Cambrian: Opinion

Cambria Christmas Market: A scouting report from opening night

Raise the fyrd!

Since Samaire and I started watching the Netflix historical drama “The Last Kingdom,” I’ve wanted to say that. (A fyrd is a sort of militia used in Saxon England against the Danes during the Viking age).

In Cambria, the closest I can come is serving as a scout to brave the madding hordes of visitors to the Cambria Christmas Market and report back to those interested in doing the same.

To be fair, the hordes really weren’t madding (jostling is more like it), but hordes they were on the opening night of the incredibly popular seasonal attraction. It opened the day after Thanksgiving and, with a few nights off between now and then, runs through Dec. 23.

I made it through the experience unscathed and returned to my encampment to issue a report. Here are my observations:

There and back again

You can reserve tickets online, which we chose to do in light of a county permit limiting attendance to 3,000 per night. This was the only night my stepson was available to visit the market, and I didn’t want to risk missing it.

I had no problem forking over the $20 ticket price to attend on one of the designated “busy nights.” When Samaire got there and declared the place “better than Disneyland,” I knew it was a bargain. (Although I will admit that the cheapskate in me likes the $5 midweek price even better).

It’s mildly annoying to pay the “convenience fee” that comes with an online purchase — in this case, a few pennies more than $2 per ticket — but on the plus side, there’s no charge for parking, which is huge. When we drove to Santa Clara for a 49ers-Rams game earlier this year, we paid more to park than we did for a single ticket!

Not all buses are created equal. Visitors aren’t allowed to park at Cambria Pines Lodge (where the event is held) or on neighborhood streets, so they must choose one of three pickup points for shuttle service — the Brambles on Burton Avenue at Rodeo Grounds Road, Coast Union High School or Cambria Grammar School.

I opted for the Brambles, because it was closest, and even though we arrived a half-hour early, we still had to wait for the third bus because of the crowd. To my delight, it was a “party bus,” with seats along the sides and plenty of legroom. This is important if you’re 6-foot-5.

Unfortunately, on the way back, we wound up on a school bus, with enough leg room for a middle school student. I didn’t fit into those seats even when I was in middle school; as an adult, I felt like a king crab trying to contort itself into a lotus position. Fortunately, the shuttle trip wasn’t too long, and the buses taking us back down the hill arrived and departed quickly.

A couple, right, stops to take a selfie amid throngs of visitors in the lighted tunnel entrance to the display area at the Cambria Christmas Market on opening night, Friday, Nov. 24. Stephen H. Provost

The market

The market and light festival more than lived up to the hype. I visited two years ago, and it’s expanded since then, with more vendor booths and, organizers say, close to 2 million lights.

We thought we’d get some food first and then tour the lights, but a lot of other people had the same idea, so I wound up waiting in line for about 20 minutes. The lines weren’t well organized, and it wasn’t clear whether there was supposed to be a single line for two cashiers or two separate lines at the booth we chose. But it was just the first night, so some confusion is to be expected.

The market has a fun selection of vendors. We bought four wooden tree ornaments for just $22 at one booth (you won’t find prices like that at Disneyland, either!), and I picked up a scented horseshoe-shaped, microwavable pillow for my perpetually sore neck.

The attractions

A word of caution: Watch where you’re going as you pass through the attraction’s famous lighted tunnel. It’s a popular place for people to stop and take selfies, so it can resemble an obstacle course at times. (Some couples even stopped to get shots of themselves smooching, and we couldn’t resist doing the same).

My favorite experiences included:

▪  Walking through a short tunnel of white lights and dangling snowflakes, which seemed to mesmerize a few young children who rode through the section on adult shoulders.

▪  Stopping to listen to a three-piece instrumental group play Christmas songs and carols on the stage below the main path.

▪  The eggnog, plain or spiked (I’m a sucker for eggnog).

▪  And, of course, the lights.

The highlights of the Cambria Nursery section, across Burton Avenue, are reindeer cutouts the size of a moose and a gigantic Christmas-themed shop with seemingly more Santas than there are elves at the real North Pole. (Yes, there really are a lot of elves at the North Pole, and if you care to deny it, I hereby sentence you to watch “The Santa Clause” at least three times between now and Christmas.)

We stopped to take pictures in the giant wooden cutout Christmas cards, and walked the entire path — sometimes amid what seemed to be a winding river of human bodies. It really was busy, and it was a good thing we got there early. We arrived at 5 and didn’t end up leaving until after 8, less than an hour before the market closes. Arriving late is not an option I’d recommend, especially on a busy night.

Was it worth it? Let’s put it this way: Samaire loves Disneyland, and she thinks it’s better than that. Nuff said.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune