Flowers, fresh food and respite await at Cambria Pines Lodge
Because your front yard gardens bloom so graciously all year round, I am going to let you in on a secret staycation that may as well have been designed just for you, Santa Cruzans.
About an hour south of Big Sur (where I strongly suggest camping for a night or two on the way down), a short walk from Downtown Cambria, Calif., and a stones’ throw away from one of the most serene beaches on the planet (Moonstone Beach), resides the Cambria Pines Lodge and its exquisite collection of gardens.
The lodge’s 152 rooms offer a variety of accommodations, from Disney-esque stand-alone cottages, like the one I enjoyed, to 19-room hotel-style clusters.
“It’s so quiet here that even when the property is fully booked you can feel almost like you’re alone,” says Becky Evans, the director of sales and marketing who has worked at Cambria Pines for 22 years.
She’s right. Spread out over a vast 25 acres, the atmosphere is solitary and calm. Perhaps because it is located in “SLO” (San Luis Obispo) county, everything but the service seems to slow down when you enter Cambria Pines.
When I pulled off of the quiet, wooded stretch of Highway 1 that passes through Cambria onto the winding neighborhood street that leads to the lodge, I was covered in dirt and sooty remnants from two days of camping along the Big Sur coast (again, a side adventure I highly recommend to any Santa Cruzan destined for Cambria Pines).
After the grubbiness of camping, the luxuries of this retreat are felt triple fold—and, notably, nobody here cares how you’re dressed. Immediately, the lodge invites you to take a load off, dress down, turn off your cell phone, and forget about your computer.
The minute I opened the main lodge door, people smiled to greet me as if I’d returned at last to an old country home that had long awaited my arrival.
A couple of antlers dangle above a French doorway across from the main desk. After checking in, I discovered that this doorway leads to a large but cozy room with a full bar where a friendly, gray, live-in cat named Smokey snoozed on one of many couches that are interspersed with wooden tables and chairs.
“I call Smokey our director of guest relations,” says Evans. “He’s one of the most popular things about the property.”
I find myself intrigued from the get-go with this small town lodge and its distinct, yet inviting, character. Notes and signs strewn about read like inside jokes shared by visitors to this place. Old photographs and paintings dot the walls. Antique bottles and mason jars line the mantle of a grand fireplace beside the corner stage, where live music is played every night.
“This county is a magnet for artists and musicians, and there are so many talented musicians around here that we don’t have trouble finding talented people to perform every night of the week,” Evans says, noting that Grammy Award-winning Louie Ortega makes regular Tuesday night appearances.
“And on Thursdays, you’re the entertainment,” Evans laughs. “It’s karaoke night.”
I made my way past the swimming pool, hot tub, sandy volleyball courts, and day spa, toward the little house that would be mine for just one night—a night where, curled up on a luxurious queen bed inside of a cottage surrounded by flowers, butterflies, trees and rambling hills, I would experience one of the deepest sleeps of my life.
The interior was so quiet and private that I could have sworn I was alone on miles of land in the countryside. Complete with a separate living room, dining area and private outdoor patio, this was somewhere a person could easily spend weeks or months. But I soaked up all I could in the time I had.
As part of the Gardener’s Getaway Package, which I partook in, I was greeted by a ceramic flowerpot gift basket upon entering my room that was filled with locally harvested seeds, sweet-smelling organic soaps, a handheld gardening spade, and adorable but sturdy green gardening gloves.
Country quaint turned into lavish luxury when I entered the bedroom. Two queen-sized beds sat strewn in elegant linens, and the attached bathroom included a stand-alone tub, perfect for a post-garden soak.
After settling into my room, I took to meandering through a maze of garden alcoves. In an embodiment of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I allowed time to lose meaning for me in this wonderland of greens, browns, and blossoms. I wandered from a traditional Victorian Garden with all white buds down a slender, shrub-lined pathway, and through a wooden gate that opened to fragrances and flowers of the Butterfly Garden. I watched the bees move from lilac to rose, then made my way down the cobblestone path, through a collection of flower-strewn birdhouses (the Birdhouse Garden), into what looked like the overgrown bedroom from Snow White’s enchanted slumber.
“Our signature garden is the Flower Bed, which is a set of bedroom furniture that came out of one of our rooms,” Evans explains. “As we were beginning to remodel that room, the construction guys put the old furniture in the parking lot, and one of the gardeners walked by and thought ‘I can do something with this.’”
Now, flowers bloom across the bed frame, creating a mattress of blossoms, and a waterfall runs over an old mirror beside a dresser-turned-planter.
I turn a corner and enter a green patch of grass with a stone path leading up to a gazebo, surrounded by trees and flowering bushes. This is the gazebo garden, a favorite wedding spot, complete with a band stand and dance area equipped for 250 guests.
I could have wandered through the gardens forever, but a growling stomach propelled me toward a nature path on the property that takes you on a short hike into to the town of Cambria where restaurants, ice cream, and knick-knack shops dot a quintessential, old timey Main Street.
After a delicious organic veggie sandwich filled with avocado, carrots, and a bundle of sprouts from Robin’s Restaurant, I walked back to the lodge, jumped in the car, and readied to explore the Central Coast.
The sea lions that gather every year by the hundreds just minutes up the coast are a must see if you’re in the area during the summer, but I’d visited them already on my way down from Big Sur. The famed Hearst Castle loomed on the hillside—gaudily visible only a couple of miles away—and the copious vineyards that ramble through Paso Robles, rivaling even France, tempted and beckoned. But seeing as my package included a complimentary bottle of wine with dinner, it was Thursday, and I’d ventured here in the gardening spirit, I headed to SLO for a taste of local nightlife at the renowned Downtown Farmers’ Market.
While Santa Cruz’s Downtown Wednesday and Westside Saturday Farmers’ Markets are fantastic, SLO’s Higuera Street Farmers’ Market is a true spectacle. Crowds tumble in by the thousands each Thursday evening for this carnival-esque event where endless booths filled with fresh-picked produce become almost a side note. Locals line up early outside of “hand-picked BBQ’d ribs” and “world’s best tri-tip” stands. Music spills out of various pubs and street performers, local art and jewelry decorate specialty booths, while strong-armed opinions spew from political booths that line the Farmers’ Market drag.
Back at Cambria Pines, a bag of fresh vegetables and kettle corn in hand, I worked up an appetite for dinner by swimming a few laps in the heated outdoor pool.
At a table facing the picturesque Gazebo Garden, I enjoyed veggies from the on-site Organic Kitchen Garden, on the side of my entrée. (I highly recommend the ravioli.)
After dinner, I noticed that the bar was alive with the sounds of music and, despite the fact that my complimentary bottle of wine was only half empty, ordered a martini and danced the night away.
A dip in the nearby ice-cold ocean at Moonstone Beach, just minutes from the lodge, was a refreshing and necessary revitalization the next morning. I arrived back at the lodge in time for a visit to the breakfast buffet and one last stroll through the gardens.
Cambria Pines Lodge truly has something for everyone, at any time of the year. During Christmastime, a section of the property is converted into Santa’s Workshop, where local vendors set up booths and hot cocoa is served.
As Evans points out, even a rainy day in January offers a relaxing retreat and a stroll beneath an umbrella through dazzling winter blooms.
“It’s perfect for people who want to have outdoor adventures, stay busy all the time and do lots of things,” says Evans. “It’s also perfect for people who just want to come and park and stay in their room or sit by the pool, or play a game of sand volleyball, or take the nature trail into town, or sit and read a book in the garden and just hang out. You can be as active or as inactive as you want to be.”
My visit was a healthy dose of both. I checked out with a head full of ideas for my own garden, and plans to return as soon as possible to this old country home-away-from-home for a much longer staycation.
Photos courtesy of Cambria Pines Lodge.