The Beauty of Cambria
“You must keep your mind on the objective, not on the obstacle,” said newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who definitely applied that mindset when building his castle in San Simeon, California, where he and architect Julia Morgan worked for 28 years on the architectural masterpiece. While people come from around the world to visit the estate, the historical landmark is just a short drive for those of us living in Santa Barbara County and a lovely excuse to take an overnight in the nearby town of Cambria.
I recently did exactly that. It was about a two-hour drive from Santa Barbara to the Cambria Pines Lodge, where my companion and I stayed the night. The hotel, which was built in 1927, is nestled in trees on a hill that overlooks Cambria’s picturesque downtown. It’s a tranquil hideaway with several bucolic gardens and sitting areas, a pool and hot tub, a walking trail around the 25-acre property, and a wee dog park for its furry, four-legged guests.
We settled into our cottage, which boasted fireplaces in the sitting area and the bedroom, a luxurious bathroom that included a spa tub, and a small private patio. Leaving the car at the hotel, we followed a trail down the hill to town for dinner, marveling at the flora and views along the way.
Cambria (which is Latin for Wales) was thriving in the latter half of the 1800s, and much of it still bears the architectural shadows of the Old West. Restaurants, wine bars, and boutiques fill the shop fronts, catering to the vibrant tourist industry that accounts for the majority of the town’s economic activity. We dined at the Cambria Pub and Steakhouse and noshed on a BBQ chicken sandwich and a Philly cheesesteak.
We hiked back to the lodge as the sun was sliding toward the horizon. We changed into our swimming togs and relaxed in the hot tub, which we had to ourselves. In the morning we went to the main house for a delicious breakfast buffet that included scrambled eggs, sausages, biscuits and gravy, cereals, melon, fresh orange juice, and coffee. We ate our meal on the restaurant patio in a stone alcove with a fireplace. The sun was out, the wind blew the tops of the trees, and the lilt of quiet conversations filled the air, making for a serene start to our day.
We headed 10 minutes up wild coast to Hearst Castle and passed grazing zebra, the offspring of some of Hearst’s zoo animals. The bus ride up the wending road to La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill, as it was referred to in its day) afforded stunning views of the sea and grasslands. We took the Grand Rooms tour (there are several tours from which to choose) and spent an hour and 45 minutes ogling the grandiose history of the castle’s “social rooms.” At the tour’s conclusion, guests are allowed to wander the grounds at their leisure. The spectacular flower gardens and the pools — the glorious outdoor Neptune Pool (which unfortunately is currently without water due to repair work) and the dramatic indoor Roman Pool — are worth the $25 price of admission alone.
Paddling Lake Santa Margarita
In the late afternoon, we headed south to Pismo Beach and the SeaCrest Hotel for the night. The inn was the accommodation portion of a package offered by Margarita Adventures that includes kayaking on Santa Margarita Lake, a reservoir sequestered in the hills southeast of the town of the same name.
While the Cambria Pines Lodge offered pastoral quiet, the SeaCrest was abuzz — the 158-room hotel was host to at least two family reunions the night we stayed. The atmosphere was lively as guests enjoyed the pool, hot tubs (there are three), and barbecue area. Built more than 50 years ago, the SeaCrest earned the tagline “a bit of Hawai‘i on the California Coast” soon after it first opened. And the resort is reminiscent of being on the islands, thanks to palm trees swaying in the breeze, a grassy lawn carpeting the area between the hotel and the cliff above the beach, and the curved architecture of the hotel’s design, which affords a stunning, unobstructed panorama of the Pacific from nearly every room. In the morning, we took advantage of the complimentary continental breakfast before setting off for Santa Margarita.
We arrived at Margarita Adventures’ headquarters at 10 a.m., met our guide Matt, and then headed for the lake. Santa Margarita Lake was created in 1941 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide drinking water to the now-defunct Camp San Luis Obispo. Swimming is not allowed, but boating and fishing are approved activities, and it was perfect spring weather for our four-hour excursion. We explored the lake’s fingerlings and saw heaps of birds, including several great blue heron and snowy egrets. Despite the shockingly low waterline thanks to years of drought, the lake still felt robust and offered a peaceful sanctuary.
After a picnic lunch of sandwiches and chips, it was time to head back. Our return trip was against the wind and required steady paddling to the boat launching area. With peaceful spirits and tired arms, we climbed into the van and enjoyed the scenery as we trundled back into town.
San Luis Obispo County is home to some of the most beautiful natural terrain in California — a fact of which I was blissfully reminded during this lovely close escape.
Cambria Pines Lodge: 2905 Burton Dr., Cambria, 927-4200 or (800) 966-6490, cambriapineslodge.com. (Pet friendly)
Cambria Pub & Steakhouse: 4090 Burton Dr., Cambria, 927-0782, thecambriapub.com.
Hearst Castle: San Simeon, (800) 444-4445, hearstcastle.org.
SeaCrest Hotel: 2241 Price St., Pismo Beach, 773-4608 or (800) 782-8400, seacrestpismo.com. (Pet friendly)
Margarita Adventures: 22720 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita, 438-3120, margarita-adventures.com.