Thursday, July 8, 2010

Central Coast Driving Trip

We had a few days (and a tight budget) to get away last week, so decided to take a driving trip down the central coast of California between here and Santa Barbara.  We had a great time and saw some amazing stuff!

We spent our first night at Asilomar, a California State Park conference facility located in Pacific Grove, just north of Carmel.  The husband and I had both been there before, but the kids hadn't.  It's a beautiful collection of Julia Morgan designed Arts & Crafts buildings right on the beach.  Wish we had had warmer weather, but we enjoyed it anyway.  We had dinner that night at Peppers in Pacific Grove.  It was muy delicioso, especially the Blood Orange Margaritas!
From Asilomar, we drove down Highway 1 stopping here and there along Big Sur.  It's gorgeous!  I had packed a cooler with sandwich fixings, so we had a picnic lunch along the way.

Just north of San Simeon, we made a quick stop at Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals.  The elephant seals gather there this time of year to shed their old fur and grow new fur.  The State of California has done a fabulous job of building boardwalks so you can get pretty close to the elephant seals without disturbing them.  We've been to Año Nuevo before, but this was a totally different experience and well worth the stop.

To add to the "I can't believe we just saw that" feeling, as soon as we got back in the car and headed toward our hotel, we saw a gen-u-ine, Marlboro Man quality cowboy lassoing cows in a field along the highway.  And a mile or two further south, we saw zebras grazing in a field with a herd of angus cows.  The husband always tries to imagine the conversations between cows and this particular interpretation had us in stitches!

We stayed at the Best Western Fireside Inn in Cambria because I couldn't get reservations at the Best Western Cavalier in San Simeon a few miles up the road.  Either fits the bill, although we enjoyed the easy access to Moonstone Beach from the Best Western in Cambria.

The next day, we headed to Hearst Castle.  I had booked tickets ahead for Tour #1 - the "Experience Tour."  It includes the Neptune Pool, some of the gardens, one of the guest houses and many of the larger public rooms in the main house.  (You can purchase tickets on the spot, but you may have to wait a couple of hours for available space.)  The tour includes admission to the 45 minute IMAX film about the building of Hearst Castle.
We all agreed that we enjoyed it so much, we could have done a second tour.

Our tour guide was incredible!  He did an amazing job of informing us about the Hearst family, including how George Hearst made his millions from silver during the Gold Rush and how his son, William Randolph Hearst, made his own fortune from publishing.  The tour guide could quote letters between father and son and put all of the wealth and opulence in context of California history, politics, the roaring 1920's and the Great Depression.  It was fascinating!  We also learned that the grazing zebras are descendants from Hearst's original animal collection. Then, on top of that, he detailed the design and construction process of the Castle between William Randolph Hearst and his architect, none other than Julia Morgan!  (Wish I could say I planned that tie in...)

I asked our tour guide for William Randolph Hearst biography recommendations and these are two of the three he mentioned:

After Hearst Castle, we continued south on Highway 1 to San Luis Obispo.  SLO is a small central coast college town with a cute downtown.  After settling into the hotel, we jumped back into the car and went in search of the beach.  The eldest son had camped with Boy Scouts at Pismo Beach, so we headed in that direction.  We had no idea they allow you to drive on the beach there.  Who could pass up such an opportunity?

The next day, we toured Cal Poly San Luis Obispo followed by lunch in a parking garage (don't ask).  We made a quick stop downtown for ice cream sandwiches at Cowboy Cookie before getting back on the road.  They were all delicious, but the daughter's was my favorite:  coconut almond fudge ice cream on an oatmeal coconut Rice Krispie cookie.  Yum!

Our next destination was Ventura.  Highways 1 and 101 merge at that point of the journey.  Unfortunately, we missed the San Marco Pass/Highway 154, but fortunately we ended up taking Highway 246 through Solvang.  (I've always wanted to stop in Solvang.)  We did make a quick stop at their farmers' market and the Christmas store.  I even bought a raffle ticket - wish me luck on winning the roundtrip for 2 to Denmark!  From Solvang, we continued south through Morro Bay and on to Ventura.

Our plan in Ventura was to go whale watching off the Channel Islands. The Channel Islands are a relatively new national park and the setting of a 4th grade core literature book that the younger two read earlier this year called Island of the Blue Dolphins. Our whale watching was thwarted by 8-11' swells, so we took an Island Packers ferry boat out to Santa Cruz Island instead. Luckily, we had packed a picnic lunch because there are next to no amenities on the island (read: pit toilets.)  Once on the island, we ate our sandwiches, stopped in the visitors center and stamped our NPS passports, did a little hiking, played cards, hiked some more, then headed back on the 4PM return boat.  It wasn't exactly the day we planned but enjoyable nonetheless.

The following day, we drove to Santa Barbara.  We have a good friend who lives there and also wanted to visit the Santa Barbara Mission and UCSB.  The mission is known as "the Queen" of California missions.  It is grand in mission terms.  The day before, the daughter had summarized the Island of Blue Dolphins story for us which included a sad epitaph for the survivor.  The young Tongva indian girl was left on San Nicholas Island with her younger brother by her people.  By the time the missionaries discovered her seventeen years later, her brother and all her people had died.  No one was left to understand her and so she lived her final days at the Santa Barbara mission, alone and lonely.

On a cheerier note, we particularly enjoyed our UC Santa Barbara campus visit.  Who wouldn't like a university with freshman dorms on the beach?   Our nowhere near college aged kids are now well versed in campus tours.  They ask good questions ("Can you tell me about the meal plan?"), pay attention and are particularly enthusiastic.  All three could see themselves at UCSB!

We then had two fun-filled days with our dear friend, including two delicious dinners at Pascucci and Zia Café, an unbelievable dessert at Live Culture and a completely satisfying brunch at Boathouse.  Again, wish the weather had been better but we still had a wonderful time!

We made the long 5 hour drive back to the Bay Area during a SF Giants' 15 inning heartbreak of a game, stopping at the daughter's mission, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, along the way.  It's a little mission that could in the Salinas valley that has been devastated by flooding since it's beginning.  It's only been partially rebuilt but we walked around the site and she told us all about the indians, missionaries and padres who lived there.

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