The Rocket Scientist and I spent the weekend in Cambria, California, a quaint (as in the cutesy and somewhat overpriced sense) seaside town about 10 miles south of San Simeon. And, for all of you who may be in that part of the country, some suggestions....
If you are driving from the Bay Area, unless the weather is God-awful, drive down Route 1 to get there. It will take a couple more hours, but Big Sur has stunning scenery whereas Salinas does not. We were lucky. Although it looked overcast and gloomy when we had to make the decision to leave U.S. 101 to go over to Monterey, we gambled and it panned out: the weather cleared and the drive was movie-scenery gorgeous. That's not an exaggeration: if you see a car ad with people driving over a bridge with arched supports spanning a chasm next to a seaside cliff, you are almost certainly looking at Bixby Creek Bridge.
We stayed at the El Colibri Hotel in Cambria. It was lovely: the room was beautiful, with a spa tub and a fireplace. In fact, the gas fireplace was the heater for the room. The continental breakfasts were nothing much -- you would be better off going into town to Linn's Restaurant.
Cambria is a good jumping-off point for three very different activities. Twenty miles north, Piedros Blancos lighthouse is the seasonal home for a large colony of elephant seals. Elephant seals are impressive creatures, but since we had limited time (and I've seen elephant seals before, at Ana Nuevo north of Santa Cruz), we skipped them. However, we did walk along the Moonstone Beach in Cambria: any place there is beach access is well worth taking a stroll.
On Saturday, we drove through the Paso Robles wine country. Think Napa, only less crowded. (Of course, I've never been to Napa in November.) We did not visit all that many actual wineries, but driving around the spectacular rolling hills covered in the vineyards' brilliant fall foliage to reach some of the more remote ones was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
I have hit a problem here: how many times can one say "wonderful," "beautiful," "scenic," "spectacular" or "amazing" and not be completely boring?
Reading the blurbs in the visitor's guide, the Paso Robles wineries seem to produce mostly reds. That was certainly true with the four we visited. One of those was Kukkula, where we purchased another bottle of the Lagniappe (a zin, syrah, grenache and mourvedre blend). We also went to Eos, which had less impressive offerings, and came away with a dessert wine. On Sunday, we visited Lone Madrone (simply to try their Bristol's apple cider, which is a must if you like complex, fruity yet dry ciders) and Barrel 27. We visited the last pretty much based on their winery guide blurb being the most humorous, least pretentious description of any winery anywhere. The lack of pretention was appropriate: Barrel 27 is located in a small office/commercial park. It was clearly the winery, though, and not merely the tasting room: you could see the wine barrels in the back. Lack of pretention does not mean lack of quality: Barrel 27 also had what were probably my favorite wines: the Rock and a Hard Place Grenache, and especially the Bull by the Horns red blend.
The highlight of the trip came Saturday evening with the evening tour of San Simeon. I have been several times to Hearst Castle during the day: it's pretty much a standard tourist experience; Disneyland without the rides. At night, however, and near the holidays....
For the night tour, people in period costume wander through the estate, hanging out in the rooms chatting or playing billiards, interacting with the tour guides that come through. (The Rocket Scientist had the best description: "It's a Depression-era Ren Faire.") The buildings seem much more like what they were -- a house, albeit an insanely extravagant one -- and less like a oddly put together art museum. The house was brilliantly lit up, and the Christmas decorations had been put in place in many of the rooms. (Our docent, dressed in 1930s suit, with period overcoat and hat, mentioned that the Christmas decorating had to start early since it took so long to finish all of it.)
Because of my mobility issues (over three hundred stairsteps were simply not going to be possible for me), we took the Handicapped Accessible tour. On the one hand, we did not see the upper floors of the main house, which included Hearst's suite, which is by all accounts fascinating. We also did not view the staggering outdoor pool. On the other hand, our tour had a grand total of five people: the Rocket Scientist, myself, and a young couple, one of who was on crutches (and then on a wheelchair) and our guide. We were driven through the grounds from house to house on a small golf cart. Best of all, we had a knowledgeable (in addition to being a professor of communications at Cal Poly, he had also written a master's thesis on the relationship between Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan) and chatty guide, and got more information (and certainly were better able to ask questions) than those on the thirty-person tours.
If you have never seen Hearst Castle, by all means go during the day. You have more of a chance to see around the grounds, and as I said, viewing the outdoor pool should be pretty much mandatory. If you have seen it already, take the night tour.
Sunday, we drove back through the Paso Robles wine country to 101. The weather had turned bad, and while Big Sur is a delight in nice weather, the thought of driving it with sheets of rain hitting the windshield makes me faintly nauseous.
All in all, Cambria, the Central Coast, and Paso Robles get high marks all around.