Cambria's Seaside Stage

Cambria's Seaside Stage
Interesting specialty shops, galleries and restaurants, some in buildings that were once homes, are part of the Central Coast town's charm. (MARYLEE SHRIDER / AP)
Foot traffic on the boardwalk began to build as late afternoon slipped into early evening. With shadows deepening and the sun sliding quickly toward the horizon, tourists and townsfolk alike crowded onto the bluff-top walkway, jockeying for a front-row spot overlooking the Pacific.

I was there with the rest of them, eagerly anticipating the Big Show. No one was disappointed. It turned out to be a flaming crimson number that stained the sky and the ocean blood red.

"Well, you know, we don't have a movie theater," Chamber of Commerce Manager Mary Ann Carson said later when I asked her why so many people appear nightly to watch the sunset.

Such is life in Cambria, a town of 6,500 midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Highway 1. If you're looking for night life and shopping malls, Cambria isn't your kind of place.

Before my March visit, I wasn't sure it was my kind of place either. It always seemed a bit precious. Too many faux Tudor storefronts. Too many shops advertising country collectibles.

But when an old friend from the Bay Area suggested it for a get-together, I agreed without hesitation. Regardless of its commercial trappings, I knew Cambria to be a place of stunning scenery and abundant marine life. I could stay away from the shops.

Our plan was simple. We would leave our respective homes at 9 on Friday morning and meet for a late lunch in Cambria. Both of us would drive about 240 miles and arrive at roughly the same time. It seemed like a solid strategy.

It wasn't. Because I live on the far side of Los Angeles, I had to wade through rush-hour traffic. Then I caught two Caltrans projects on U.S. 101. The topper was an overturned van that closed the highway near Carpinteria. My friend Marty had no such problems. She called my cell phone from Cambria just as I was getting into Santa Barbara.

So we went to Plan B, agreeing to meet at our inn and then have lunch. Marty called again with an update on Cambria. Our hotel faced the ocean, and a boardwalk stretched for nearly a mile along the bluffs. Spring flowers lined the walk, and there were tide pools below. Offshore, she could hear a chatty group of sea lions barking.

Marty would go for walk. I would keep driving and try not to be too jealous.

We finally sat down at the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill in Cambria at 4 p.m. We were ravenous. Both of us ordered Moonstone chowder, a rich, hearty stew served in a crusty sourdough bread bowl ($9.95). The restaurant was a nice surprise. It had an eclectic menu and an open, heated patio facing the ocean. We could smell the salt on the air and see brown pelicans and Western gulls sailing on the currents overhead. A crisp glass of Chardonnay helped erase the frustration of the long drive.

Our outdoor perch gave us a good look at our weekend home. Other than a few gnarled Monterey cypresses, there was nothing to block the panoramic view of the sea. We could hear the surf crashing against the rocks.

This stretch of coast is the southernmost part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a protected area that extends north to Marin. People strolling along the beach or bluffs generally can count on seeing furry-faced otters cracking shells for dinner, plump harbor seals lolling on the rocks and giant egrets waiting patiently for unsuspecting fish to swim into view.

Most visitors stay at Moonstone Beach, one of three Cambria commercial areas. East and West villages are inland and are made up of shops, restaurants and myriad real estate offices. Moonstone Beach Drive is a two-mile strip of inns, motels and restaurants, all on the inland side of the highway. The motels, many built in the late '80s, have names like FogCatcher Inn, Pelican Suites and Blue Dolphin Inn. All received a boost during the past year when the California Conservation Corps laid down the Douglas fir boardwalk on nearby bluffs.

Visitors find it so easy to watch the changing moods of the sea that they walk the trail day and night. But the biggest gathering occurs daily at sunset. And tourists aren't the only ones who partake. Cambria residents turn out in force to amble along the beach, run with their dogs or just stand in silent communion.

We were staying at the Fireside Inn, a Best Western motel where our large room ($149 a night, including tax) had two queen beds and a gas fireplace and was cheerily decorated with chintz prints. Like many of the 20 motels along Moonstone Beach, it has a pool and spa and offers continental breakfast. I gazed longingly at Rooms 126, 127 and 128, which face the sea. Next time, I thought.

Dinner that night took us down Moonstone Beach Drive to the Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant. (It doesn't take reservations or credit cards, but you can write a check.) The restaurant, once a cottage, is decorated in what one might call nautical funk, with odds and ends of marine hardware and knickknacks. Thousands of yellowed business cards are attached to the ceiling. At the oyster bar, diners can watch cooks work in an open kitchen. Although it was convenient, I would try another place next time. Flavor was absent from my Scallops à la Sea Chest ($19.50), described in the menu as being sautéed with garlic and capers in wine and butter. Marty wasn't happy with the broiled halibut ($20).

Outside the restaurant we caught the faint smell of kelp and heard the waves breaking. Above, the moonless sky was filled with stars. Despite the late hour, I could see couples walking arm in arm along the boardwalk. Not a bad way to end a day.

Although many Cambria visitors tour Hearst Castle, six miles north on California 1, Marty and I had been there on previous trips. So that wasn't on the agenda Saturday.

We weren't interested in visiting Central Coast wineries either, although more than 30 wineries and 100 vineyards are within about an hour's drive. We decided to take advantage of our proximity to the sea and head north along California 1. To the left of us stretched miles of wind-swept coastline, pocket beaches and tide pools; for the most part, the shore was deserted. To the right were the Santa Lucia Mountains, dotted with coast live oaks and black oaks.

Seven miles north of Cambria we spotted a "Wildlife Viewing" sign. Cars were lined up in a parking lot, and people were pointing and aiming cameras. Curious, we stopped. On the sand below stretched dozens of elephant seal pups sleeping in the midday sun. A volunteer docent from Friends of the Elephant Seal explained that about 1,900 pups were born last winter along a four-mile length of beach here. During breeding season in winter, bulls and females can be seen too. The bulls weigh upward of 4,500 pounds, and the females up to 1,500 pounds. Bloody battles for dominance take place as bulls fight for control of harems of dozens of females.

The next stop on our tour took us to Ragged Point, 22 miles north of Cambria. The Ragged Point Inn, a 22-room hotel, restaurant, gift shop and garden, is perched on top of a cliff 350 feet above the water. We poked through the gift shop, wandered around the garden and followed a trail to the edge of the point. The view was spectacular. All rooms are on the cliff's edge, and although we didn't peek inside any of them, we were told the west side is solid glass.

We worked our way north again, then returned to Cambria for a late lunch at Robin's in East Village. Set in a converted home, Robin's is surrounded by a well-tended garden and has a patio covered with lush trumpet vine. Urns of flowers and vines are painted on the walls in the house. Salads are a specialty, so I chose a sampler ($9.95) that included spicy Sichuan chicken with angel hair pasta, and snap peas with fresh mozzarella and Kalamata olives. Both were delicious.

Robin's is on Burton Drive, a two-block strip that changed my view about Cambria's shops. Next door to the restaurant was a shop and garden, complete with theme areas: kids' garden, butterfly garden, culinary garden. Called Heart's Ease Herb Shop and Gardens, it was in a converted home too. Bouquets of dried flowers--larkspurs, lamb's ears, strawflowers--hung from the ceiling. One room was devoted to garden books, and another was dominated by 19th century New England crocks filled with potpourris.

We found other interesting stores along Burton: a wine specialty shop called Fermentations, and two gift shops, Burton Forge and the Shop Next Door at the Squibb House B&B. Brambles Dinner House, Cambria's best-known restaurant (where entrees run $17.50 to $26.50), is also here.

With the sun fading, we hurried back to Moonstone Beach. We stopped at Leffingwell Landing, a viewpoint near the end of Moonstone Beach Drive. This time no clouds were in the sky, so the rich colors didn't appear. But there were otters and seals, and gulls circling overhead. And a ruddy color in the sky and water. It wasn't the best sunset I've seen. But as the chamber manager had hinted, it was better than a movie.


Rosemary McClure is an editor in the Travel section.