A drive reveals the beauty of the Central Coast, from quaint towns to a grand castle

The Roman Pool at Hearst Castle was inspired in part by a 5th-century mausoleum.
The Roman Pool at Hearst Castle was inspired in part by a 5th-century mausoleum. Orange County Register

Pristine coastal expanses and rolling hills characterize California’s Central Coast, and for me, this stretch epitomizes everything that is wonderful about Golden State living.

From Southern California, travelers pass through Ventura’s farmlands that butt up against the coast. In Santa Barbara, tall trees shade the 101 Freeway. Should you continue on, the rolling hills of the Los Padres National Forest give way to more gentle slopes covered in vineyards.

My blood pressure drops just thinking of these sights.

On a weekend in the dead of Southern California’s toasty Indian summer, my family woke early to make the journey to the Central Coast and Hearst Castle – dogs and all.

We left while the sun was still low in the sky and decided to casually make our way to San Simeon, visiting favorite haunts and stopping for lunch along the way.

Having left early, we reached Santa Barbara in three hours, around 10 a.m., with no traffic. The drop in temperature was immediately perceptible. It finally felt like fall. During a brief pit stop, we picked up a board game for later and continued on to our lunch destination in town of Cayucos.

The hamlet is home to about 2,600 residents, and retains its old-timey charm with stretches of wooden boardwalk and a saloon and pharmacy embellished with wagon wheels, adding a touch of rustic frontier atmosphere. Just one block from the beach sits the heavenly Cass House restaurant, with a covered patio and picture-perfect garden.

Our beautifully constructed lunches at the Cass House alone merited the drive. The vegetables were fresh, the food healthful and flavorful. Drinking cool iced tea while a gentle breeze coursed through the dining area was the height of relaxation. Only eight options are offered on the Cass House lunch menu, but it has been refined to a point that each item is expertly executed.

And it’s not just a restaurant; visitors can spend the night in one of the five restored rooms in the historic home.

After a quick stroll along the pier we made our way to San Simeon, about 30 minutes away, and stopped at Piedras Blancas to watch juvenile elephant seals wrestling in the waves and barking at one another, vying for space at the sandy rookery. It wasn’t so long ago that the elephant seal population dipped down to only 50 worldwide. To be able to see an animal once at the brink of extinction thriving in its natural habitat was a marvel.

We planned to stay close to Hearst Castle to maximize the time we could spend there the following day and picked a nearby motel, which in retrospect might have been a mistake, but it was clean, secure and allowed dogs, so it was suitable for a one-night stay.

That night we happily waited for an hour and a half to eat at the Sea Chest Oyster Bar in Cambria, a dinner-only restaurant that reliably has a long wait. The time flew by as we walked along the bluffs at sunset, sat by the outdoor fireplace and played trivia games while drinking a local red wine.

Once we were seated, it felt as though we descended into the hull of a ship. The interior of the 41-year-old restaurant was covered in wood paneling and nautical-themed decor.

After a relaxing night, we awoke ready to tour Hearst Castle and take in its grandiose collections. My family apparently missed a parade of Hearst zebras that migrated closer to the beach so the coastal air can cool them off. The palace built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sits at end of a winding road, and shuttles drive visitors the 15 minutes to the hilltop mansion.

There are four tours of the property, and we opted for the upstairs suites version that takes visitors through Hearst’s bedroom and office, if you can even call the hall where he worked an office.

The opulence at Hearst Castle stretched from floor to ceiling. During our tour we peered in several rooms, standing close enough to touch ancient relics and rare books, some pieces dating to the 1400s or older. Although our tour lasted one short hour, visitors could easily spend that much time examining all the details contained in a single room. While the famous outdoor Neptune Pool was closed during our visit, the gold and cerulean tiles of the Roman Pool were a perfect capstone to our visit. The deep blue water filling the indoor pool looked good enough to drink.

As we drove home I hoped to take a slight detour off Interstate 5 to try the Basque food of Bakersfield. Temperatures, however, climbed into the triple digits inland and there would be nowhere to safely keep the dogs happy. It would have been impossible for any of us to concentrate on anything other than what we had seen. Each member of our family remained in a stupor thinking of all the beauty we experienced in two short days.

If you go

Lodging: The Cass House in Cayucos is a gem. Rooms run $265-$345 per night. For more information, visit The Silver Surf Motel in San Simeon is by no means luxurious but is clean, safe and pet-friendly. Rates range from $99 in the offseason to $139 during the summer.

Dining: The Sea Chest is a popular seafood eatery in Cambria, but get there early. The restaurant doesn’t accept reservations.

Pro tip: Get tickets to tour Hearst Castle online before arriving. Leave extra time for the film. Tickets for daytime tours cost $12 for children, $25 for adults.