CAMBRIA

The town of Cambria didn't invent the word "quaint," but it has certainly embraced it.

The storefronts along Main Street look like something out of a European village. Inside, they are an eclectic collection: antiques at Birds of a Feather (2020 Main), outdoor decor at the Garden Shed (2024), local art at Allied Arts (880), magic paraphernalia at the Village Wizard (746), rubber stamps at Paws on Main (816), and dozens more.

Once part of the Mission San Miguel lands, the area has experienced its share of identity crises. It fluctuated between mining, lumbering, dairying, ranching and orchard farming. Names came and went — Santa Rosa, Roseville, San Simeon and "Slabtown" (because its buildings were made from slabs of wood) — until Cambria finally stuck in 1870.

Part of that everything-to-everyone past remains even today.

Miles of coastline speak to beachcombers. Whale and seal sightings draw the curious. Wineries and wine shops scatter throughout the surrounding hills and line the streets. Galleries and a community theater, Pewter Plough Playhouse (824 Main), attract artists and art lovers alike.

But equally commonplace are the less expected: a lawn bowling green smack downtown and a rumble-tumble house built by an oddball named Captain Nitt Witt.

Cambria and its surrounding area may sit in the shadow of Hearst Castle, but they are a tourist's paradise in their own right.

Animal attraction


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Before arriving in Cambria, take a small detour off Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas. Year-round, northern elephant seals haul out at the vista point, sleeping side-by-side on the beach like an impenetrable army. The seals mate and give birth in the winter; late spring and summer they return to molt.

Farther down the coastline, on Moonstone Beach, visitors can watch seals and otters play. Gray whales also are seen migrating from December to early February and again from March to April.

Slice of history

Lots of options are available for history lovers.

Pass by Guthrie-Bianchini House, the oldest home in Cambria, on the corner of Burton Drive and Center Street. A simple saltbox, the house was built in 1870 and is now listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Insufficient funds has temporarily halted restoration efforts, so the home is not yet open to the public.

Santa Rosa Cemetery sits at the top of Bridge Street. Here are the final resting places of Mexican War veterans and early settlers.

Along Main Street, see the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens, one of only two Fresnel lenses of its kind.

To see the lighthouse where it once operated, go 13 miles north of town. Tours are every Tuesday and Thursday promptly at 10 a.m. (meet an escort at Piedras Blancas Motel, 1.5 miles north of the lighthouse; call 805-927-7361 for details). Also, volunteers dressed in period clothing offer tours the third Saturday each month. These tours, costing $15 for anyone 16 and older, start at the Hearst Castle visitor center (750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon; call 805-927-6811 for reservations).

Off the beaten path

For a little more history, travel three miles south to the one-horse town of Harmony. A badly weathered sign puts the town's population at 18 — though it's hard to imagine where you might find those 18 residents.

A bustling dairy town from 1869 to 1955, Harmony now has a pottery shop; a tiny wedding chapel (enough to seat 24); a gazebo; a rustic restaurant and a now-closed post office in the old creamery building. (Safety concerns with the old building suspended operations at the post office, though the town is fighting to bring it back.)

EXTREMELY ECCENTRIC

Locals consider Nitt Witt Ridge (800 Hillcrest Drive) to be the cheap man's Hearst Castle.

Art Beal, aka Captain Nitt Witt, was a garbage collector in Cambria who used others' discarded junk to build a hillside rambleshack house on 21/2 acres. For almost 50 years, beginning in 1928, he added beer cans, shells, car parts, toilets, and everything else imaginable onto his multi-story house.

Today, owners Michael and Stacey O'Malley provide tours of this National Historic Landmark by reservation only. (Call 805-927-2690 or e-mail nitwitridge@yahoo.com.)

WALKER'S PARADISE

Because Cambria is a small town, it's possible to see all of it on foot.

Cross-Town trail winds adjacent to Main Street and dips into Cambria's East Village, the oldest part of town. A pedestrian-only boardwalk stretches along the entire length of Moonstone Beach. Trails weave along Santa Rosa Creek, too.

Visitors also will find two popular parks: Leffingwell Landing at the north end of Moonstone Beach Drive, with picnic tables and beach access, and Shamel Park, on Windsor across from Moonstone Beach, which has picnic tables, a playground and a swimming pool open during the summer.

STAY DOWNTOWN

Cambria's downtown divides into the East and West Villages, with several side streets branching off Main Street. Perusing the galleries and antique, specialty and gift shops on these streets can easily take up an entire day.

A few fun spots include Soto's Market (2244 Main St.), where William Randolph Hearst reportedly bought everything in the store, forcing the grocer to close for a few days to restock; Mozzi's Saloon (2262 Main St.), where a whaler-turned-saloon keeper's son, Tony Mariano, was killed in a dispute over a fence line; and Keenan's Cambria Village Pharmacy (2306 Main St.), which proclaims itself to be the Central Coast's "Home of the Rubber Ducks."

Downtown also has some great wine shops with tasting rooms. Here is the only place to find Moonstone Cellars (801 Main St.) award-winning wines, including its highly-regarded Merlot. Also try Frementations (4056 Burton Drive), which offers a selection of local wines, including some from wineries that don't have tasting rooms. A great pick here is Ovene Winery's Viognier.

Reach Ann Tatko-Peterson at 925-952-2614 or atatko@bayareanewsgroup.com.

IF YOU GO
  • GETTING AROUND: Cambria offers plenty of public and on-street parking, with most shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. You also can take the free Cambria Village Trolley, with 24 stops, from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays from June 1-Sept. 4 and Friday-Monday the rest of the year. For route details, call 805-927-0468.
  • WHERE TO EAT: The Sea Chest Restaurant & Oyster Bar (6216 Moonstone Beach Drive, 805-927-4514) has the best seafood around, but it doesn't take reservations or credit cards. It does, however, offer a "waiting" room with classic games, such as checkers and Connect Four.
    Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill (6550 Moonstone Beach Drive, 805-927-3859) offers a more varied menu of seafood, steak and pasta, and has plenty of patio tables overlooking the ocean.
    Robin's (4095 Burton Drive, 805-927-5007) is a local favorite serving international cuisine. It also has lovely garden seating.
    The Sow's Ear Cafe (2248 Main St., 805-927-4865) is another local favorite with an early dinner menu from 5-6 p.m. It's been billed as the county's most romantic restaurant. Reservations recommended.
    For lunch, try the gourmet sandwiches at Indigo Moon (1940 Main St., 805-927-2911) or the soups, salads or sandwiches -- as well as its famous Olallieberry pie -- at Linn's Easy as Pie Cafe (4251 Bridge St., 805-924-3050).
  • WHERE TO STAY: Moonstone Hotel Properties has three options in Cambria (see "Inn-escapable" for a closer look at Pelican Cove Inn), including Cambria Pines Lodge (2905 Burton Drive, 800-966-6490). The lodge sits on 26 acres with wonderful gardens and lodging ranging from suites to family cabins. Rates start at $169 a night.
    Moonstone Beach Drive is lined with hotels and inns directly across the street from the beach. A few highly rated ones include Fog Catcher Inn (6400 Moonstone Beach Drive, 800-425-4121, www.fogcatcherinn.com) with its Old English feel; San Simeon Pines Resort (7200 Moonstone Beach Drive, 866-927-4648, www.sspines.com) with private beach access and a small golf course; and Cambria Shores Inn (6276 Moonstone Beach Drive, 800-433-9179, www.cambriashoresinn.com), which is very dog-friendly and delivers breakfast baskets each morning.
    For a bed & breakfast atmosphere, Olallieberry Inn (2476 Main St., 888-927-3222, www.olallieberry.com) is downtown and offers gourmet breakfast and expansive decks.
    For vacation rental homes, try Cambria Vacation Rentals (800-545-5079, www.cambriavacationrentals.com).
  • MORE INFO: San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, 800-634-1414, www.SanLuisObispoCounty.com.