The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
San Simeon: Hearst Castle
At the south end of Big Sur, the mountains flatten out and turn inland, and the coastline becomes rolling, open-range ranch land. High on a hill above Hwy-1 stands the coast’s one totally unique attraction, Hearst Castle. Located 65 miles south of Big Sur village and 43 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle is the sort of place that you really have to see to believe, though simple numbers—115 rooms, including 38 bedrooms in the main house alone—do give a sense of its scale.
Even if Hearst’s taste in interior design (or his megalomania, which by all accounts was understated in his fictional portrayal in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane) doesn’t appeal, Hearst Castle cries out to be seen. One of the last century’s most powerful and influential Americans (the Rupert Murdoch of his day), Hearst inherited the land, and most of his fortune, from his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst (his father was George Hearst, a mining mogul), and began work on his castle following the death of his mother in 1919. With the help of the great California architect Julia Morgan, who designed the complex to look like a Mediterranean hill town with Hearst’s house as the cathedral at its center, Hearst spent more than 25 years working on his “castle”—building, rebuilding, and filling room after room with furniture—all the while entertaining the great and powerful of the era, from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill.
A small museum (daily, free) in the visitors center, next to where you board the trams that carry you up to the house, details Hearst’s life and times. If you want to go on a tour (800/444-4445, $25 and up adults), the Grand Rooms Tour gives the best first-time overview, taking in a few rooms of the main house. There’s also an Upstairs Suites Tour and a Cottages & Kitchen Tour; each takes around 45 minutes, not including transit time. All tours also come with the option of watching a 40-minute movie giving the background on Hearst and his house-building. Advance reservations are all but essential, especially in summer.
Since Hearst Castle is rather isolated, it’s a good idea to stay the night before or after a visit at nearby San Simeon, which has grown into a massive strip of motels. There’s a pair of inexpensive overnight options: the San Simeon Lodge (9520 Castillo Dr., 805/927-4601, $60 and up) or Motel 6.