Film stars like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Charlie Chaplain once boarded the train in Los Angeles to travel through the night up the California coast. Their destination: the palatial hilltop estate of William Randolf Hearst.
Today, the Hearst Castle is the most popular tourist attraction in San Luis Obispo County, but just a small part of what keeps people coming back to the area. Breathtaking natural beauty, beach and spa resorts, fascinating California history — they're all part of a vacation on the Central Coast.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, getting to Hearst Castle took a little bit of time. After traveling most of Friday night by train, Hearst's celebrity guests were met at the San Luis Obispo station and driven by motorcar on primitive roads another couple of hours north to the castle's location near San Simeon. These Hollywood guests—usually two or three dozen—would then begin a non-stop party that would culminate in another long journey home in order to be on their movie sets Monday morning.
Today, tourists arrive at the Hearst Castle by bus - yes, even if you drive your car, you won't get to the castle unless you're riding in one of the Park Service's motor coaches that shuttle visitors up and down the winding, narrow five-mile road to the castle. With well over a million annual visitors, the castle now has a fleet of buses and a bus station to rival that of a good-size city.
Several tours are offered, so you'll need to visit more than once if you're intent on seeing the entire estate. But we found the two-hour introductory tour to be quite thorough, allowing access to many of the more spectacular parts of the castle. The tour guides here are obviously selected for their storytelling skills and ours, in particular, offered numerous anecdotes about Hearst and his many guests, and about the great time and expense that went into creating one of our country's grandest homes.
Visitors to the castle marvel at the indoor and outdoor pools - the Neptune pool took 12 years to build — as well as the architecture, gardens and fountains. The introductory tour gives a good view of the main house and its interior including sitting rooms and dining areas that are larger than those found in many hotels. Art and antiquities are everywhere, and the sweeping view of the ocean and surrounding countryside is just as spectacular as anything you find on the grounds.
As unique and historical as the Hearst Castle is, there are other parts of San Luis Obispo County that are also well worth visiting while in the area. We based our operations at the La Cuesta Inn, just a few blocks from downtown San Luis Obispo, and found fascinating tourist attractions in just about every direction. The La Cuesta, incidentally, is a good choice not only for location but because of the "3-star" amenities — a spacious room, in-room entertainment center and, from our room, a great view of the pool and spa areas.
We found San Luis Obispo itself to be an appealing destination city - a small town, really, with just 45,000 souls, but with many historical buildings downtown, and many more under renovation. The downtown area has a Norman Rockwell quality with its tree-lined streets, historic storefronts and easy-going traffic. Take Monterey Street to its downtown end and you arrive at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (circa 1772) which, today, also serves as the city's public square. It is also here that city fathers have created a tranquil walking path that follows San Luis Creek past several local eateries and bars with their outdoor decks perched along the wooded creek banks.
The other historic mission in San Luis Obispo County is in San Miguel, where the 2003 Paso Robles earthquake has limited some access to the sprawling San Miguel Archangel, founded in 1797 by Father Lasuen. Located about 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo, this site is still worth the visit even though the church itself is closed due to earthquake damage. The adobe buildings and perimeter fence make it easy to transport your thoughts back to when this mission was built to bring Christianity to the many Indians who resided in this particular part of the Central Coast region.
Drive just a few miles south from San Miguel and the Paso Robles area presents another type of getaway experience altogether - a group of 80 tasting rooms just waiting for you to stop and enjoy the fruits of these up-and-coming wineries. Paso Robles hasn't been discovered to the degree that Napa has, so prices at these California wineries are lower and the locals say the quality is just as good. In this particular region, the volcanic soil has made the local grapes especially appropriate for red wines.
We stopped by EOS Estate Winery just east of Paso Robles on Highway 46, where we watched 82-year-old Stan Meltzer put on what amounted to a clinic on Paso Robles wines. Two women from the San Francisco Bay area had stopped in for a tasting and Meltzer - who's being doing this for 16 years - shared with them his own philosophy about wine, food and the Paso Robles area grapes.
"Certain wines do a far better job of cleansing the mouth for the most important thing - the next food," Meltzer explained. "WHEN you bother to cook something eclectic - using herbs and spices and so on - and all you taste is the wine, then you've worked hard for nothing. You've overmatched your food."
Meltzer calls himself a wine "purest" because he closely matches his wines and foods. For example, the red zinfandels so prevalent in the Paso Robles area are best served with stews, pasta sauces, barbecue, French country chicken - Meltzer offered a long list of options, giving his visitors plenty of food for thought. If you're looking for travel deals, what better than to get a seminar on cooking with wine, all for the cost of just a tasting?
A short drive south and west from Paso Robles is Cambria, an artists' colony that offers a charming afternoon of shopping as well as enjoyable dining in several local restaurants. The scenery in this part of the county is what really makes it appealing - the closer you drive to the coast, the more Monterey pines appear. The combination of rolling hills, quiet winding roads and towering pines makes this a perfect gateway to the beauty of the Central California Coast. It's also here that you'll find Moonstone Beach, so named because of the semi-precious agate and jasper stones that can be found in the sand.
The beaches, in fact, are often the main reason visitors come to San Luis Obispo County for their California beach vacations. More than 80 miles of beaches are ready for exploration, each just a little different than the one preceding it. Driving Highway 1 along the coast is a kaleidoscope of colorful beach scenes that offer everything from wide, sandy beaches for sun worshippers to craggy shoreline perfect for finding tide pools and various forms of sea life.
We've enjoyed staying in romantic inns both in Cayucos and at Avila Beach, both excellent places to find beaches that are quieter and less crowded. The pier at Cayucos is an excellent place to get a close-up view of the area's many surfers in action. The beach at Avila is known locally to be the sunniest and warmest in the area, and many local inns and resorts offer exceptional travel packages.
Driving the coastline, one cannot help but notice the exceedingly wide Morro Strand State Beach with Morro Rock in the background. Kayaking along this bay is popular and the beach is so broad that there's plenty of privacy when you get ready to park your beach towels or chairs.
Pismo Beach is one of the most popular in the area and offers a pier that visitors can fish from. Nearby is a small but busy shopping district with restaurants, shops and other attractions. And down the beach a ways is the only drivable beach area in California, perfect for renting an all-terrain vehicle. Also nearby is the Oceano Dunes Park, set aside for off-highway vehicles as well as camping and other beach activities.
Maybe Hearst Castle was considered the big reward for Hollywood types going north in the 20s and 30s - today, the rewards for visitors to San Luis Obispo County are almost too numerous to mention. Whether they're taking California beach vacations or touring California wineries, the Central Coast offers a great California vacation.
WHERE: San Luis Obispo County is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the Central California Coast.
WHAT: San Luis Obispo County has an unusual variety of visitor attractions from beaches to wineries to charming seaside villages. Trips to the area range from cheap vacations camping near the beach to sometimes pricey spa vacations at top-notch resorts and inns.
WHEN: Year-round. Always check ahead for special travel deals and vacation packages offered by individual resort properties — usually in winter or in shoulder seasons.
WHY: The area is easily accessible from L.A. or San Francisco and offers some of California's best coastal scenery and a variety of California beach vacations.
HOW: For more information on San Luis Obispo County, phone (800) 634-1414 or visit www.sanluisobispocounty.com. Hearst Castle tours begin at $24 per person and, for more information, phone (800) 444-4445 or visit www.hearstcastle.com.
RECOMMENDED LODGING:Click here for several options on the Central California Coast.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
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