This under-the-radar refuge ranks as one of the best wildlife experiences in the state—and as a nice bonus, it’s free. Five miles up the coast from Hearst Castle, up to 17,000 walrus-like elephant seals—the West Coast’s largest pinnipeds—pile up like bloated bratwursts on the narrow strip of rocky beach known as Piedras Blancas (white rocks), literally steps from cars whizzing along the highway. In January 2017 President Barack Obama made this site part of the California Coastal National Monument.
If you’re an animal lover, get ready to spend hours in this land-based seal rookery, where the huge marine mammals breed, birth, molt, and rest. Giant bulls, some measuring 16 feet from nose to tail and tipping the scales at more than 4,000 pounds, inflate their trunk-like snouts to create a distinctive, roaring bellow that cuts through the sound of crashing surf. The smaller females soak up the sun or tend to their pups.
Peak season is December through May; smaller numbers of seals may be seen during other months. Helpful docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are on site to answer questions.
Take in more views—and the rich history—of Piedras Blancas during a tour of the 70-foot-tall Piedras Blancas Light Station, which are offered year-round. Constructed in 1874 on a rugged spit, the lighthouse has in the past shared the site with other buildings, including a 1906 Victorian-style edifice that was eventually sold for $1 and moved to nearby Cambria, where it was converted into a private residence. William Randolph Hearst paid homage to the humble light station at his Hearst Castle: He had a likeness of it added to a crest found above the entrance to the living room inside Casa del Monte, one of his three guest cottages.
Mansions are a dime a dozen in California, with movie stars and tech power brokers building palaces and adding wings, pools, and yoga pavilions with abandon. But nothing comes close to Hearst Castle. Lavishly designed by Julia Morgan, California’s first female architect, as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the complex, completed in 1947, is an extraordinary temple to opulence and excess. Now one of California’s most visited state historical monuments, it is an eye-popping extravaganza with a 165-room castle, 127 acres/51 hectares of terraced gardens, sparkling fountains, towering palms, and, to top it all off, wraparound views of the sunny Central Coast.
It’s easy to spend a full day or more exploring the castle and its environs in San Simeon. The seaside town has a nice range of places to stay, from mainstream to majestic accommodations. Start your visit with one of Hearst Castle’s daily tours of the main house, or special tours of the cottages; come in November or December to see the estate dressed up in its very-festive holiday decor.
Every tour provides visitors with an opportunity to spend time marveling at the residence’s two lavish pools. The outdoor Neptune Pool, 104 feet/32 meters in length, is heated through an oil-burning system and framed with marble statues of Neptune and Nereid guarding over the aquatic paradise. The indoor Roman Pool has the look of a decadent Roman bath, with rich details including cobalt blue and gold smalti, or glass tiles. Look up to see intricate mosaics depicting a star-filled night sky, spreading across the roof and dome.
Top off a visit to San Simeon’s Hearst Ranch Winery, co-founded by William Randolph Hearst’s great grandson Steve. The tasting room along the Pacific Coast Highway offers Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and more, alongside sweeping views.
Do you need breadcrumbs to find your bedroom? We suspect William Randolph Hearst did. The 165-room main building atop what Hearst called “La Cuesta Encantada” (Spanish for “the Enchanted Hill”) was so big and so filled with, well, stuff, that it would seem easy to get lost. For a chance to explore the castle, and to get a sense of Hearst’s mash-up of priceless objets and antiques with commonplace items, take a Grand Rooms Tour. Gather in the soaring social room, much as movie stars and other guests did decades ago for cocktails and conversation, then look up at walnut paneling and 16th century tapestries. Then look down at a poker table and ordinary jigsaw puzzles. Next up, the dining room, with towering windows, silk banners, gleaming silver candlesticks, and mustard and ketchup bottles at the ready.
Three guided tours, each focusing on a different part of the estate, are offered daily; following the tours, be sure to tour the grounds and set on a bench to take in one of the best sea-and-land views in the state.
Bowers of magenta bougainvillea and sweet-smelling hyacinths, and rhododendrons with blooms as big as wedding bouquets—a walk through the lavish gardens at Hearst Castle hits you with sensory overload, with colors, scents, and beautiful combinations at every turn. Even if you’ve got a black thumb and can’t tell a weed from a wisteria, you’ll enjoy spending time exploring 127 acres of gardens and terraces, all imagined by William Randolph Hearst and designed by architect Julia Morgan. There is always something blooming here—orange California poppies (the state flower), fragrant star jasmine—and plenty of pretty settings to photograph. Docents are often available to answer questions: ask them for some of the insider secrets to this garden, like that shady corner where big-name stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, frequent guests of Hearst’s, used to steal away for an illicit rendezvous.
Cottages in name alone, Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar might be the fanciest guest houses in the state—in fact, they served as the Hearst residences during the construction of the main building. Once Hearst and his longtime companion, actress Marion Davies, moved into Casa Grande, the “cottages” became guest quarters for an illustrious list of visitors—Hollywood icons including Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, world leaders such as Winston Churchill, and literary master George Bernard Shaw. Tours let you get an exclusive look at the cottages’ opulent interiors: The ceiling of Casa del Monte is hand painted and accented with 22-carat gold leaf; red-tile-roofed Casa del Mar (“House of the Sea”) was Hearst’s beloved home later in his life.
In addition to being part of some daytime tours, Casa del Monte is included on special evening tours, when docents in 1930s attire give an extra sense of what it was like here during Hearst Castle’s heyday.
If he was still around to judge, we think William Randolph Hearst would approve. The classy, polished wood interior of the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room, housed within an 1852 general store in San Simeon, feels luxurious but relaxed, classy but kick back. After you’ve toured the castle perched at the top of the hill across Highway One, relax at this friendly destination. Choose from over a dozen wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, late-harvest Zinfandel, Spanish Tempranillo, and Chardonnay.
The two pools at Hearst Castle are just as opulent as the residence itself. The outdoor Neptune Pool, 104 feet/32 meters in length and with an oil-burning heating system, evokes ancient Greece and Rome, with marble statues of Neptune and Nereid guarding over the aquatic paradise.
The second, smaller indoor Roman Pool has the look of a decadent Roman bath, with rich details including cobalt blue and gold smalti, or glass tiles. Look up to see intricate mosaics depicting a star-filled night sky, spreading across the roof and dome. The pool is surrounded by eight marble sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, and heroes, carved by Italian sculptor Carlo Freter.
Time your visit to catch one of Hearst Castle’s special events, and you’ll definitely have plenty to post and tweet. Though tours offered seven days a week year-round are outstanding, these...
A tour of the 70-foot-tall Piedras Blancas Light Station makes for a worthy stop along Highway One, not only to take in the history and views of the place, but also to meet some barking, bellowing locals—sofa-size elephant seals.
Constructed in 1874 on a rugged spit and named for the white rocks just offshore, the lighthouse has in the past shared the site with other buildings, including a 1906 Victorian-era building that was eventually sold for $1 and moved to nearby Cambria to be converted into a private residence. William Randolph Hearst paid homage to the humble light station at his nearby Hearst Castle six miles to the south, in San Simeon: he had a likeness of it added to a crest found above the entrance to the living room inside Casa del Monte, one of his three guest cottages.
Tours of the light station are offered year-round. Afterward, drive (or hike) south about two miles along the coast—follow your ears to find the right spot. Roughly 17,000 (no, that’s not a typo) elephant seals make up the Piedras Blancas Rookery. Northern elephant seals, the world’s second largest type of seal, are named for the males’ proboscis-like snouts; mature males, which can grow to be up to 16 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds, inflate them to make rumbling bellows during the December/January mating season. Their clash-of-the-titans battles for dominance and mating rights in the breakers can be epic.
Useful info: Though they maintain a presence year round, the peak times for seeing elephant seals on the shores of San Simeon are January, April, and October, for breeding, birthing, and molting (shedding of skin), respectively.