Big Sur, Hearst Castle…And a Broken Highway
It is a fact that the central California coast is packed with a myriad of fantastic attractions and sights. For the visitors of the area, it can be difficult to choose what to see, especially when time is limited. Having planned for only two days in this magnificent region, we had to make some tough decisions. Naturally, after doing some research, I created an ambitious itinerary that involved stopping at several different parks near the coast. I envisioned a day completely packed with sightseeing, starting with Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, continuing onto Hearst Castle, and finally, returning to Point Lobos where our kids could get their Junior Ranger badges.
To my disappointment and hubby’s relief, my plan was not meant to be. While looking for information on our iPhones, we found out that Highway 1, the PCH, was closed in a couple of sections because it had suffered damage from recent mudslides and erosion.
After moving quickly through the five stages of grief, I came to accept that what I imagined was not going to happen. Disappointed by this turn of events I had no idea what we should do. To help ease the decision, my hubby called the ranger station at Big Sur, and got information on the road closures. Then, he broke the news: We had to pick between Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Hearst Castle. The alternative roads we would be taking to get to these places were too far out of the way to allow for both in one day.
After a quick discussion, hubby and I agreed it would be interesting to check out Hearst Castle. We had already seen part of Big Sur the previous day but we had never visited this castle. Some of our friends had recommended it highly, so we thought it would be worth driving there.
On the Way to Hearst Castle
We left the Laurel Inn Motel in Salinas after inhaling our continental breakfast, and started our journey towards Hearst Castle.
In the car, I urged the kids to open up their Junior Ranger booklets for Point Lobos, and try to fill out the questions. We would be driving for a while, so I figured this would be a good time for them to complete this task. I helped by doing some research on my phone since I honestly didn’t know many of the answers myself.
At the Visitor Center
After a couple of hours, we arrived at Hearst Castle Visitor Center, and got information about the different tours that were offered. The castle was built on top of a hill, and we had to take a guided tour and a bus in order to see it up close.
We had several tour options to choose from with the two most popular ones being the Grand Rooms Tour and The Upstairs Suites Tour. Both would take us into the main Casa Grande of the castle. Seeing some grand rooms in a castle sounded like the thing to do, so we purchased our tickets for the Grand Rooms Tour. It also happened to be the recommended choice for first time visitors.
Since we had about 30 minutes until our tour, we decided to grab a quick lunch at the visitor center cafeteria. The food there was actually not too bad, but as one would imagine, it was completely overpriced.
On the Way Up to the Castle
We finished our lunch just in time to line up for the bus that was going to take us up to Hearst Castle. Our tour guide greeted us when all the people in our group were comfortably seated inside. As the bus started moving slowly out of the visitor center area, our guide began telling us the story of the castle, and the man who turned it into reality, William Randolph Hearst.
Who Was Mr. Hearst
Mr. Hearst was an interesting man who had built his fortune in the newspaper publishing business. He was born in a wealthy family, and from an early age had the chance to visit and get to know Europe. This is where he developed a fascination, even obsession, for European art and architecture. Throughout his life, he collected an incredible amount of valuable European sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and other artworks that are currently on display in the castle.
Looking for Zebras
As we were listening to the story about Mr. Hearst, the bus continued climbing up towards the castle on a winding narrow road. Our guide advised us to look out the windows and keep our eyes open for zebras. She explained that at one point, Mr. Hearst had the largest private zoo in the world, and some of the exotic animals were still roaming around the grounds. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we strained our eyes, we could not spot a zebra or anything else. The scenery however was beautiful with the rolling golden hills of the Santa Lucia Range on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other. It was an absolutely perfect California day, and everyone on the bus seemed very happy to spend part of it in this enchanted place.
When we got closer to the castle, the sounds of old Hollywood style music started carrying through the loudspeakers in the bus. It truly felt like we were going back in time to a place of style and glamour that most of us had only seen in old movies.
At Hearst Castle
At last, we arrived! The bus stopped, and everyone was exited, and ready to take it all in. It was a magnificent place with amazing views of the Santa Lucia mountains and the Pacific ocean. There were fresh looking flowers all around us, and beautifully maintained gardens and evergreens. The two front towers of the main building, Casa Grande, rose high above everything else, looking even brighter against the clear blue sky.
Our first stop was at the Neptune outdoor pool, which was unlike any pool I had ever seen. It had a large center pavilion in Roman style that Mr. Hearst brought from Europe. There were also intricate lamp stands and mosaics, accompanied by stunning views of the Santa Lucia Mountains all around.
Unfortunately, the pool was currently undergoing massive repairs due to leakage, and was missing its signature mosaic floor that is often seen in pictures of the castle. The pool however was filled with water, which apparently we were lucky to see, since until recently it was completely empty.
Sekhmet Egyptian Statues and Front Gate
After Neptune Pool, our tour continued through the garden where we stopped at two Egyptian statues and heads of Sekhmet, a powerful Egyptian Goddess who looked like a woman with the head of a lioness. We learned that in Egyptian mythology, she was a very powerful Goddess of war, fire, and healing.
Next, we took a quick stop at the front of the main Casa Grande to see its ornate gate and facade, which featured more statues and elaborate details.
The Assembly Room
After everyone was done snapping photos, we headed inside, and began the Grand Rooms Tour with the Assembly Room. This is where guests of Mr. Hearst used to gather for cocktails and chitchat. As one would imagine, the room was way over the top, decorated with Baroque tapestries, a wood-carved ceiling and a fireplace with more detail than the mind could comprehend. There were also pews lining the walls of the room, not because Mr. Hearst was a very religious man, but for decoration. In fact, one thing that is not found on the Hearst Castle property is a chapel. William Hearst apparently believed that people could worship whenever they pleased, and he didn’t see the need for a designated building for that.
From the Assembly Room, we moved into the Refectory. I admit, until that day, I had not heard that word, and had no idea that “refectory” was a term used to describe the dining hall of a monastery. In this room, there was a really long dining table with chairs lined up around it. Of course there were also more tapestries, statues, and another intricate, wood-carved ceiling.
Some kind of flags hung down from the walls all around the room, and since I couldn’t recognize any of them, I asked our guide what they were. Apparently the flags were “heraldic flags,” and had different knight symbols on them. One thing was apparent, Mr. Hearst sure had wacky taste when it came to interior decorating!
The Tea Room and The Billiard Room
After the Refectory, we moved into a smaller Tea Room, and then made our way into the Billiard Room.
Besides two billiard tables, there were more mind boggling mosaics, busy tapestries, and detailed European ceilings. Really, it was quite astounding to say the least. This is where Mr. Hearst and his guests played games of billiard well into the AM hours of the night. Our guide made a point to say that women were very much welcomed to play billiards along with the men. Mr. Hearst just wanted all of his guests to have a good time!
The Movie Theater
We completed our tour of the Grand Rooms with a visit to the castle’s theater where we watched a short, silent movie. This perfectly recreated the atmosphere of the evenings that Mr. Hearst had spent here enjoying time with his visitors.
When we exited Casa Grande, our official tour portion was over. At that point, we could take our sweet time, and hang around the gardens of the castle for as long as we wanted.
We walked around a bit longer, and enjoyed this beautiful California day among the statues and flowers of Hearst Castle. Then, we slowly started making our way towards the bus stop.
The Roman Pool
We followed everyone else who was headed in the same direction, and found ourselves inside the Roman Pool building.
There was an absolutely jaw dropping indoor pool, decorated with more of Mr. Hearst’s elaborate statues and mosaics.
An interesting fact we learned was that the Roman Pool, as well as the outdoor Neptune Pool were used by Lady Gaga in her music video “G.U.Y.” Being a fan, I actually looked it up later, and found the video showing scenes from the pool.
Leaving the Castle
The bus arrived shortly thereafter, and we had to say goodbye to Hearst Castle and all of the art and magic around it. It was time to leave and figure out how to use the remaining hours in the day. Since getting to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was not possible due to the mudslide damage on Highway 1, we really had only one option: to go back to Point Lobos State Reserve so the kids could get their California state Junior Ranger badges. With great sadness, I parted with the hope of seeing beautiful McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park on this trip.
Back to Point Lobos State Reserve
After a little over two hours of driving, we arrived at Point Lobos State Reserve. We handed the kids’ completed booklets to the ranger at the entrance station, and he checked them over. While working on them earlier, we had all learned that the name Point Lobos really means “Point of the Wolves.” It refers to the Sea Lions in the park, who sound a bit like howling, barking wolves.
California Junior Rangers
After the ranger went through the kids’ answers, he came out and asked them to repeat the Junior Ranger pledge. Then, he gave them the California state Junior Ranger badges. These were the very first state badges the kids had earned, and we were all excited for them.
Since there was still about an hour before closing time, we decided to go inside Point Lobos. This would give us a chance to continue our explorations where we left off the day before on our Central California Coast adventure.
South Shore Trail
Once in the park, we agreed to take the South Shore Trail, which was right near the water.
We could see that the coastal fog was creeping inland, and had already covered some of the bigger hills in the distance. It was actually kind of neat, and it made this whole area appear that much more mystical.
We found our way onto some pretty large rocks, and had a wonderful time watching the crashing, splashing waves.
I noticed some interesting purple balls with spikes growing in tide pools on the rocks. I later found out these were small marine animals called Purple Sea Urchins. They were quite interesting looking, indeed.
The time passed very quickly, and we realized it was almost 7:00 o’clock. The park was about to close, so we had to think about making our way back to the car. As we started walking, we noticed an area enclosed by rocks nearby where water was seeping under. This created a small, hidden beach that was covered in pebbles. The kids just had to run to it and play near the water for a bit longer.
Back to Salinas, CA
After a few more minutes of fun, it was definitely time to go. We got to our car, and headed back towards Salinas where we were staying at the Laurel Inn Motel for one more night. On the way, the kids reminded us that we needed to get some dinner, so while hubby was driving I opened Yelp on my phone. I found an interesting Mexican restaurant in Salinas called Culturas Hidalgo & Oaxaca, which obviously specialized in the cuisines of Hidalgo and Oaxaca. I had often heard from people familiar with Mexico that some of the best food in the country is found in the Oaxaca region, so I thought it might be interesting to try it out.
Tlayudas at Culturas Hidalgo & Oaxaca Restaurant
We arrived at the restaurant and were seated right away. After consulting with the owner who was from Oaxaca, hubby and I ordered a half-vegetarian, half-meat tlayuda, which is an Oaxacan specialty. The kids on the other hand, went with their usual cheese quesadillas, and weren’t interested in culinary adventures.
The tlayuda was absolutely delicious, and we considered ordering a second portion. We did, however, decide to be good, and not completely stuff ourselves. It was too bad this was our last night in Salinas, and we wouldn’t be able to come back to this restaurant once again.
After this enjoyable dining experience was over, we headed back to the Laurel Inn Motel for one more night before continuing onto new California adventures.
Join us again as we explore Pinnacles National Park on the following day of our family trip to California.
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