Welcome to another instalment of The Grand Adventure, the week-long drive which I took from Phoenix to San Francisco, part of a larger trip to America in January/February 2017. The journey began with a drive from Phoenix to Joshua Tree National Park, followed a day spent hiking in the park. That evening, I drove to Los Angeles in the rain, then spent a day in the city before setting off on the last leg, following the Pacific Coast Highway all the way to San Francisco.
The first part of the drive took me as far as San Simeon, where I’d planned to spend the day visiting Hearst Castle, before carrying on through the Big Sur to Santa Cruz, my last stop before San Francisco. However, California had other plans for me…
Rainstorms had been battering the coast that winter, resulting in a large landslip in the Big Sur which had taken out the Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, I only discovered this when I arrived at San Simeon at the end of my day-long drive from Los Angeles, leading to some hasty rescheduling that evening. The following morning, I’d worked out my new plan and was all set to go.
Since this is fairly long post, I’ve split it into five parts:
- A Brief Visit to the Big Sur
- Elephant Seals on the Beach
- Hearst Castle, Part I
- Hearst Castle, Part II
- Sunset at San Simeon
My original plan had been to drive up to Hearst Castle in the morning, spending the whole day there before returning to my hotel at three o’clock for my weekly conference call. Then, the following morning, I would carry on north, through the Big Sur, admiring the views as I went. However, with the Pacific Coast Highway closed, I was going to have double back on myself, cut over the Santa Lucia Mountains via SR 46, and pick up my old friend US 101 for the drive north.
I could have stuck to my original plans for my day in San Simeon, but since I still wanted to see the southern end of the Big Sur, I decided that I would drive up there that morning, take a look around, then come back to Hearst Castle for lunch and a shortened visit in the afternoon.
The alternative would have been to stick with my original plan to spend the day at Hearst Castle, then drive up to the Big Sur the following morning before doubling back on myself. However, I was already faced with a long enough drive the following day, and I didn’t fancy adding the extra driving (an hour’s round trip, plus however long I would inevitably spend sightseeing) before I even set off for Santa Cruz.
Having made up my mind, I set off after breakfast, driving north along the Pacific Coast Highway (which, confusingly, goes by the name “Cabrillo Highway” from San Luis Obispo all the way through the Big Sur). I went past the turn off for Hearst Castle and carried on, the hills to the east (part of the Santa Lucia range) quickly gaining in height and coming closer to the coast.
The road, which had been straight and flat, now started to twist and climb. I passed Ragged Point and crossed over San Carpoforo Creek, generally regarded as the southern boundary of the Big Sur. By now, the mountains were coming down straight into the sea, the road cutting its way along the mountainside high above the water. It was just getting really exciting, so naturally, when I turned a corner just past the Ragged Point Inn, I ran into a big “Road Closed” sign.
I suspect I could have continued beyond that point (there must have been local access, for example) but in the unlikely event something went wrong, I really didn’t want to be that guy, explaining to the car hire company how I managed to get into an accident on a road I shouldn’t even have been on. Instead, I parked up on the layby by the sign and walked on a short way to admire the views and dream of what might have been.
Returning to the car, I drove the short way back to the Ragged Point Inn and took in more of the breath-taking landscape from the viewpoint there. Then it was back in the car for the return drive to Hearst Castle, only I couldn’t help stopping a couple of times on the way to admire the views.
Just south of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, I pulled over at Elephant Seal Vista Point. Elephant Seals come ashore on this stretch of beach twice a year, once to molt and once (between December and March) to give birth and mate (in that order; the pups born in December were conceived in the previous March). It’s a very popular spot, with a car park and an elevated viewing platform so that you can watch the seals in safety.
I’ve seen grey seals before, but Elephant Seals are a completely different proposition. The clue is in the name: females can weigh up to 725 kg, while males are even bigger, weighing in at anything up to 2,250 kg! In short, they are huge!
I was there at the end of January, when the females had given birth and were nursing their pups. The beach was full of them, 100s of seals, all lying on the sand. What you don’t get from the photos is the noise, with pups crying for attention and their mothers call for them all the time. It was definitely worth the stop, but sadly, I couldn’t stay for long and was soon on my way.
From there, it was another five miles to the turn off for Hearst Castle, which I reached without further incident (that is, I resisted the temptation to pull over for more views). Hearst Castle is built on a hill, about five kilometres from the coast, but visitors park at the visitor centre, which is just off the main road. From there, you can buy tickets for guided tours (which are the only way to visit the castle), watch information films and get something to eat from the cafeteria.
Although known as Hearst Castle, it’s more a palace complex than a castle, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947 on part of a cattle ranch he inherited from his father. Modelled after grand renaissance palaces from the Mediterranean, the main building, the Casa Grande, resembles a cathedral, with multiple other buildings, including indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a tennis court. Hearst lived there until ill health forced him to move to Los Angeles in 1947 and while the castle in now in the hands of the State of California, the Hearst family still owns the surrounding ranch.
My original plan, when I was going to spend all day there, was to take two or three guided tours (each tour only covers a small part of the complex), but with limited time, I decided to just do one tour. Having bought my ticket, I got lunch at the cafetiere, then boarded the bus, which takes each tour group up to the castle itself.
The drive up from the parking lot to the castle is pretty spectacular. It takes just over 15 minutes on the way up (and is a little quicker on the way down), the bus climbing via a series of switchbacks to the top of the hill. The views are amazing, taking in the whole of the coastline, which is laid out before you. Thanks to the switchbacks it really doesn’t matter which side of the bus you sit on and, even better, the middle part of the road (the really windy bit) is one way, so you get different views on the way down.
From the bus stop, which is just under the castle, your tour guide forms you up and then takes you on your chosen tour. You do need to stay together, but it’s a pretty relaxed business, with plenty of time to take photographs and some time to explore as you move between locations. Then, at the end, you are free to spend as long as you want exploring the castle grounds before catching a bus, which run every 15 minutes, back down to the visitor centre.
I was on the Cottages & Kitchens tour, which lasted just over an hour. This avoided the main house (the Casa Grande) and instead took in two of the cottages (Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar). Mind you, to call Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar “cottages” is a bit of a misnomer. Sumptuously appointed, they served as guest quarters for the castle’s famous visitors and are luxurious multi-room villas in their own right. Set in front of and slightly below the Casa Grande, they also enjoy some wonderful views over the coast (Casa del Mar) and the mountains (Casa del Monte).
The kitchens are in the basement of the Casa Grande, and, if I remember correctly (I’m writing this four years after the tour) they provided food for the whole Hearst Castle complex, including the guests in the cottages. Unsurprisingly, the kitchens are pretty extensive and, in contrast to the opulent décor in the cottages, this was very functional, with stainless steel work surfaces, bare stone floors and whitewashed walls. The kitchens are almost 100 years old now, but at the time, they were state of the art, with multiple ovens, including bread ovens (all the bread was baked on site).
The final stop on the tour was the wine cellar, also in the basement of the Casa Grande, where I came across some interesting 100-year-old vintage port. This was from California and, I have to confess, I am normally very dismissive of port that doesn’t come from Porto, but I would have loved to have tried a glass (or even a bottle) of that!
After the wine cellar, I was free to explore. Honestly, I could have spent hours looking around the grounds, but I had to get back for my conference call, so limited myself to a couple of stops before heading off to catch my bus. Firstly, I took at look at Neptune Pool, the castle’s outdoor swimming pool (although it also includes fountains, ornamental pools, sculptures, marble pavilions, alabaster lanterns, dressing rooms, and a reconstructed temple façade). Sadly it was undergoing restoration during my visit (which has since been completed) and there was no water in the pool, while the buildings were off limits.
I had better luck with the smaller, indoor swimming pool, which is under the tennis courts on the north side of the Casa Grande. Known as the Roman pool, it reminded me of the various ancient Roman baths I have visited and, if anything, is even more opulent than Neptune’s pool. I was also fortunate to have the place to myself. However, I couldn’t linger for long and soon I was on my way to catch the bus down to the parking lot before making the short drive back to my hotel.
My original plan had been to do my conference call, which started at three o’clock that afternoon, from my hotel room. However, since this was a day for rearranged plans, my hotel, a Days Inn, had other ideas. When I’d arrived the night before, I’d unpacked and moved in before logging onto the hotel Wifi. At first, all seemed well, but then I realised that it was very, very slow.
Being British, I struggled on for a while (trying to write the second instalment of this Travel Spot, in fact, all about my return to Phoenix) before eventually going down to the manager’s office (which was in a separate building at the front of the hotel) to see if there was anything that could be done about it. Disappointingly, the duty manager said that the Wifi in residential block wasn’t working (not something that she’d thought to mention when I checked it) and that it wasn’t going to be fixed until the end of the week. It worked fine in the manager’s office (which doubled as the breakfast room), so she let me stay there and use my laptop, but she had to lock it up when she went off duty at ten o’clock that evening, at which point I’d have to leave.
By this point, it was already gone nine o’clock, and there was no way I was going to get my Travel Spot finished before ten, so it wasn’t that much use to me. At ten, I went back to my room to carry on writing and, when I’d finally finished, I took my laptop back to the manager’s office, figuring that I could stand outside to use the Wifi and upload my files.
However, the hotel also had a restaurant, Big Sur, where, for convenience, I’d eaten earlier that evening. It had its own Wifi and while it too was shut at that time of night, there was a small outdoor seating terrace at the front, complete with picnic tables, so I sat down there instead. The only problem with this strategy was that, being January, it was actually bitterly cold at night, the temperature only a few degrees above freezing, so I couldn’t stay very long before going back to my room. However, it was long enough to get my Travel Spot posted.
Fast forward to the following afternoon and there was no way the Wifi would be good enough in my hotel room for my two-hour conference call so I needed another venue. I really didn’t want to spent two hours in the manager’s office/breakfast room with people coming and going, while the Big Sur restaurant didn’t open until six o’clock, when it started serving dinner.
Instead, I went a block down the road to the San Simeon lodge, where it had a restaurant that was open all day. The coffee wasn’t up to much, but I had the place to myself, the waiter didn’t care that I wanted to sit there for a couple of hours (I also ordered a slice of pie and left a decent tip) and, best of all, the Wifi was awesome.
Had I not been leaving the following morning, I would have checked out of the Days Inn, demanded a refund, and moved into the lodge. As it was, once my call was over, I wandered down to the beach, which was just across the road, and watched my third Pacific sunset in a row. It was, in my opinion, the best yet.
Then it was back to my hotel room to write another Coffee Spot (this time, Go Get Em Tiger, which I’d visited in Los Angeles just two days before), followed by another freezing evening out by the Big Sur uploading files late into the night.
The following morning, I took my leave of San Simeon and got ready to drive to Santa Cruz, which you can read about in Part IV of The Grand Adventure.
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