It’s not L.A. — not the climate, not the urban sprawl, not the wealth disparity, not even the jerks — that makes celebrating Christmas here such a challenge. OK, maybe those factor in. But primarily, I find it’s difficult for many of us to get into the spirit of the season simply because we live here. The city is, for us, business as usual. And that can be quite disheartening as you try to find the joy that this festive time of year is supposed to instill.
Over the years, I’ve found a solution to the disenchantment — I get out of town. Just as Linus seeks sincerity in a pumpkin patch at Halloween, I’ve found that same quality to be ideal in choosing a Christmas getaway. This year, I discovered a place so earnest and so charming, it may just become an annual December pilgrimage. It’s the Cambria Christmas Market and it’ll knock the “humbug” right of you.
Open most nights after Thanksgiving and before Christmas Eve, the open-air event is based on the Christmas markets that originated in northern Europe in the late Middle Ages and known in Germany as a “Weihnachtsmarkt.” Celebrants make the journey to this seaside village immersed in Monterey pines along Highway One in San Luis Obispo County to drink traditional German mulled wine, feast on bratwurst, and revel in a magic that exists and is sustained within the confines of the market.
Vendors line much of the meandering 1.25-mile light-strewn path carved into the woods just outside of town, offering a variety of local cuisine, artisanal crafts, and unique Christmas items. Santa is here, of course, and children take photos with him, but there are numerous picturesque locations where moments are captured on film. The light display is rather impressive, even by the standards of a jaded Angeleno.
And while you might think the cheer dries up when everyone reaches the parking lot, that’s not the case. First, most folks reach the market by shuttles, which run frequently from convenient locations around town. Second, is town itself — which is built around a Main Street and provides its own variety of holiday delight.
Cambria is much more sophisticated than one might expect of a population-10,000 city outside of, say, Napa or Sonoma counties. It features pull-in street parking and shop-lined sidewalks, where locals and visitors browse storefronts of art and antique dealers. Coffee shops abound, as do local eateries, some of which are truly worth writing home about. Linn’s, for instance, is an institution, renowned for its ollalieberry pie. They also serve a good clam chowder (which you can also find at their stand at the Christmas Market).
Maybe the finest restaurant in town is a cozy and elegant mainstay on the northern end of Main with the ambience of a favorite memory. It’s called Madeline’s and it specializes in French-American cuisine with modern sensibilities and rustic panache. I’m talking venison chops in a fig-and-Zin reduction, duck breast in a cherry-and-brandy reduction, braised lapin served in a crepe. The quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, local greens and a lemon beurre blanc is itself worth the four-hour drive — and it’s a mere appetizer.
Madeline’s also has a tasting room and features a spectacular wine cellar, along with a wall lined with both Old and New World labels available for purchase, and includes notes about each. I couldn’t leave without a bottle of their own signature Chardonnay.
If you like morning walks on a simple, unadorned boardwalk and sunsets over a wild and natural shoreline, Moonstone Beach is where you’ll find yourself. The Fireside Inn is a cottage-like setting overlooking windswept pines and choppy surf not 25 yards away. The salt air wafts past the patio and into your room, where you sip hot chocolate by a warm fire.
In the morning, throw on your slippers and head to the breakfast room — it’s by the pool — to enjoy some waffles or sausage and eggs, and a hot cup of good coffee. It’s all complimentary, of course.
If you’re looking for something to do before sundown — when the Christmas Market begins again — Hearst Castle is just five minutes up the road and is jaw-dropping. So too is the elephant seal rookery, which, at this time of year is stunning in its own right, as the first pups arrive and remind you that joy comes in many unexpected forms.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah, as well (and I do apologize for the short shrift).