Hearst Castle and San Simeon

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 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 and the Rupert Murdoch of his day, Hearst inherited the land, and most of his fortune, from his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst (his father was mining mogul George Hearst), 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, $66 and up) or Motel 6.

Cambria

Without Hearst Castle, Cambria would be just another farming town, but being next to one of the state’s top tourist attractions has turned Cambria into quite a busy little hive. Apart from a few hokey tourist-trapping souvenir shops at the north end of town, it’s a casual, walkable, and franchise-free community of arts and crafts galleries, boutiques, and good restaurants; from Hwy-1, Main Street makes a three-mile loop around to the east, running through the heart of town.

Hearty breakfasts are available at the Redwood Café (2094 Main St., 805/927-4830), while well-prepared multiethnic and vegetarian food is on the menu at Robin’s (4095 Burton Dr., 805/927-5007), a half block off Main Street. For barbecue, burgers, and beer, check out the Main Street Grill (603 Main St., 805/927-3194, cash only). Places to stay range from nice older motels like the Bluebird Inn (1880 Main St., 805/927-4634, $95 and up) to the spacious suites and cabins at Cambria Pines Lodge (2905 Burton Dr., 805/927-4200, $115 and up), which has a nice pool high on a hill between town and the beach. For a relaxing overnight, try the lovely little Bridge Street Inn (4314 Bridge St., 805/215-0724), a block from downtown, which offers reasonable B&B rooms as well as shared HI-approved hostel beds.

Five miles south of Cambria, Harmony (pop. 18) is a former dairy town turned arts and crafts colony, with a range of galleries and a small wedding chapel.

Map of Pacific Coast through California's Central Coast.
Map of Pacific Coast through California’s Central Coast.
Travel map of Cambria and San Simeon
Cambria and San Simeon