Breathtaking natural beauty, wine regions, outdoor adventure and culinary delights make a stretch of highway in Central California’s coastal San Luis Obispo County the ideal road trip destination.
This iconic 101-mile span of magnificent rocky Pacific coastline located between Los Angeles and San Francisco is known as California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route.
With its diverse artisan towns, charismatic seaside villages, scenic rural roads rich in history and character, two-world class wine regions, 10 uncrowded beaches and 12 state parks, there’s only one way to describe this not-to-be-missed adventure—spectacular.
Stay Near the Sea
Cambria is quintessential Coastal California small town at its very best. It proved to be the perfect base for exploring the area’s natural and man-made wonders.
It’s like turning back the hands of time to an era that was simpler, slower and a world apart from hectic everyday life: There’s nothing like toasting the sunset, falling asleep to crashing waves and waking up to coffee while overlooking the wild Pacific Ocean.
That’s why staying at Blue Dolphin Inn was perfect.
Situated on Moonstone Beach with a seaside boardwalk running along the coast, this wonderful boutique hotel is not only the ideal location; it has the authentic Coastal California feel. And sunsets here are downright stunning. Tastefully decorated, luxurious-but-comfortable rooms with fireplaces celebrate the sun, sea and the tranquility of the region.
Though there’s no restaurant on property, we loved the complimentary picnic breakfast-to-go delivered to our room each morning by a local deli. And every afternoon, coffee, tea and cookies were available for guests in the lobby.
Fun in the Sun
One reason we chose a weekend getaway to the area was to see Hearst Castle. It had been years since our last visit, and it was just as incredible as we remembered it.
In 1919, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst hired Julia Morgan, a famous female architect from San Francisco to build a castle he called his “ranch at San Simeon.” The house and grounds were only part of the 270,000 acres he acquired in the rolling hills of San Simeon. His palatial abode included horse stables and even a zoo.
The magnificent Mediterranean Revival estate perched high on a hill took 28 years to complete as Hearst’s eccentricity demanded constant additions and changes.
For years, the castle was the getaway playground for Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and Marion Davies, Hearst’s West Coast mistress. The residence and grounds were also the location for a myriad of well-known movies like Spartacus, The Bodyguard and The Godfather.
The stunning castle—characterized by 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, exuberantly adorned indoor and outdoor swimming pools and an obsessive world collection of art, statues and paintings—is now a California state park, donated by the family-owned Hearst Corporation.
Our tour of the awe-inspiring mansion and grounds was more than impressive, with panoramic views of the mountains, countryside and Pacific Ocean almost indescribable.
Included in the tour package was a superb film in the visitor center’s giant-screen IMAX theater called “Building the Dream.” Breathtaking cinematography and vintage clips from the 1920s and 30s give patrons an inside look at the inspiration behind the construction and history of Hearst Castle.
Just four miles north of Hearst Castle, the Piedras Blancas Seal Rookery on Highway 1 is home to thousands of elephant seals that have been migrating from the open ocean to these coastal shores each year since 1990, to mate and birth pups.
At one time, these enormous seals were hunted almost to extinction for their blubber. Today, due to conservation efforts, locals and visitors alike get to watch these magnificent mammals in their natural habitat. There is no parking or entrance fee, and docents on site are more than willing to answer questions and provide fascinating facts.
Just up the road from the rookery, we could see the flashing beacon of Piedras Blancas Light Station from miles away. Tours are available on select days providing visitors a glimpse of the past when lighthouses served as the only warning to vessels of dangerous shoals ahead.
Everyone loves a beach, but one that attracts ardent beachcombers is even better.
Moonstone Beach in Cambria is located along a gorgeous stretch of coastal bluffs with waves crashing onto rocks, sea lions basking in the sun and moonstone gems on its sandy shores. These stones were so-named by the ancient Greeks because they evoke the moon’s delicate, ethereal light. And yes, we found more than a handful on our beach stroll.
This strand is also known for the massive amounts of driftwood the crashing waves carry to shore. It’s all for the taking; Locals and visitors come at low tide to gather their share of the sea wood. There’s plenty to go around.
The 8,000-foot-long boardwalk along the shore is a great place for walking and jogging.
Picnickers and hikers love Leffingwell Landing Park at the north end of Moonstone Beach. The park provides picturesque beach access with great tide pooling. Picnic tables are also available on the overlook above the beach. A relaxing one-mile hike leads to the mouth of San Simeon Creek where it waters empty into the Pacific Ocean.
Nestled in a small cove protected by San Simeon Point, historic San Simeon Pier is the focal point of William Randolph Hearst State Beach.
The 850-foot long pier isn’t big but it’s beautiful, and sunsets here are incredible. The jetty is a popular fishing spot, and one local said that some of the best mussels on the coast can be harvested among its kelp pilings.
Wine and Dine
The most northern terminus of the Pacific Wine Trail begins oceanside at Hearst Winery, just across the street from the castle. The wines are produced in nearby Paso Robles, but a tasting room for patrons sits inside the historic Sebastian Brother’s General Store.
Built in 1852 at the peak of the whaling industry, the store is part of the Old San Simeon Village, once the center for the area’s rural commerce. Ranching and whaling antiquities line the walls of the tasting room.
Vintage post office boxes along the back wall remind visitors that the store once served as the town’s first post office.
The tasting menu features both red and white wines of the highest caliber. And they are good—so good, no one seems to leave without taking some home.
No worry about drinking on an empty stomach, as the store provides an onsite eatery with a fantastic local reputation. Kelly, our expert wine server suggested two of their specialties and we’re glad we took her advice.
We walked up to an order window for our Fish & Chips (locally caught) and the Hearst Ranch Beef burger made with beef from the adjacent Hearst family ranch. Outside tables overlook the pastoral grounds where the old San Simeon schoolhouse still sits.
Wine, good food and atmosphere made for an unforgettable visit.
For breakfast, we headed into the heart of downtown Cambria to charming Linn’s Restaurant. This eatery started out as a family farm fruit stand. Food here is described as contemporary country, and breakfast was one of the best we’ve had on the California coast.
Their breakfast quiche was flavorful and moist, and my hubby savored another of Linn’s favorites, the Bin Special, with practically every ingredient imaginable served in a towering stack.
We just had to try Linn’s famous Olallieberry pie, made with berries grown on the Linn’s farm. The homemade pie had the flakiest crust we’ve ever tasted, and the berry (a blackberry-raspberry hybrid) was delectable. Good news is you can take one to go, along with other pastries and delights sold onsite.
Dinner at the Grill at Cass House in the nearby coastal town of Cayucos was a special culinary experience. We just had to visit its open kitchen with wood-burning oven to meet the talented chef and his team.
The popular dining area is an open pavilion with individual and shared tables. Food is seasonally sourced from Central Coast farms. Pastas are house-made, and my mushroom fettuccine was as good as it gets. Massive oak-grilled prawns featured a flavorful marinade that still let the shrimp speak for itself.
William Wordsworth once said the “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”
It’s no wonder William Randolph Hearst chose this amazing region to build the castle he always dreamed about.
But it’s the friendly people and their firm commitment to protect this precious land kissed by Mother Nature that inspire others to come and share in its magnificent bounty.
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