As you’ve just read from our previous post, we’d made it safely down the first stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway – from San Francisco to Big Sur – and we were staying overnight at a hotel/motel in San Simeon.
On Day Two, we did the least amount of driving during the whole trip, which was great because we’d spent 12 hours driving the previous day (we drove from Palo Alto to San Francisco before we officially started the Road Trip, which was one of the reasons we started late) and we wanted to give the kids – and us – an easier day.
That was the plan but, as you’ll see below, we made a few mistakes!
So, again, our timings are on the left but you should use the timings in brackets (full easy-to-read itinerary on the next page).
Live music at breakfast in San Simeon
Ok, so our hotel in San Simeon was “rustic,” but that was part of its charm and it was this kind of experience that we travelled from England to enjoy.
The room was basic, but it was clean and safe. Breakfast was included but don’t expect a huge hotel spread of sausages, eggs and pancakes.
There was unlimited cereal and toast, plus packaged English muffins and filter coffee.
It was a forgettable breakfast, food-wise, but having a local retired guy welcoming everyone with warm and genuine conversations – plus watching the different types of guests around the room – it was actually a very fun meal.
After some food, we wanted to see how close to the ocean we’d been sleeping.
Sure enough, we crossed one small road and were looking out to the Pacific. It was a special place, but it felt even more special with the soundtrack from the man on the bench next to us.
A tall, tanned middle-aged man was strumming a very cool melody on his guitar.
The lyrics were also really catchy – and he had the look of a famous musician – so I asked him why he was playing his guitar at 9am on a bench in Big Sur.
It turned out that we’d stumbled across a fellow Brit who’d moved to LA after touring Europe for many years with his own band.
Marcos Lopez-Iglasias was a drummer for ex-Kajagoogoo star, Limahl, and even Duran Duran!
He told us that he loved coming to Big Sur to write music and that he was working on a new album!
I asked him if he could play us a bit more of his new song. We all shared a special few minutes listening to a brand new song coming into the world, next to the ocean in Big Sur.
It’s these moments that you would only have on a Road Trip. AMAZING!!
Watch his impromptu gig for us, above!
11.30am – Hearst Castle (10am for you)
Hearst Castle is a beautiful hill-top hideaway that was the home of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper publisher of the late 1800s.
You may not have heard of him but you’ll definitely know the brands which bear his name today: ESPN, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Elle are just a few of the major media outlets that he would own today, if he was still alive.
Living in England, surrounded by lots of medieval castles, I wasn’t sure if I would really want to visit a “new-money” mansion that was only completed in 1947.
After browsing online, the pictures of the outside swimming pool won me over, plus the fact that it looked like an interesting attraction in the middle of nowhere.
It was 9.30am and jumped into the car to go to the castle. This was mistake number one for the day!
I saw all of the warnings about booking Hearst Castle ahead of time on their website but I didn’t think it would really get booked up!
We were also going to book it the night before but there wasn’t any wifi or 3G near our hotel in San Simeon.
We turned up at the castle at 10am only to find all of the early tours had gone. The earliest of the general tours that we could get was at midday – we couldn’t wait around to do that!
So, we went for an 11.30am tour of the cottages, which didn’t sound great but it gave us access to the grounds and it would be fun to go there, still.
As soon as the tour started though, we were hooked!
The excitement builds as you sit on the coach up to the castle and you hear the history – and the many and varied famous guests that visited Hearst, here – while you wind your way up to the property.
When you arrive at the top, the hot Californian sun returns and you can immediately see the detail – and money – that went into this public show of wealth and opulence (even the tiles on the stairs tell their own stories).
It feels like a real-life Great Gatsby. The Neptune and Roman Pools are something to behold.
I kept on thinking about what it must have been like here, in its heyday: Clark Gable and Greta Garbo partying with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The “cottages” on our tour were more like mansions: decorated in gold leaf, with sea views and . It was here that Hearst’s “wife” lived, away from his mistresses.
Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw also stayed in the cottages when they visited.
Anyway, I could write an article just about Hearst Castle. Add it to your itinerary!
Three hours was just about enough time to take a tour, stroll around the estate and have some lunch at the Visitors’ Centre (the Mac and Cheese was awesome!)
The kids were pretty good but didn’t appreciate any of the tour, plus away from the coastal fog it gets pretty hot up on the hill.
Dylan had a couple of melt-downs due to the heat, lack of water and boredom. He enjoyed walking around the grounds, though.
On your way down in the bus, make sure you check out the empty zoo cages that Hearst had filled with animals, and as your drive south to Cambria, look left and see if you can spot any of the zebra that were released. There are more than you think!
11am – Elephant Seals (1.15pm for you)
As we had an hour to wait for our tour, we swapped things around and went to see the Elephant Seals before heading up to Hearst Castle.
They’re just ten minutes north of San Simeon at Piedras Blancas so, whatever direction you’re travelling, it’s just a minor detour.
Turn right out of the castle onto Route One and you’ll see the Elephant Seal car park on the left hand side.
It’s a very busy car park, and attraction, but people only stay for 10-15 minutes so it’s constantly moving so you should find a spot.
You may have seen the odd seal during your trip already – on a rock or in the ocean – but you won’t have seen this many and certainly not this many so close up.
You can see…and smell…everything!!
They’re a great way to see some unusual wildlife close-up – and they’re a great final memory of rural Big Sur because every mile south from here, is another mile closer to reality.
3.45pm – San Luis Obispo (2.45pm for you)
The ruggedness of Northern California begins to make way for the hot, desert climate of Southern California with every mile.
We tried to take in the pretty little towns that we passed (Harmony, Cayucos and Morro Bay) but we were in a bit of a rush (again!!), so didn’t stop.
When you hit San Luis Obispo (SLO to locals) it feels as though you’re firmly back in reality, which is good and bad, of course.
We hit rush hour for the first time in a what felt like a week. Traffic picks up again as you’re forced onto Highway 101.
A waitress told us to stop off at a place called the Madonna Inn with the promise of a very special toilet break.
We pulled up to, what looked like, a 1950s Vegas motel.
Go left when you walk through the main entrance and go down the stairs into the men’s toilet, which looks like a cave!!
When you step in to take a pee, water cascades down the rock-face and washes everything below, away.
We were one of “those” people that stopped just to experience the bathroom but we wished we knew about it earlier as it could’ve been a great place to stay overnight.
The dining room was more kitsch than the Eurovision Song Contest and all of the 109 rooms are uniquely decorated: yes, the cave room is just like the Flintstones where you’ll literally shower in a waterfall; sleep in a room decorated as though you’re staying in the Alps; or maybe you’ve always wanted to stay in a bed with wagon wheels?
There’s a fun room for anyone. Take a look at this link!
This should definitely be on your list for a place to stay on your Road Trip, if you can make it all the way to San Luis Obispo from San Francisco in one day, or you choose to split it up and make it a four-day holiday.
5.45pm – Solvang (4.45pm for you)
When you leave San Luis Opismo, you’ll have the choice of staying on the 101 or rejoining Route 1 at Pismo Beach.
We jumped back on the Pacific Coast Highway until just before Lompoc to make our way to Solvang on the 246.
We were glad we did – it was a beautiful drive through Guadalupe with its’ mix of flat, lush strawberry fields, then a steep climb, before descending down to another huge sea of green, on both sides of the car.
It’s another reminder of how varied the climate and landscape is on this special road: today, the harsh mountain-sides have transformed into lush agriculture and tomorrow we’ll head further south into the arid desert.
Why did we decide to come off Route 1 for Solvang? Well, this Road Trip is all about finding new places and experiences and we loved the idea of visiting a mini-Denmark that’s been built in the middle of California.
The city was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants (surprise, surprise) who wanted to create their own colony.
A Danish speaking school was built three years later and their idea of creating a mini-Denmark went a step further in the 1940s when one of the town’s developers built his home in the style of his homeland.
The Danish Village concept grew and, now, much of the city looks as though it’s been picked up from cold Copenhagen and dropped into sunny California.
In fact, Solvang has the most windmills (five) within two square miles, outside of Denmark!
It’s a great atmosphere as you drive through Solvang.
The architecture makes the city feel different immediately. It does feel like you’re in a Danish Disneyland with the cartoon-like facades but all of the shops sell real Danish goods and are owned by people of Danish heritage.
It was great fun wandering past the windmills and taking photos on the ‘olde world’ street corners but the best part was picking out a delicious Danish pastry – from the hundreds on display – and enjoying a very unique Californian/Danish pit-stop.
If Solvang doesn’t appeal to you, you are also in one of California’s famous wine regions.
This is the region where Sideways was filmed (I still haven’t seen it, but heard so much about it. One day!) so why not do some wine-tasting instead?
7.15pm – El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara (6.15pm for you)
We stayed in Solvang for just under an hour and left at 6.35pm. If you did the same, with the timings above, you’d be leaving Solvang an hour earlier which is much better.
Head towards the 101 and you’ll soon be back on Route One, flying down to Santa Barbara.
We wanted to make the trip extra special and chose not to stay in a regular Best Western or “normal” hotel in the city.
One place, which was recommended by my boss at ITV (thanks Robin), was a glamping site with its own private beach just outside of Santa Barbara in a place called Goleta.
Now, I’ve had some bad experiences of camping in the UK. I hate it! Sure, I like nature but do we have to sleep rough to experience it?!
So, El Capitan Canyon is my perfect camping ground, with its own swimming pool, spa and every home comfort!
You can choose to have a yurt or a log cabin – both have real beds and electricity!!
The site also has: movie nights, at its own open-air cinema; stargazing talks with a local astronomer; wine tasting with samples from the wine region you’ve just driven through; plus loads of other activities including yoga, hikes and fun, runs.
We went for a Queen Cabin with a kitchen and shower, which was $245 (£170). I justified the high price as being a part of our trip of a lifetime and also the fact that all hotels/motels on Route One seem to be over-priced, anyway.
It was a fab experience. We arrived and un-packed just in time to get dinner in the Canyon Market, which closes at 8pm so be warned!
It was there I was able to get wifi for the first time since San Francisco and was able to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll!
Every pitch has its own fire pit which you can cook on. They sell wood and fire-starters, plus over-priced barbecue kits which start at $65 for burgers and $77 for steak (they do include enough meat for four though, plus salad, garlic bread, drinks and s’mores – and firewood, cutlery and plates).
We were cheap (Really? Us?!) and bought some firewood, marshmallows and beer.
We sat out watching deer run past us, while talking about all of the animals that might be near the site.
It would be great to have spent a couple of nights here to explore the canyon properly but we had to get back on the road the quite early the next day.
The boys went up into the loft to sleep (we didn’t trust Dylan up there by himself quite yet – and the ladder was really steep), while the girls took the California King bed!!