Have a long weekend and not sure what to do with it? Try this on for size. My friend Paula and I decided to spend last Friday through Monday exploring in her Eurovan. The original idea was to motor down the always scenic Highway 1 with the first night’s stop in Big Sur. But, Big Sur is so popular, every campsite, including the private camps, had been booked for months. I was also reminded that Highway 1 is still closed south of Big Sur due to a massive mud slide 2 winters ago. This forced us inland and away from the coast. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Our route sent us through Paso Robles, which to the uninitiated, is like a small unpretentious Napa. When in Rome…or Paso…drink wine!
After two hours in the car we were ready to stretch our legs so we followed the winding, pastoral road that rose and fell through the verdant hillsides spotted with oaks to Tablas Creek Winery. I had packed us a picnic lunch of rotisserie chicken legs and an antipasto salad full of artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, briney olives, white beans, and roasted bell peppers. A lunch like that wouldn’t be complete without a splash of wine and the Tablas Creek staff were there and ready to help. We tasted and nodded and decided on a bottle to go with lunch. But wait, what about dinner? And the night after that? Paula remembered she needed a gift for someone. One bottle turned into several cases. Good thing for the capacious Eurovan! Well fed, relaxed, and happy we loaded up the van and turned west towards the coast. We ooohed and aaahed as we puttered past fields of wildflowers, orderly vineyards, and muted avocado orchards. Finally the canyon burst open to an expansive view of the sea, white-capped and frothy in the spring winds.
Our destination for the evening was San Simeon State Park, a hidden gem. The sites were grassy and you could choose between shady trees or out in the sun. The area tends towards foggy and chilly as it’s by the beach so we opted for sun. Each site sports a fire/cooking pit and a picnic table. Bathrooms are plentiful and clean and come with coin operated hot water showers. There is a deep outdoor sink with hot water to wash your dishes. How had we never heard of this place before? There were hiking trails to the beach or back towards the hills from camp. We checked in and claimed our site and then motored back a few miles to the seaside town of Cambria. We browsed a musty, used book shop whose owner tried to sell us on a book about Hell’s Angels. There were so many nooks and crannies it seemed possible to get lost! We happened upon the Friday evening farmers market and loaded up on juicy peaches, chocolate covered walnuts, a sheep’s milk bleu cheese, and cocktail mixers such as lavender honey and blood orange with chilli. Just the bare necessities. Dinner was at Robin’s located in a charming Victorian house. Salmon bisque, braised pork belly, crispy brussels sprouts in a walnut vinaigrette, and a burrata salad with baby golden beets, English peas, asparagus, and watermelon radish all tossed in a pistachio pesto with lemon oil were on our table that night. Stuffed to bursting we putt putted back to camp where we popped the pop top, and slept the sleep of the dead. Or the very full.
The next morning we had a tour of the 143 year old Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. It was a lovely site and the volunteers have truly put an astounding amount of work into restoring it to its original condition. We learned all about the history and how lighthouses work, the living conditions, and funny anecdotes. Did you know each light house flashes its light in a distinct pattern? Ships that plied the coastline had a map that listed each light house, what color it was painted and the light pattern it flashed. That’s how they knew where they were. This was before GPS, of course. Neat, huh?
Next stop was the Elephant seal rookery. This is a special beach that the elephant seals have deemed not too hot, not too cold, but juuuust right. The males come to fight, the females come to pup and the pups learn to swim in the protected bay. The males make a rumble through their large noses that sounds all the world (to me) like a Harley Davidson or a farting outboard motor. They look like giant gallumphing Jabba the Huts and this particular spot is very good for getting quite close without any danger.
The wind, sunshine, and walking had left us both ravenous. We’d heard through the grapevine that an ocean view general store called Sebastian’s served up a mean grass-fed burger or tri tip sandwich from the Hearst fields just a few miles away. They did not disappoint and we had a bottle of our Tablas Creek wine to wash it down.
That evening we had tickets for a special evening tour of Hearst Castle. If you’ve never been, I’d highly recommend it. The 5 mile drive up to the estate was worth the admission fee. We climbed up and up through fields spotted with Angus and…zebras? Yes, Mr. Hearst had a herd of zebras and their ancestors still run wild across his thousands of acres. The setting sun was a warm gold and it made everything glow. The lights around the estate started to twinkle as we arrived.
The wealth of William Randolph Hearst is unimaginable and it’s on full display at Hearst Castle. I can’t even fathom how much money he had. The tour took us through the gardens and the pool area, through the guest houses and of course, the main estate.
The wealthy and the famous were invited as guests and sometimes the invitation of 3 or 4 days would be extended to weeks. During the day, the guests were encouraged to swim, play tennis, or take a horse and go explore the ranch which now at 80,000 acres, is smaller than it once was. Every night at 5:30 was cocktail hour and there was a formal dinner following. The evening tour included people dressed up in vintage attire, a nice touch.
The tour was jaw dropping and concluded with a short black and white film salvaged from the collection in the downstairs theater. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.
The next morning after a little sleep in and a pot of french pressed coffee we packed up camp and headed to San Luis Obispo. The downtown is delightful, chock-a-block full of little boutiques, specialty shops, and fantastic restaurants. There’s a little creek that runs through town with a walking path alongside. Some of the restaurants have creek side dining. I must also admit that the 8 years I spent going to college and working my first “real” job while living in San Luis Obispo were quite idyllic and it holds a special place in my heart. Before we hit the shops and restaurants in town we had a goal. We wanted to hike to the top of Madonna Peak. It isn’t overly long, but it is straight up. The sun warmed the chaparral and brought back the smell of my college days to me causing me to reminisce perhaps a bit much, to Paula, who was a good sport about listening. We huffed and puffed our way up the fragrant, but exposed, dry trail until we reached the top and were treated to this view and a cool breeze.
This chain of mountains is called the Seven Sisters. It is the remanent of an ancient string of volcanoes. The exterior has completely eroded and what is left is simply the core.
The evening turned out to be a chilly one and I was glad for the Eurovan in place of my usual tent. We made hot toddys and sat inside the van and had a picnic. Watching a group of young German boys try to set up a tent for the first time provided live entertainment.
Monday after a leisurely breakfast and stroll along the bluffs overlooking the ocean, it was time to head back home. Having no particular time-table made the drive more enjoyable than usual and we found ourselves at an impromptu stop at the San Miguel Mission. I’ve wondered what that looked like for 30 years and never taken the time to go look. It was beautiful. See for yourself. No really. Go see for yourself!