Feb 1, 2010

California’s Central Coast, Part 1: Hearst Castle and Cambria

 Outdoor Swimming Pool, Hearst Castle   Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez
The Culinary Gadabout is on the road again. This time my travels have brought me to California's mid-coast region: Hearst Castle, San Luis Obispo, Cambria, Avila Bay, Pismo Beach, and Morro Bay.

This is the first in a three-part series:
  • Part 1, which you're reading, discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2 covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
Hearst Castle

Yesterday I had the great good luck to be invited, along with five other travel and food writers, to lunch on the patio of Casa del Mar--the largest guest house at Hearst Castle. Beforehand I worried that I'd feel intimidated by all the gold-leaf ceilings and centuries-old finery, but that wasn't the case. Despite the lavish pomp and wealth of the surroundings, Hearst wanted his guests to feel comfortable and relaxed. An "ease of use" feel was built into the property right from the beginning, and all these decades later it hasn't gone away.

Over the years I've visited Hearst Castle 7 or 8 times, but it's always exciting. Besides, this place is so beautiful, so vast, and so unique that it takes many visits to comprehend what you're seeing. And no matter how many times you visit, it's impossible to even begin to understand the sheer audacity William Randolph Hearst possessed in dreaming up such an undertaking. Not to mention actually carrying it out.

What Hearst put together on this bit of California coast is akin to Louis XIV dreaming up and creating Versailles. Like Louis, Hearst loved art and beautiful objects. Like Louis, he wanted a home where he and his guests could be surrounded by the beauty he'd collected. Like Louis, Hearst had the money, the power, the will, and the drive to bring his ambition to reality. Unlike Louis, Hearst's dream is now managed by caretakers who invited me for lunch.

While eating we gazed down the mountain, across the endless expanse of Hearst property, and out over the blue Pacific. It’s been raining heavily throughout the state for a couple of weeks, but yesterday was a day of pause between storms. The sky was partly overcast, with plenty of blue shining through, and the sun flirted in and out of the clouds.

Lunch was accompanied by lively conversation and lots of laughter from our group—but also by the ghosts of people and times past. How many over the years had lolled on this porch, just as I was doing, nibbling a sandwich while pondering the magnificent scenery? And who where they? Gable, Lombard, Hepburn, Chaplin, Cary Grant? Quite likely. At one point I wandered around the patio, away from my companions, and sprawled on a white marble chaise to contemplate the view and relish the unlikely reality of being alone for a few moments at Hearst Castle—just like any honored guest from the past.

Here’s the good news for you: starting this March, Hearst Castle is introducing the self-guided Gardens and Vistas Tour. That’s right: self-guided. Imagine strolling through the gardens at Hearst Castle just like any guest in the 1930s, sitting on a bench while listening to water flowing in the fountains and admiring the statuary. The tour ends at sunset, so you’ll actually be able to watch the sun descend into the ocean before boarding the tram and making your way downhill. I'm betting that, starting when the self-guided tour gets underway, a good many proposals and even more propositions will take place on the grounds of Hearst Castle as that sun sets.

The price of $24 per adult ($12 for children 6-17) includes the movie, “Hearst Castle: Building the Dream.” Shown on the giant screen at the Visitor Center, the fascinating film is filled with vintage clips and explains the background and building of the Castle. It’s a must-see when you visit here; I’ve watched it twice and it was just as interesting the second time.

Download a free brochure about Hearst Castle


My group of writers is staying two nights at the Cambria Pines Lodge in the arty coastal town of Cambria. The 26-acre Lodge is known for its beautiful and often whimsical themed gardens (one of my favorite flower beds here is an actual bed frame covered with blooms). A pathway composed of native California plants leads to the associated nursery and florist. The garden contains firepit gazebos; an extensive collection of succulents; excellent mosaic and stone work; and a whole lot more.

Cambria itself is one of my favorite coastal towns, small and artsy. The area is rife with artists, thanks to the arts program at California Polytechnic State University in nearby San Luis Obispo, and many live in and around Cambria. So expect to find  many galleries here.

Cambria has a number of excellent restaurants. Last night we dined at Robin’s Restaurant, which delivers all the way on its promise to serve “handcrafted global cuisine.” In business since 1985, Robin's has been devoted for decades to local sourcing of ingredients, so the menu changes frequently. The setting is cozy, intimate—and friendly.

Summer Garden at Robin's Restaurant   Credit: SLO VCB

We shared a diversity of Robin’s tapas—Indian Spiced Lamb and Sweet Pea Phyllo Rolls, Saffron-Sherry Steamed Mussels and Clams, and Sesame Seared Ahi Sashimi were among my favorites. Big hits among the entrees were the Korean BBQ Glazed Flat Iron Steak and Slipper Lobster Enchiladas. One of the signature dishes, Salmon Bisque, received raves from most, but it was my least favorite.


Cambria Pines Lodge: Discussed above, the Lodge has significant gardens and lovely rooms. It's a great base for exploring the coast; you can also walk into “downtown” Cambria from here for dinner or shopping and leave your car behind.

Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort: Just a few miles down the road from Hearst Castle (and on former Hearst land), this family-owned resort gets a 50% repeat visitor return. After a conversation with the owner it’s easy to see why: he, and his entire family, believe that the customer rules. The property is on Highway 1, smack dab on the ocean. They have a three-tier rate, with ocean-front rooms being the most expensive. Even if you don’t have an ocean view, though, you are but steps away from the sand and you’ll hear the waves pounding to shore all night long.

  • Part 1 of this series, which you're reading, discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2 covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3 discusses Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve.
A popular book about driving on the California Coast was written by my friend, Karen Misuraca:

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