The many pleasures of the Central California coast… (California ’11 – #6)

San Luis Obispo makes an excellent home base to explore the coast and the Paso Robles wine country. Today was another busy day for our family.

After a leisurely breakfast on the charming patio chez Petit Soleil, we drove about 40 miles to the coastal San Simeon area where we had made reservations to visit the Hearst Castle. For those of you who have never been, Hearst Castle is a little bit like Disneyland, except all the art and buildings are authentic and made of actual stone, marble, carved wood, and mosaics, AND visitors can’t eat/drink/chew gum during their visit. Like Disneyland, it was once the happiest place on earth, or so the legend says. The castle itself  sits on the hill William Randolph Hearst (publisher, movie producer, art collector) liked to call ” La Cuesta Encantada” (the Enchanted Hill). The estate gives the expression “mansion on the hill” a whole new meaning. 

Our guide told us there is no other place quite like the Hearst Castle. After visiting this extravagant estate, built in the Mediterranean revival style, I am tempted to agree. Statistics help understand the scope of the ambitious project, the dream of a man who knew extraordinary wealth, was an art connaisseur, and clearly enjoyed a big ego trip.  At least he did it all with panache, and shared the whole experience with his friends, including famous actors, politicians, and other celebrities in the 1930s and 1940s. 

  • Hearst Castle elevation: 1,600 ft.
  • Construction: 1919-1948
  • Total square footage Mansion/three guest houses/Roman pool: 90,080 sq ft.
  • Fireplaces: 41
  • Bathrooms: 61
  • Bedrooms: 56
  • Grounds including estate and ranch: 90,000 acres (at one point up to 250,000 acres)

Let is be known that, as of today, I feel like a wimp for declaring on a weekly basis that my 3000 square foot home and one acre of land are “too much maintenance”!

Voilà some of my favorite shots of the Hearst castle. I was not too fond of the Mansion itself. Too grand. Too dark. Too much priceless art from too many places and periods. I hear the interior of the castle is spectacular during the Holidays when thousands of visitors line up to enjoy the show. 

To be fair, I highly approve of the Roman pool (Mr Hearst had it rebuilt and expanded twice before he was finally satisfied, and it was worth it), and the gardens. They were simply magnificent and are maintained by a relatively small crew of 6 full-time and 4 part-time gardeners, all state employees. Great job, guys!

Roman pool: This will remain forever my standard
for outdoor pools!
Roman pool
Gardens and Mansion in the background
Our stylish tour guide (he has worked here for over 30 years!)
in front of the Mansion
View from the Mansion
Indoor pool (mosaics were laid by hand inside the pool
and all around the room)
Pool – Diving board
The dining room: Medieval tapestries, Italian carved wood ceiling, giant antique table worth millions of Dollars.  Ketchup and mustard… Priceless! 

After visiting the Hearst Castle, it takes time to come back to earth, literally and figuratively. It is a long bus drive from the castle back to the visitors’ center. Better to switch gears after this extravagant show and go for something more… laid back. 

We found the perfect place a few miles up the road, on Highway 1: Piedras Blancas, home of the elephant seals. Mr Hearst himself would approve. He was an animal lover and even built a zoo on his estate complete with giraffes, zebras, polar bears and impalas. 

We lucked out today. There were hundreds of elephant seals lying down on the beach, looking like giant motionless slugs. Adult females and juveniles mostly, who had just returned to molt. Junior loved the show in spite of gale force winds projecting sand all over the place.



“Hey guys, I hear they had snow in Seattle today! Seriously!”

From Piedras Blancas, we decided to drive inland to Paso Robles, a small town in the heart of fast-growing Central Coast wine country. Our friendly hoteliers chez Petit Soleil had recommended several local wineries but we did not have much time for wine tasting and Junior was with us. We settled for Calcareous Vineyard, a winery specializing in Rhone and Bordeaux style wines. It draws rave reviews locally and online alors pourquoi pas?  We drove up a very steep road for several miles until we reached the main building. Like the Hearst Castle, Calcareous Vineyard is a “mansion on the hill” and enjoys panoramic views of Paso Robles’s fertile foothills. I had heard that Paso Robles is reminiscent of Napa Valley in the 1970s before Napa became a major tourist destination. We can attest that small crowds and friendly wine makers can be found in the area. We had the place all to ourselves, while we tasted some of Calcareous’ award-winning reds. Le Husband even treated himself to a case of Syrah (to be shipped to Seattle next week). 

Les Boys at Calcareous Vineyard
Quelle vue!

Then it was time to head back to San Luis Obispo and our little corner of Provence to regroup (and for some of us to take a short nap) before dinner. The last stop of our California trip is Santa Barbara. We have been warned: We might find some rain along the way today. After so many warm and sunny days, we find it hard to believe. Come what may, we are determined to enjoy the rest of the week. Stay tuned, 

A bientôt…

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