CAMBRIA, Calif. — A castle is what lures travelers here for the first time. After that, they come back just to relax in this friendly country village.
Not that Cambria is a remote rural crossroads with only cows and cats to keep you company.
Scenic Pacific Coast Highway is the heavily traveled path to its door. A stream of cars is always headed just up the road to Hearst Castle, one of California's most popular attractions.
After a two-hour tour of that 100-room hilltop estate, some folks continue north on California 1 to Big Sur, Carmel and the Monterey Peninsula. Others return to Cambria to get something to eat or spend the night.
And that's when the love affair begins.
Spectacular Piece of Coast
A detour from the busy state highway takes you along Moonstone Beach, where surf resounds on the pebbly shore and tides polish the milky gemstones that gave the name to this spectacular piece of the Pacific Coast.
It's part of San Simeon State Beach, and strollers rest on benches to watch the antics of sea otters and brown pelicans. Along Moonstone Beach Drive, within sight and smell of the sea, are lodgings where visitors wish they could stay forever.
That road leads inland across the Coast Highway to meet Cambria's Main Street. It curves like the shape of a boomerang at the bottom of pine-covered hills and connects the two parts of town that are known as West Village and East Village.
Closest to the beach and newest in appearance is the west section, where Main Street is wide and bordered by gift shops, art galleries, restaurants and real estate offices. Cambria's easygoing life style lures many retirees, who share the town with ranching families and other longtime residents.
Park free at the curb to explore the stores. Best known is the Soldier Factory, with its armies of toy soldiers in plain pewter and hand-painted uniforms. The miniature warriors are the creations of the late Jack Scuby, whose family continues to make and sell his collectors' items worldwide.
Also visit Seekers, literally a museum of ceramic, porcelain and wooden crafts by contemporary American artists. On adjoining Cornwall Street, Windancer Gallery has a dozen kinds of wind chimes as well as door harps and weather vanes. Then go next door to colorful Cambria Kites. There's more fun at Foul Play, a shop on Arlington Street with mystery books, games and gifts.
Bitters, stout and beer are on tap in the Golden Lion Pub, where you can order steak and kidney pie and other English fare, or American sandwiches. Many more restaurants are in East Village, the older part of town.
As you drive there along Main Street, pull in at the 1881 Santa Rosa School, now a gallery with changing exhibits featuring local artists. Nearby are Cambria's century-old jail house and the early day glass beacon of a lighthouse up the coast.
Main Street narrows in the east section of town, where new structures mingle with buildings that date to the late 1800s. The Upper Crust Bakery appears rather run down, but it is a rendezvous.
Some favorite restaurants and some of the smartest shops are along Burton Way. Notable is another Seekers, this one devoted to artistic glass treasures. More fine crafts are in the Moonstone and Quicksilver galleries. The Old Telephone Co. has old crank models restored for the push-button age.
Hungry visitors have plenty of choices, including Brambles and Rigdon Hall, two dinner houses that face each other on Burton Way. Grey Fox Inn is steps away and open for brunch on weekends, as well as for lunch and dinner, except Wednesdays.
Center Street crosses Burton Way to Ian's, named for the chef/owner whose nouvelle cuisine is often recommended as the best in town. Go for Sunday brunch or early bird and regular dinners.
Other choices in East Village include the Sow's Ear and Mustache Pete's. Barbara's and Creekside Gardens Cafe draw diners into the little Redwood Shopping Center for breakfast and lunch.
Seafood fills the menu at the Sea Chest oyster bar and restaurant overlooking Moonstone Beach. Not far away is Cambria's all-you-can-eat establishment, the Chuck Wagon, with bargain lunch and dinner prices that pack the place.
North on California 1, where Moonstone Beach Drive meets the Coast Highway, relax at the Hamlet at Moonstone Gardens. It's a restaurant, wine bar, entertainment lounge and cactus garden all in one. Succulents are for sale in the garden nursery. Cambria is blissfully without a single fast-food chain restaurant.
Lodgings around town are as varied as the eateries. At the south end of Moonstone Beach Drive you'll be pampered at the nine-unit Moonstone Inn, which has earned the Automobile Assn. of America's four-diamond rating. Deluxe rooms with a king-size bed, fireplace and Jacuzzi are $125 a night, including wine and cheese and continental breakfast. Call (805) 927-4815.