When it comes to seaside escapes, California is certainly not short on well-loved options, from Monterey to Malibu. But for those looking to shake things up while still sticking close to that Shangri-la of scenic drives, Highway 1, allow me to suggest something a little off the beaten path. Or more accurately, very much on the beaten path, but very much overlooked there. Cambria, the central coast town between San Luis Obispo and Big Sur, happens to feel a lot like the latter’s funky little sister, only accessible, affordable, and not already all over your Instagram. (Yet.)
Equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco by car—and a famously beautiful drive from either—Cambria’s usual claim to fame is its proximity to San Simeon and Hearst Castle. But there’s more to its allure than that, including unspoiled beaches, a year-round temperate climate, and the kind of small town charisma you normally have to wander far more remote reaches of the world in search of, rather than drive a few hours from Los Angeles. Or as one new friend said during a recent visit: “It feels like Montauk—before everyone ruined it.” (Not bad for a former rancher and miner enclave once called “Slab Town.”)
Below, everything you need to know for a beautiful and relaxing visit. (Fair warning: you may like it so much that you won’t want to tell anyone else about it. Feel free to tell them you were glamping in Big Sur.)
Where to Stay
Boutique hotels line Cambria’s ocean-front boardwalk across the top of the ruggedly gorgeous Moonstone Beach, and the very best of the bunch is White Water Cambria. The 25 room PRG property was renovated in 2020 by designer Nina Freudenberger, and the result is a breezy oasis of California cool, from the framed Block Shop prints on the walls to the shibori dyed indigo cushions lining the built-in Baltic birch benches. Some rooms have panoramic ocean views and outdoor soaking tubs for late night stargazing, all have gas fireplaces, exceedingly comfortable beds, Erewhon snacks in the mini fridge, Aesop products in the bathrooms, and a daily doorstop breakfast delivery of a picnic basket kitted out with a thermos of fresh coffee and local pastries. A signature cocktail program awaits in the sun-soaked lobby building for happy hour (no small thing: White Water is the only hotel with a liquor license on the beach), along with neat shelves of carefully curated California-sourced souvenirs ripe for the shopping. There are also complimentary bikes for getting around town, and one very important plus: it's pet friendly.
What to See and Do While You’re There
Visit Hearst Castle
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree… and a 15 minute drive north of Cambria, in San Simeon, is where you will find it. Ok, clearly not the exact one that Coleridge was writing about, but close enough for Orson Welles. The palatial former hillside perch of infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was called ‘La Cuesta Encantada,’ or ‘The Enchanted Hill,’ by its owner—a designation he probably would have liked to change if he had realized it was going to take three decades (and the rest of his life) to build. The property boasts a private airfield, two (oft-photographed) swimming pools, a movie theater, tennis courts, greenhouses, over 100 acres of gardens, and what was once the world’s largest private zoo. Guests during its heyday included Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, and Winston Churchill, which is to say that the place loomed large in the public imagination even before Welles got his hands on it in Citizen Kane. (More recently, David Fincher filmed some of the Mank’s more memorable scenes at the property.)
Post-pandemic, tickets for entry will be available through the Hearst Castle website; tours run for 60 minutes to two hours, for around $30 per person. Just down the hill, the ocean-facing Hearst Ranch Winery is open for outdoor-only wine tasting and picnicking right above the beach.
See the Elephant Seals
Should you be in San Simeon during the current phase of California’s staggered reopening, with museums like Hearst Castle still closed to visitors, fret not: the country’s most famous elephant seal rookery is always open, easily accessible, and entirely free. Just a 10 minute drive past the Castle entrance and immediately off Highway 1 is a vista point from where during peak months tens of thousands of elephant seals are visible on the beach (molting, mating, birthing, breeding) from the well maintained wooden boardwalk above.
The seals are impossibly large—adult males can grow to 16 feet in length and weigh around 5,000 lbs, newborns weigh around 60-80lbs—and very cute. In early spring they mostly lie around dozing, and flipping sand on themselves. The best times of year to visit are October through May, though charmingly enough, the peak of mating season is around Valentine’s Day. The Friends of the Elephant Seal Organization also offers a live webcam along with other resources to help plan your visit.
Walk Moonstone Beach
Named for the natural wave-worn stones that stud the sand, Moonstone Beach is more of Cambria’s main drag than Main Street, with incredible sunsets and a particularly agreeable surf break to recommend it. There are few better ways to while away the hours than strolling the (dog-friendly) boardwalk or beach. Keep your eyes peeled for whales, whose migration patterns take them this way depending on the time of year, but don’t forget to look down, too: the tide pools can boast crabs, sea anemones, urchins, and more.
Where to Eat and Drink
Go for a Wine Tasting
This is California, after all. Paso Robles is a 40-minute drive east of Cambria, where architecturally-and-palate-pleasing vineyards like Booker, Daou, Denner, Hope Family Wines, and Tablas Creek abound. The indecisive sort, or just not sure what you’re in the mood for? Make your way to a former industrial park called Tin City, where a slew of local purveyors offer everything from cabernet to craft brews, artisanal sheep’s milk ice cream, and Six Test Kitchen, an acclaimed boîte with a 12 course tasting menu.
The Hidden Kitchen
Tucked away down an alleyway off Main Street is where you can find this all-organic, ultra-sustainable and 100% gluten free cafe specializing in superfood smoothies and blue corn waffles topped with everything from avocado, eggs, and bacon to fried bananas and peanut butter.
The Sea Chest Oyster Bar
A local haunt that’s been slinging oysters, fresh catch, and sumptuous barrel-sized portions of cioppino for the past 45 years, The Sea Chest is so popular that it has commemorative plaques at the entrance for who among its regular visitors lined up for dinner the earliest. (The record at the moment stands somewhere in the very early morning, which we do not recommend.) Sit at the bar, order as many oysters as you can stand, chat up your neighbors, and watch the magic happen over the open grill. You won’t regret it.