I heard about Hearst Castle on my very first visit to California, way, way back in 1991—another lifetime ago. Freshly graduated from college, I was in the Golden state for a friend’s wedding, after which my then-boyfriend and I, took a road-trip south down Highway 1 and through Big Sur.
We were urged to visit Hearst Castle to witness an important piece of Californian history, but being from a land where castles abound and history goes back well over 1,000 years, in our youthful arrogance, we decided to skip it. It took me nearly 25 years to make the trip and I have to admit, it was worth the wait.
First the journey. If you haven’t driven down Highway 1 from San Francisco before, do that. But make sure you have days to spare. The 200 miles-plus of coastline is simply splendid, and you will hit a never-ending parade of great places: from Montara Beach (just for a walk, but I love it), to Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur… the list is endless.
The roads are windy and you will want to linger to drink in the views: sparkling ocean, heady cliff-drops, pine forests, kelp forests, sea otters and dolphins. This whole stretch of the coast is truly heaven on earth, which, as it turns out, is exactly why Hearst wanted to build his castle high on the hill above San Simeon.
We, however, decided to take the faster 101 route, as our final destination was Manhattan Beach, south of LA, and Hearst Castle gave us a good excuse to spend the night on our way. I picked the FogCatcher Inn on Moonstone Beach, Cambria, as the place to rest our weary heads.
The week after Christmas is peak season, so prices jumped to over $200/night. During the low season you can get a deal for about half of that amount, which is probably what the place is worth. Mostly a gussied-up motel, the best thing about the FogCatcher Inn is that is is right on the coast. You simply cross a quiet road to get to the beach and a long coastal path. We arrived just in time to watch the spectacular sunset and on my run, early the next morning, I was accompanied by dolphins, the setting moon and the rising sun. It was just as magical as it sounds.
The next morning we made the 13 minute drive to the visitor center at Hearst Castle. Buy tickets in advance and if you’re planning your day, allow time for the 5-mile bus journey up and down the steep hill to the top where the Castle sits. The views are spectacular. There are a number of tours to choose from, and ideally, you’ll want to spend the whole day here and do two or three of the tours on offer. Be warned, no food or drink is allowed or served on the grounds – there are some items on sale in the visitor center at the bottom though.
Hearst started construction with his architect, Julia Morgan, when he was 56 years old, and 28 years later they still weren’t done. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of this place too much, but suffice to say, it didn’t look anything like I had imagined. It was built as an homage to European buildings and as a museum for the many artifacts Hearst had acquired on his travels. The re-creation of everything from Gothic church doors to Baroque-style halls, and fountains to showcase Egyptian sculptures, beggars belief.
Once you’re done, instead of spending money on the sub-par food in the visitor center, why not zip over to Sebastian’s, an historic store, close to San Simeon pier. With wine tasting and a cafe featuring grass-fed beef raised on the Hearst estate, it’s a nice contrast to the insane opulence of Hearst castle.
Monkey couldn’t resist the chili fries, but couldn’t finish them either. I grabbed a cup of bean-free chili – which was super rich, hate to think why, but it filled a hole. And all too soon, we were off on the next four-hour leg of our loooong journey – this time with Manhattan Beach in our sights. But first we had to see someone about some cheese…