Embarassment of Riches

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 1999, Tom Bentley


The journey's the thing. A thousand writers have said it before, but why argue with a thousand writers? The destination, charming Cambria, is glory alone, but the getting there--that's a rich meal served slowly through its many courses. There's a sight, a stop and a gasp around every corner of that curvy southerly drive--whipping around the curves of the Big Sur coastline can stun the eyeballs, where the beauty of some craggy vista can be shocking, where stunned, you can only point and say, "Look." It seems almost embarrassing that such riches are only an hour or two away from the wired core of Silicon Valley--you can forget that one of the world's wonders is in your own back yard.

So, in the course of a drive to Cambria, you get your choice from the wayfarer's candy box: perhaps of nice nougat of scenery here, a cognac truffle of a hike there--it's hard to go wrong. But first a little hiatus of commercial civilization: What better way to combine the rustic with the exotic than to stop at Big Sur's Nepenthe, to ooh and ahh over the million-dollar view, and perhaps part with a less princely sum at their Phoenix Store, which is filled floor-to-ceiling with unusual crafts and curios from the seven continents.

And if standing on their stunning wind-chime porch, which sends myriad tintinabulations onto the waves far below makes your knees week, you can restore the cartilage with some bone-bolstering coffee from the Kevah Cafe upstairs. Fortified, we slid down the coast a little further, taking a quick left outside of little Lucia to go up--and up and up--to the New Camodoli monastery, a retreat center perched high, high above the brilliant blue below. There, guests can participate in silent contemplations, stay in individual accommodations (meals provided) and generally take a deep breath away from the treadmill of time.

Moving south on Hwy. 1, my boon companion Alice and I stopped at Lime Kiln State Park, where a crisp half-mile hike through fragrant redwoods takes you to four massive kiln towers, abutted by a cheerfully plashing stream. In the late 19th century, these ovens supplied a thriving industry: limestone was "cooked" out of the rocks--a real stone soup--for use in building materials. The walk is delightful, the kilns striking.

But we just peeked, paused, marveled and moved on, for there was much more to see. Such as the elephant seals, lounging in noisy contemplation on the rocky shore a bit south of Piedras Blancas. The big bull males don't arrive until November, so we didn't get to see any of those snout-slamming displays of dominance hierarchy they're so fond of, but we did get to see the adolescent two-thousand pound pillows lolling all over one another in their sandy haul-outs off the shoreline rocks.

Moving southward puts you back on the conveyor track of a series of superb state parks, and past every agreeable viewing variation on roadside coastal splendor. It was too much--we had to retreat from the grandeur, into our comfortable room at the J. Patrick Guest House in Cambria, another of the many pleasant inns and hotels in the San Simeon area. Of course, we did have to venture out for sustenance's sake, so we sought confirmation of a previous trip's dining satisfaction by returning to the Bistro Sole.

They know their capable way around a super shrimp risotto, and they're not lacking for good wines and warm service. That made returning to the homemade cookies and milk outside our room at the J. Patrick one rolling river of good food and favor. And their hot apple bread pudding in the morning just put another sweet curve on a long road of satisfaction.

Refreshed and jonesing for that coastal gold again, we drove north from Cambria a few miles up to W.R. Hearst State Beach, just down the hill from his fabled castle. You can park just off the frontage road for free, and if you walk north up the beach a bit, you can see some trails ascending the cliffside. Go hither, and stroll through the broken eucalyptus above a series of beautiful coves. Go further and you'll enter a cypress forest stitched to the cliffside, thick with tall, tangled-limbed cypress.

This is a magical hike, and it goes on for several miles. It's an easy trail through dense cypress "caves," framed by doorways where the ocean's blue beckons you emerge into the open air. There, it's all the senses engaged, the smells of the trees, the hillside sage and succulents, the sounds of the waves sizzling on the stones, the light sweeping the cliffsides.

This is very good mojo, folks: the waves alternately battering then kissing the coves, passels of pelicans skimming the ocean or slipping in formation in the air over the striated cliffs, with the blowholes booming below. You know why Mr. Hearst erected his gilt palace of fantasy and fortune in such a place--there's magic about.

You may think I've been ignoring Hearst Castle itself as a stopping-off spot in Cambria. Not at all. Venturing there at some point is simply a given--everyone should take in the eye-popping testimony to money's reach, but this trip took the road less luxuriant. For me, it was enough of a pleasure seeing some of his zebras sunning with the cattle on the tablelands below the ranch.

Cambria itself is rife with interesting art and antique stores, great seaside strolls and nice restaurants. It's also the home of Nitt Witt's Castle (a California Historical Landmark), no competitor to William Randolph's, but that parallels his mad vision with more modest means. There, Arthur Beal (aka Captain Nitt Witt or Der Tinkerpaw) assembled a truly motley collection of, shells, rubbish, tossoffs and trinkets and cemented and rubber-banded it together into a folk-art habitat of weirdly beguiling charm. It hasn't been lived in for years, but a new owner has renewed hope in its restoration.

The day moved nicely into night with another dandy dinner at Robin's in Cambria (they do a tangy red-curry vegetable dish), topped by those good cookies at J Patrick's that sent us sweetly to slumberland. The next morning's J Patrick's breakfast of homemade blueberry blintzes powered us back north up Highway 1 to see all those splendid sights in reverse.

One sight that shouldn't be missed is the Salmon Creek waterfall, found by going three miles north of the Ragged Point resort. At that three-mile point, there's a hairpin curve with a dirt pullout, and a trail that heads back up the cliffs on the mountain-side of Hwy. 1. A little sign easily missed from the road will point you up a 1/4-mile trail to a dramatic falls, perhaps 75 feet tall, with glistening mosses dripping into a clear pool. If that moves you enough, you can continue up (and I mean up) the aromatic trail to some primitive campsites starting a couple of miles up. We went up about mid-way to catch a lovely ocean view.

Lunching on the rustically elegant terrace at Ventana in Big Sur 45 minutes later gave a wonderful counterpoint to the ethereal sights we'd seen: the Big Sur coast for the soul, the portabella francese at Ventana for the body.

It was a scenic scoot back to Santa Cruz County, and another definitive reminder that we've got a pretty good thing going here: if you're hungry for a feast of the senses, there's no need to travel far, and you're going to be well-served from here to there. Enjoy the ride.

Nepenthe (Phoenix Shop) Big Sur (831) 667-2345
LimeKiln State Park, 2 miles south of Lucia (800) 444-7275
New Camaldoli Hermitage, 3/4 mile south of Lucia Lodge, Lucia (831) 667-2456
The J. Patrick House (John Arnott & Ann O'Connor, proprietors), 2990 Burton Drive, Cambria (8000 341-5258
Robin's, 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria (805) 927-5007
Bistro Sole, 1980 Main Street, Cambria (831) 927-0887
Nitt Witt Ridge, 881 Hillcrest Drive, Cambria