Travel: Cambria, jewel of California’s Central Coast

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This villa, located on the sprawling Hearst Castle estate, is one of many unique delights on California's Central Coast. Nine miles south lies Moonstone Beach and Cambria, a pristine coastal hideaway reminiscent of an earlier California. Courtesy Hearst Castle¨/California State Parks

When traveling, how often do you wish you had had the foresight to spend a couple more days than intended at a destination you had returned to after decades away?

That’s how I felt about pristine Moonstone Beach, a leftover from California’s halcyon days before monotonous chain hotels, corporate fast food outlets and tiresome box stores blotted the landscape and called time on the golden era of travel.

Fortunately, that is not the case along California’s Central Coast, where 80 miles of coastline beckons visitors to view the hefty Elephant seals at their secluded “rookery” near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, or take a tour of one of California’s most cherished destinations, Hearst Castle. The magnificent relic of William Randolph Hearst’s collaboration with architect Julia Morgan features the 115-room main house, plus guesthouses, pools and eight acres of cultivated gardens.

All of this lies just nine miles north of Moonstone Beach and Cambria, where this journey starts. I have been guilty of not returning to this pristine hideaway for many years. This uncommercialized, enticing village reveals vintage California with a refreshing twist.

A small town of 6,426 residents with a few distinguished gray hairs (the median age is 52) boasts more than 80 art galleries and antique stores. The shops are filled with treasures, from recycled car license plates designed to resemble collages to specialty beads.

The area is great for foodies, with a collection of excellent restaurants such as the Sow’s Ear, Wild Ginger, Madelines and the Black Cat that are reflective of the “46 West” wineries that wrap around Paso Robles. Chic boutiques such as Allocco’s Italian Bakery and Wildwood at the corner of Main and Bridge are reminiscent of New England. Then there is the Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Seafood on Moonstone Beach Drive, where credit cards are not accepted and neither are reservations (that’s why guests line up at the entrance before the restaurant opens for dinner).

Bereft of parking meters or outdoor advertising, you will find Cambria a wonderful place of hiking as well. The 440-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, billed as one of the “last untouched public open spaces” with inspiring views of California’s Central coast, is a good place to start.

For lodging, the Fogcatcher Inn is a short walk along the nearly deserted beach, where a stellar breakfast is served daily featuring handmade waffles (you make them yourself), four kinds of Santa Barbara coffee, two kinds of scrambled eggs, and a stunning array of cinnamon twists and sweet rolls from the aforementioned bakery, Allocco’s. Should you have your pet with you, there is a Guest Pet Packet (no kidding!) with a welcome letter from the manager addressed to your pet and information about dog parks, pet-friendly beaches and restaurants and, to top it all off, a comfy, oversized bed for your canine companion. There’s even a pet information sheet to leave at the front desk. If you walk your dog to Cambria’s West Village, you won’t want to miss Maddie Mae’s Pet Pantry for holistic snacks and chic accessories.

Then there are the mythical moonstones scattered along the beach that give the scenic hideaway its name. (For those geology buffs out there, the scientific name for the stones is chalcedony.) These translucent white stones, polished and tumbled by the surf along the rugged coast, are thought to “arouse the most tender of passions.” That’s according to the ancient Greeks, who also believed the stones possessed the power to foretell the future and guide one to make the right decision. You will discover them walking along the beaches from San Simeon Cove south to Moonstone Beach. In fact, I still possess one I collected from the beach many years ago. As I re-discovered the pleasant shops, galleries and restaurants of this historic art colony, it was enough to make me wonder if it had beckoned me to return.

For more information about Cambria and Moonstone Beach, visit www.cambriachamber.org.

Pamela Price is the co-author of “Day Trips from Los Angeles.” www.globepequot.com