria, and while I’m reluctant to mention this pleasant little village (pop. 3,500), the locals are doggedly campaigning to lure travelers, which leaves them facing this dilemma: If business booms, so will the population.

Visitors express a desire to remain and this could destroy the spiritual appeal of this obscure little town that’s caught in the cleavage of verdant hills that rise and fall barely a whisper from the Pacific.

Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco and roughly 10 miles from Hearst Castle, Cambria is a town where cattle graze in pastures that sweep to the shoulders of Main Street.

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Surrounded by working ranches, farms and vineyards and spiced with Victorian homes, weathered barns and sagging fences, Cambria is pastoral and peaceful and out of step with the pressures that exist in the cities. Barely 30 miles from San Luis Obispo, it is a lifetime removed from the daily grind of urban anxieties.

Cambria is a poem of pine-covered hills and crashing surf, of velvet headlands and peaceful pasturelands--a symphony of sights and scents and ocean rumblings. Friendly, lonely, wild, haunting. White surf pours against the shores while pines on the hillside lean at the beckoning of the wind. In springtime wildflowers carpet the hills and cattle move lethargically through deep grass while the song of birds is heard across the valley.

Sometimes the fog rolls in, obscuring everything. On these evenings smoke rises from chimneys, signaling that all is well in the gentle village of Cambria. And when morning comes? For sensitive souls it is, well . . . a spiritual awakening.

Cambria was settled in the 19th Century with the arrival of cattlemen and lumbermen; it was a major seaport until the railroad put an end to coastal shipping. Later when the highway joined Cambria with the north and south, Cambria Pines Lodge flung open its doors and the birth of tourism had arrived. Lots were sold. Main Street was laid out. Still, with all its progress, Cambria has remained its old-fashioned self.

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Don’t be misled. This isn’t one of those tank towns that’s out of step with the rest of the world. It has its chic shops and chic restaurants, but the pace is slow and neighbors appear to care for neighbors and not a single soul covets success if the result of that success means self-destruction.

Success is measured differently in a town that prides itself on low-gear living. The relaxed life style is the reason Cambria’s residents and shopkeepers came here in the beginning.

Although only moments off busy California 1, Cambria is divorced from the rush of life that passes so near. It has its characters and its joys and occasional disappointments, but mile for mile, life in Cambria is sensible and meaningful and few would return to the fears and frustrations they left behind.

--Certainly not Bill Wagnon, the ex-TV producer who fled Los Angeles three years ago for the small-town atmosphere that Cambria affords. Wagnon beams. “Here when I pass folks on the streets it’s ‘Hi, Bill. Hi, Bill.’ That doesn’t happen in Beverly Hills.”

--Certainly not Kathe Tanner who, with her husband, Richard, operates the popular Upper Crust Bakery on Main Street and pens a column for the local newspaper. In a recent essay she spoke of leaving Los Angeles: “Most of us weren’t even aware that we were dissatisfied with our big-town lives till we came here. Most of us took severe cuts in pay because we thought life would be better here . . . and we were right.” She describes the “marvelous, unique sense of community” and tells how Cambria “pulls together whenever there’s trouble--a warmth and caring and deep feeling on behalf of your neighbors, even when you don’t know them well.”

And certainly all this is true of Woody and Marilyn Ross who delivered themselves from Southern California several years ago to operate the little Moonstone Inn that faces the ocean near town. The Moonstone (the only seven-room lodging with four-star status in the nation) is one of those gems that surfaces rarely along the world’s frenzied highways. Actor MacLean Stevenson stopped off for a single night a couple of years ago and remained for eight, which should give you an inkling of its charm. Other celebrities have sung its praises, and for good reason. Wine, cheese and bread sticks are delivered to guest rooms on $2,500 silver trays and breakfast arrives on other priceless silver settings. Obviously, such attention doesn’t come cheap. Figure on $72.50/$82.50 a day for two.

At the Moonstone Inn guests snooze on $1,000 mattresses beneath $300 bedspreads; they are provided with terry-cloth robes, a library containing 100 movies (from “Terms of Endearment” to “High Noon” and Bogey’s classic “Casablanca.”); there are newspapers, paperbacks, color TVs, coffee makers, hot spiced cider mixes, Atari games, flowers and candy, all this in what appears at first glance as just another hotel.

Rooms are a jungle of planters. And in place of those gawd-awful plastic cups found so frequently in other motel rooms, the Moonstone supplies its guests with cut crystal, and on chilly afternoons guests immerse themselves in a Jacuzzi while studying the ocean and Cambria’s spectacular sunsets.

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The Proprietors

But primarily what draws guests to the Moonstone are its proprietors. Beaming Woody, who regales everyone with stories of his hobo travels during the Great Depression, answers the door with a bear hug and a handshake and remarks to the newcomer: “This is your first step into heaven.”

One guest left behind this note: “How does one adjust to normal life after being petted, spoiled and pampered at the Moonstone Inn?”

It isn’t easy.

Not unless one drops by the J. Patrick House, which is operated by winsome Molly Lynch. Tucked away among pines on Lodge Hill and only moments from the village of Cambria, it is without question the prettiest B&B; on the entire Central California coast--an early American-style country inn surrounded by pines.

Unlike so many B&Bs; these days, here the visitor isn’t obliged to share the owner’s home. Instead, guest rooms are tucked away in a new and tastefully furnished country home behind Molly’s inviting doll house, which is where the wine/cheese routine is observed each afternoon and breakfast is served with the warmth of a fire and true hospitality.

Each Has a Fireplace

The guest rooms--each is done in impeccable good taste and each features its own full bath and fireplace--are without fault.

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Being Irish, Molly named the rooms after counties in Ireland. And whether one chooses the Galway, Tipperary or another, the J. Patrick House will prove enchanting. And so, for that matter, will pretty Molly Lynch. So if one is searching for country atmosphere--rocking chairs, thick carpets, hooked rugs and a warm fire in a hillside setting--you’ll not be disappointed with the J. Patrick House with its bundles of peace at $65 a night.

In the same general area, Darryl Gorman operates the two-story Pickford House with its old-fashioned bar, restaurant and player piano. Each of the Pickford’s eight guest rooms (three with fireplaces) is named after early film folk (Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks and so forth). The Clara Bow room features a hand-carved bed (circa 1890) and there are pull-chain toilets and claw-foot tubs. (Rates run $60/$90.)

Operated by Doctor

Then there’s Shaw House, a B&B; with six rooms and three baths (summer rates $45/$55) that’s operated by Cambria’s doctor. Out front an 80-year-old redwood sheds its shade alongside a flag announcing that Cambria is “the friendly town.”

A leading character, 87-year-old Art Beale, lives in a house he built from salvage junk, seashells, bottles and other throw-away items on a knoll known as Nitwit Ridge. Beale is one of the regulars at Richard and Kathe Tanner’s Upper Crust Bakery, which turns out wonderful breads, pies, cakes and pastries.

The Tanners have an incurable romance going with Cambria, and so when California 1 reopened after a disastrous landslide, the Upper Crust donated a 52-foot cake for the celebration. One need only follow one’s nose to the Upper Crust, which specializes in sourdough blueberrry muffins and muffins filled with fresh fruit and yogurt.

Shops Line the Streets

Antique shops line the streets of Cambria. There’s Patrick Pullen’s Upstairs Downstairs that displays everything from a Victorian dresser to such bizarre items as a python’s skin. Pullen’s digs are just across Burton Drive from Seekers, the village’s leading art gallery where browsers discover gifts ranging from handmade marbles ($10) to a magnificent stained-glass treasure that sold recently for $15,000.

Imported dolls are a big item at Perriwinkle’s while toy miniatures are featured at the Soldier Factory on Main Street. Jack Scuby, who has never been to war, has shipped hundreds of thousands of toy soldiers to collectors around the world. His 22-man U.S. Army band is valued at $3,000 and he figures his set of 12 horsemen would fetch $3,500. An ex-printer, Scuby also produces chess sets and Christmas tree ornaments.

Five miles east of Cambria, along Santa Rosa Creek Road, visitors line up at John and Renee Linn’s inviting Fruit Bin to load up on vine-ripened berries, homemade pies and preserves as well as local handicrafts.

Vacationers dine at the Brambles House, the Grey Fox Inn and Ian’s restaurant (which is rated excellent), while those in a rush scoop up sandwiches at Bob and Jan’s Deli on Main Street.

Pinedorado Celebration

Thousands crowd Cambria on Labor Day for the town’s Pinedorado celebration featuring bands, riders and floats. Other vacationers are steered to the minuscule community of Harmony four miles south of Cambria where Jim Lawrence, a retired CPA from Southern California, stopped off one day to buy a piano and ended up purchasing the entire town.

While that certainly sounds impressive, the fact is Harmony isn’t all that big. Only one block long with barely 18 residents, Harmony is a refuge for artists and dairy cows. Indeed, the cows graze to the very doorstep of Harmony’s hall, its post office and silversmith’s shop.

Bearded, gray-haired Lawrence, who could easily pass for country singer Kenny Rogers, commutes daily to Harmony from Cambria, helping to run a cafe and appearing regularly at weddings performed in a chapel that once served as a cheese warehouse.

Royal Treasures

Treasures turned out by silversmith Randy Stromsoe have found their way into the hands of Mexico’s President Miguel de la Madrid, Kings Hassan of Morocco, Olav of Norway, Hussein of Jordan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany.

Life in Harmony--as in Cambria--is a symphony. Each Sunday, Memorial Day through Labor Day, concerts are held in a garden setting. Visitors are urged to join in, to sing along and to forget the real world of freeways and cities.

A nice dream.

For reservations:

--The Moonstone Inn, 5860 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria 93428. Telephone (805) 927-4815.

--Molly Lynch’s J. Patrick House, 2990 Burton Drive, Cambria 93428. Telephone (805) 927-3812.

--Pickford House, 2555 MacLeod Way, Cambria 93428. Telephone (805) 927-8619.

--Shaw House, 2476 Main St., Cambria 93428. Telephone (805) 927-3222.


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