As I drive north along Highway 101, I sigh contentedly. I am finally out of LA. The rest of the drive is smooth, scenic, and less stressful. I am on my way to Cambria, located just south of San Simeon State Park on California’s central coast. After passing the well-known Madonna Inn, I know I am getting close to the exit I need to take in San Luis Obispo to catch PCH, the “Pacific Coast Highway.” As I drive along the coast, I find it impossible to keep my eyes off the shimmer and shine of the ocean under the afternoon sun. This is why I live in California.
Cambria is one of my favorite destinations because it never changes. My favorite restaurant, Robin’s, and some of my favorite shops, have been there for as long as I can remember. And always, there is plenty of California wine to go around. Why? Because Cambria is next door to wine country, and, best of all, there is not a single fast-food restaurant in all of Cambria. No hamburgers and fries for me on this trip!
This friendly, quaint, picturesque, little town never ceases to captivate me. Always, when I pass by the tiny town of Harmony on Highway 1, I know that I am finally at the end of my six-hour journey. As I head up the hill, right before the Cambria turnoff, the enormous pines on the knolls come into view, as well as the brightly painted homes that dot the hillsides. Swirls of white smoke escape from the chimneys, and the smell of the air is, well, intoxicating. Cambria is a “massage and a jacuzzi” all wrapped up into one little relaxation package. If you want to walk along the beach, with hardly anyone around, or eat delicious food in cozy, intimate restaurants, then Cambria is the place to go.
Throughout Cambria’s history, this little town has been called Santa Rosa, Roseville, San Simeon, and “Slabtown.” The town became known as Cambria on January 10, 1870. Today, there are still original structures from the early days, some of which even survived the Great Fire of 1889. It was after the introduction of the automobile in the 1920’s that a much improved road was built in Cambria which in turn brought about land developers. When Hearst Castle, in nearby San Simeon, became a state park in 1958, the tourists made their way to this little “Treasure by the Sea” and they haven’t stopped since. The best part about visiting Cambria is its easy accessibility. It only takes about a half a day or so to get there from most places in the state.
I am not new to Cambria. I have visited many times over the past decade or so, but I always end up staying at the same hotel. This time, I wanted something different. I decided to stay at two places which were quite different from one another. The first was the Just Inn at Justin Vineyards and Winery located in Paso Robles. Although not actually in Cambria, I consider the wineries in and around Paso Robles, Cambria territory. The second place I stayed at was a cute and cozy bed & breakfast place called J. Patrick House, located very close to downtown Cambria. Both were unique in what they had to offer and both proved to be excellent choices.
Quite by accident, a few years earlier, I discovered the wine country around Paso Robles. One day, while driving east on Highway 46, I saw a tiny sign that said “To Wineries.” I turned and found myself on a narrow two lane paved road that wound around the hillsides among massive oak trees with long pale green sheets of moss hanging from the tree’s branches. Was I in a fairy tale, I wondered? I expected a talking bunny with a top hat to jump out onto the road at any moment. I drove along completely enjoying myself. I heard and saw a woodpecker, came across about 10 deer grazing, and even saw a bobcat. And then, after another bend in the road, there it stood, right in the middle of a vineyard, a winery! I spent the rest of the day visiting other wineries in the area and purchased some really fine wines.
The next day, while visiting another winery, a couple in the tasting room asked if I had ever been to Justin Winery. They told that I should go there and taste their wines. I decided to go that day. The drive there was beautiful. Rolling hills, dotted with enormous oak trees, and acres and acres of vineyards were sketched out all around me like a painting. One of the things I have discovered over the years is that no matter what time of year I visit Cambria and the surrounding wine country, there is always something beautiful to see. When I arrived at Justin, I was pleasantly surprised. The restaurant and winery were lovely and the wines I tasted were even lovelier. The tasting room was large and cozy, full of wonderful wines for sale, and there was even a restaurant on the premises called Deborah’s Room. After I tasted a few wines, I went outside and walked through the beautiful flower-filled gardens and grounds. It was then that I noticed the “Just Inn” right behind the restaurant. People could spend the night here. I liked that idea!
One year later, I was on my way to do just that; spend a night at the Just Inn. I was excited! It was late afternoon and the air was crisp. I was only a few miles away when I couldn’t resist stopping to take some pictures of the vineyards. The late afternoon sun was just right and the vineyards were incredibly beautiful. Streaks of gold, yellow, and red completely dazzled me as I got out of my car. Behind this beautiful setting were massive forests on the hillsides surrounding this spectacle of color. I must have taken a dozen pictures! As I drove off again, after a few more twists and turns on the winding road, I finally arrived. I was greeted by two large furry dogs. After a few licks and hugs, I walked into the door of the winery. There were hundreds of bottles of wine in handsome wooden bins in an atmosphere of old world fresco, just like I remembered. Before checking into my room, I visited the tasting bar. I learned that Justin Wine Society members can enjoy a separate, private tasting sanctuary right up the road. After tasting a very nice selection of Justin wines, I was escorted to my suite. I was very excited to see where I would be sleeping.
There are four suites at the Just Inn – the Tuscany, the Provence, the Sussex, and the Bordeaux. I was assigned the Sussex suite. When I first walked in, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It wasn’t a room, it was an apartment! It was simply beautiful, with an English feel about it. It was also 1200 sq. ft! There was even a marble bath with a hydro-spa, and, best of all, a huge rock wood-burning fireplace. Was I was back in England? Where were the tea and crumpets?
The living room furniture was plush and inviting, with bright colorful pillows. There was even a large leather chair with a reading light right by the fireplace; perfect for curling up with a good book. The dark wooden floors throughout were covered with gorgeous rich rugs weaved with different shades of reds. The walls were painted goldenrod yellow. Two steps up and I was in the kitchen area which included a sink, cupboards, and a small refrigerator. And….when I walked into the bedroom, I looked “up” at the bed, instead of down. Yes, up! It was absolutely the “highest” bed I had ever seen. I used the steps provided and climbed to the top of the bed. As I bounced around on the mattress, I thought of the fairy tale story “The Princess and the Pea.” I felt like a princess. I couldn’t wait until bedtime.
When Justin and Deborah Baldwin started their winery in 1981, there were less than 10 wineries in the area. Today that number has jumped up to over 100 wineries. Their desire was to make world class wines that reflected the unique soil and climate of their California Central Coast property. They have certainly succeeded for their wines today are sold all over the world.
After a walk through the vineyards, I dressed for dinner. I had reservations for 8:00 at Deborah’s Room. The room itself is small and intimate. When I peeked in earlier, Eric, one of the waiters, was busy ironing the table cloths. Dining at Deborah’s Room was a lovely experience that I will never forget. Although I was alone, thanks to my servers, Timothy and Eric, I felt very comfortable and well taken care of. Dinners are served nightly and al fresco lunches are served weekends on the Wishing Well Patio. What I particularly enjoyed about my dinner was the pairing of a different Justin wine with each selection on the menu. I chose Butter Poached Lobster Tail on a bed of White Truffle Oil Risotta and Parmesan Foam for my appetizer, and Pan Roasted Hawaiian Opakapaka for my Entree. Both were excellent! Although a bit pricey, the food and overall dining experience was well worth it! What a great way to spend a special occasion.
After a restful night’s sleep (and, no, there was not one single pea under my mattress) I got up early and took another stroll in the vineyards that surround the winery. The air was crisp, clean and the views breathtaking. A visit to the Justin Inn would not be complete without a stroll in the English Gardens, the vineyards, or a dip in the heated pool. Oh, last but not least, but very important since I was, after all, staying at a winery, a chilled bottle of Justin wine was waiting for me in my room when I first arrived.
As I said my goodbyes to everyone the next morning, including the dogs, I got into my car and took one last look at this very special place. I hated to leave, but I had more people to meet and places to see. Today was my day to visit Hearst Castle.
After a short drive, I was back on Highway 1, heading north towards Hearst Castle. It had been a lot of years since my last visit at William Randolph Hearst’s “Castle in the Sky” and I could hardly wait to see it again. I quickly purchased my ticket and boarded the bus for my ride up to the Castle. I am always amazed how Mr. Hearst’s architect, Julia Morgan, and the work crew managed to get everything up to the top of the mountain. After numerous “oohs” and “ahs”, and gossipy stories from our guide about the rich and famous who used to party at Hearst Castle, I stopped at one of the balconies to take in the incredible views of the ocean and surrounding area. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have been a guest of Mr. Hearst and Marion Davies, his long-time mistress. I could almost hear the laughter of the guests at one of his famous parties. Oh look, there’s Cary Grant!
One thing I noticed in the massive dining room at Hearst Castle were bottles of catsup and mustard scattered throughout on the long dining room table. No matter what the menu or how fancy the china, Mr. Hearst insisted that these two condiments be included at every meal. My kind of guy!
Part of the fun of visiting Hearst Castle is the bus ride up and down. The road is narrow and there are many times when you cannot even see the pavement under the bus. A bit scary for some. Not to worry, however, for the drivers are very experienced and have been doing this for a very long time. At least that is what they told me after I screamed.
After my fun afternoon at Hearst Castle, it was time to head back to the J. Patrick House in Cambria. I was hungry and cold and couldn’t wait to warm up in front of the fireplace in my room. Yes, I had my very own fireplace! This would be my last stop and one I was really looking forward to.
The J. Patrick House is a beautiful bed & breakfast inn not far from downtown Cambria. It is an authentic log home with guest cottages in the back. Included in the price of an overnight stay at the Inn are wood-burning fireplaces, private bathrooms, a hosted wine hour, bedtime “killer” chocolate chip cookies (and they are yummy!) and an exquisite breakfast. Many times websites can be deceiving. What you see is not exactly what you get. But everything their website said about this place was absolutely true. Everything was perfect! The rooms were clean, cozy and inviting. The innkeepers were sweet and accommodating when I called to set up my visit. When I first arrived, guests were laughing and chatting in front of the warm fireplace. I immediately felt comfortable and welcomed.
For my last evening in Cambria, I planned on having dinner at Robin’s Restaurant on Burton Drive, my favorite place to dine. This wonderful little restaurant is only a few minutes from the J. Patrick House, perfect for those who don’t want to go far. When I arrived, it was filling up quickly. After a delectable meal of crab cakes, spinach salad, salmon, and apple pie, I understood why. It is a popular place! Robin’s is quaint and friendly, just like the town it is located in. The service is beyond excellent and I was made to feel right at home when I first walked in. The servers were all very friendly, which to me, is the most important aspect of a restaurant, besides the food, of course. They seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. The menu is varied which means there is something for everyone.
After one or two (or three) “killer” chocolate chip cookies after my fantastic dinner, and a very restful night’s sleep, it was time to say goodbye. After chatting with other guests over breakfast about the incredible experiences we all had, I packed my car and got ready to go. The “Jacuzzi and massage relaxation package” of just spending time in this wonderful little town of Cambria and, of course, the wine country, had not failed to disappoint me. This is why I return again and again each year. As I got into my car, I felt like a new woman…refreshed; happy; and already planning my next trip to Cambria.