Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: San Simeon, San Luis Obispo, Solvang and Santa Barbara

30 Sep

[Continued from Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur]

The next morning we set out in our sweet silver Camry for our next destination, Hearst Castle in San Simeon.  Now before I go any further, several folks have expressed much dismay and questioned why we didn’t rent a convertible for this road trip, and I hear you loud and clear.  It’s a fair question.  Initially, renting a convertible was our intention, because it’s just so darn picturesque to imagine, and as Chip can confirm, like most women, I do like to conjure up postcard images of what I think something should look like, but it was going to cost double, nearly $2,000, to rent a convertible for the week.  Some friends of ours had recently taken a similar road trip this past fall, so we sought their advice over whether driving a convertible was a must do or not.  They couldn’t stomach paying for a convertible either, so they, too, had rented a mid-size car, but when they landed in San Francisco, the rental car company offered them a great deal on an upgrade, so they took advantage of that but reported a convertible was fun but not at all necessary.  After hearing that, we decided to take our chances.

Fox Rent A Car is headquartered in California and has the largest supply of cars, so we went with them.  When we checked in, they did give us the option to upgrade, but since we traveled “in season,” it wasn’t a deal at all and again, I am not much of a car person so we opted out.  We were both a little bummed and hoped we hadn’t made a huge mistake, but over the course of driving the PCH for eight days, we passed a ton of convertibles on the road, and not once did we see anyone driving with the top down.  Actually, I take that back–we did see a convertible stopped at a lookout point, with two suitcases stuffed in the backseat because they wouldn’t fit in the trunk, putting the top back up.  The temperatures are quite cool in Central California along the coast, and I think riding with the top down would have been miserable, so we were glad we made the decision we did.  I never once regretted not having a convertible, but that’s just my two cents.

At some point along our two hour white-knuckle drive on curvy roads with 90 degree angle turns to San Simeon, we had to stop for gas to the tune of $5 something a gallon. I would be the worst contestant on the Price is Right, because I NEVER look at the price of groceries, gas, or stuff at Target, but I do know that $5+ a gallon is truly highway robbery, but what are you going to do?

We also stopped at a lookout point for elephant seals, and I am not sure what I expected to see, but I literally gasped out loud when I saw them.  They were absolutely ginormous in size and moved so little they almost looked dead and bloated just lying there on the beach.  Every now and then, one of these massive beasts would move by making this humping motion and after moving just a couple of feet, would just flop back down.  After learning the males can grow up to 5,000 pounds and 16 feet in length, I understood why it was so difficult for them to move.


As we approached San Simeon, we also saw zebras grazing in the pastures with the cows.  I knew zebras ran with the wildebeests in the Serengeti but they also ran with cows on the West Coast??  Mind.  Blown.

You didn’t need a sign to find Hearst Castle, because there’s not much of anything else in San Simeon and the Castle is so huge and perfectly placed on top of the mountain, that you simply can’t miss it.  I honestly didn’t know much about Hearst Castle other than it was the famed home of the media magnate, William Randolph Hearst, but since it was along the way, we stopped.

Wowzers!  You could literally make a day out of touring Hearst Castle and many were doing just that.  Hearst Castle ain’t no Graceland, let me tell you.  There was a Grand Rooms Tour, Upstairs Suites Tour, Cottages and Kitchen Tour, and Evening Tour all of which included access to the grounds.  We opted for the Cottages and Kitchen Tour simply because it was the tour that was running next, and we didn’t want to sit around with the hard core Hearst enthusiasts for an hour and a half waiting on a different tour to begin.


Hearst was an only child and inherited 240,000 acres of land after his parents passed away.  As a boy, his family used to camp on this hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, so at age 56, he supposedly walked into an architect’s office in San Francisco and declared he was too old to sleep on the ground anymore and wanted to build a house but the problem was, it was sort of like meth.  Once he started, he simply couldn’t stop.  His one cottage ended up turning in to three plus the main house, Casa Grande, which boasted 115 rooms alone, including 38 bedrooms, plus the grounds with tennis courts, swimming pools and terraces.

tk-sc-main-houseHearst was an avid collector of exotic animals and had one of the largest private zoos, but during the Great Depression, he could no longer afford the upkeep of the animals so he donated many to local zoos and uncaged many animals allowing them to freely roam on the ranch.  Very few of those animals still exist, but the zebras grazing with the cattle we saw on our drive in were actually descendants of Hearst’s menagerie.

One of the more fascinating things we learned about Hearst was he had a mistress for 32 years named Marion Davies.  His wife and mother of his five children refused to grant him a divorce.  When he died at age 88, he left 51% of the Hearst Corporation to Marion Davies.  In an effort to validate their relationship, she turned around and sold her majority trust in the Corporation back to the family for $1…and then married her driver.  Ha!

We then stopped in San Luis Obispo for a quick lunch, which is supposed to be a great little town and was also dubbed by Oprah as the “happiest place in America,” but it really didn’t do much for us.  I didn’t think the city was laid out well and I found the architecture dull, but it is a college town, and the climate is supposed to be mild year-round which allows for its residents to enjoy the outdoors which is definitely a bonus but still–not worth a stop unless you are interested in seeing the singular roadside attraction, the Madonna Inn, which offers 100 uniquely decorated “themed” rooms such as the “Love Nest” and “Caveman.”


Pismo Beach is a coastal town on the south end of San Luis Obispo, so there were some decent views of the ocean from there, but the next stretch of highway was totally unappealing.  The landscape suddenly turned flat, brown, dusty and desolate.  I was driving at this point, and so I was thankfully able to utilize my unique set of driving skills obtained in the Mississippi Delta.  I can pass three tractors in a row on a two-lane highway while staring at the oncoming car in the opposite lane without so much as flinching.  Chip was the one clutching the door handle this time.

Shortly before we reached our final destination of the day, Santa Barbara, we made a quick detour to Solvang, a mock-European tourist trap.  Solvang is a contrived Danish town, complete with fake windmills and unbelievable Danish pastry shops.  I kind of couldn’t stop ordering when it was my turn at the counter, and I didn’t regret it.  I do believe there are a few things in life worth being chubby over and the pastries in Solvang definitely fell into that category.  On the way to Solvang, we also passed the infamous Hitching Post II in the town of Buellton made famous in the movie “Sideways.”


Alas, we rolled into Santa Barbara on a Saturday night pretty wiped out.  I had made hotel reservations in Santa Barbara for Sunday and Monday nights weeks before, but everything semi-decent was booked for Saturday night, so literally the day before we arrived, I made reservations for us at a place called The Beach House Inn based on a recommendation from my friend, Melinda, who frequently travels to Santa Barbara for work.

Beating out all of the luxurious places we stayed on our trip, The Beach House Inn, was hands-down my favorite.  The Beach House Inn was a far cry from the Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, but there was just something about it’s down home funkiness that I really loved.  I immediately knew we had stumbled upon something great because when we pulled up, we didn’t have two bellman bum rushing our car ripping our trunk and car doors open while simultaneously talking into their ear piece to the front desk that the Kennett party had arrived.  I am the girl still digging around in the floorboard for my shoes, scooping up empty water bottles, balled up napkins and banana peels from the console, stuffing magazines, iPhones, travel books and chargers into my bag while valet is standing there holding my door open for me, politely smiling while trying to thrust a glass of wine and green apple in my hands, telling me to take my time while the whole time I know they are secretly thinking “this poor girl hasn’t ever stayed anywhere this nice before.”  Au contraire!  I just haven’t learned to get my shit together in the car prior to arrival.

The Beach House Inn is located right across the street from the beach, and the owner, Tim, who no doubt lives “in the apartment above the carport,” was incredibly hospitable offering us the use of their complementary bicycles, umbrellas, chairs and beach towels even after time of check out the following morning since we were arriving so late in the day.  There were probably 20 rooms surrounding a central courtyard which looked like a scene straight out of “Singles” with plastic bins of DVDs sitting on a table outside free to guests which were replaced by carafes of fresh coffee in the mornings.  Tim also brought his parakeet out to the courtyard every day for some fresh air.

Staying there for the night made me nostalgic, because it reminded me of kicking it back old school vacationing with my family as a young kid.  Mom and Dad would throw my sisters and me in the back of the Buick which was half the size of the town of Marks while we slid around unbuckled, eating a can of Pringles on the drive to one of our various destinations like Destin or Washington, D.C. where we may or may not have had a reservation prior to arriving.  When we got hungry, we pulled over on the side of the road, popped the trunk and made a sandwich out of the ice chest.  It was awesome.  Considering Joe now judges hotels based on whether they place round or square chocolates on our pillows during turn down service, I wonder what he would think about swimming in a pool in the parking lot of a hotel.  Isn’t it interesting how you want to provide more for your kids than you had growing up, but then when you succeed in doing so, you fear they will then assume that is how the rest of the world lives?  Parenting is full of conundrums.

Years ago, I frequently traveled to Santa Barbara for work but never had a ton of free time when there, so I was excited to return and explore this beautiful, coastal town at my leisure.  Chip and I spent a wonderful couple of days enjoying the beach, the rooftop pool at the Canary Place Hotel once we moved over there, window shopping on State Street, eating at competing taquerias La Super Rica and Lily’s, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives local favorite, Norton’s, for their famous pastrami dog, sushi from Aragato and enjoying an amazing al fresco dinner at sunset on the terrace at San Ysidro Ranch’s Stonehouse restaurant.  My one dining regret is we never made it to Brophy Brothers on the water for seafood.  It came highly recommended by many, but we just ran out of time.

The very best part of being in Santa Barbara for me was getting to visit with my friend, Melinda.  Melinda and I were best friends when we were teeny tiny little girls.  As she describes it, we were in the church nursery together as babies.  When we were in the second grade, Melinda and her family moved to Oklahoma.  I distinctly remember signing her stuffed autograph doll and being devastated by her move.  Quite remarkably, she and I have remained friends all of these years through her annual visits back to Marks every summer, writing letters back and forth while we were kids and then later on, keeping in touch via e-mail and Facebook.  Over the years, work and personal travel have taken me to the West Coast and likewise for her to the East Coast, so we always see each other when we can.  Professionally, Melinda has always worked in the world of wellness, and now she is self-employed as a consultant for spas, salons and wellness centers.  One of her clients is the Alchemy Arts Center in Santa Barbara, so luckily, she happened to be in town the same time as us.

Alchemy Arts Center, which is amazing by the way, was within walking distance of both of the hotels we stayed, so we enjoyed fresh, cold pressed juices with different shots of health elixirs each morning.  Alchemy is a full-service wellness center complete with a cafe, spa and yoga studio.  Check it out at  After touring the center, I immediately texted Ginny and told her she and I had to open one of these places in D.C.  Chip declared if we did that, then he and Clete were going to open an In-N-Out Burger next door.  Not a bad business plan actually…

tk-alchemyWhen I was in Santa Barbara for work, we always stayed at the Four Season Biltmore Hotel, so we met Melinda at their lounge bar for a cocktail after our dinner at The Stonehouse.  The Ty Lounge holds a special place in my heart, because that is where Dave Matthews casually walked up to me and told me he had just met my mother, how much we looked alike and how meeting her had just made his night.  Yah.  Uh huh.  You just read that right.  I flew Lady Linda out to join me towards the end of a work trip where we spent the weekend along with several other colleagues who had done the exact same thing.  When we had first arrived, the concierge had told us Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds were playing the Santa Barbara Bowl that weekend, so we got him to get us tickets.  Well, it turned out they were also staying at the Four Seasons.  We were having drinks in the lounge after the concert, Mom left to go back to the room, bumped into Dave in the lobby and introduced herself as Linda Boyd from Marks, Mississippi, informed him her daughter had taken her to his show that night, and he had just done a wonderful job.  Ha!  Can you even imagine?  I get so tickled every time I imagine that encounter.  Anyway, we saw him again at breakfast the next morning and he introduced us to his wife and identified Mom as the lady he had told her about.  DMB really lost me when they released the album Everyday, but needless to say, I have been a hard core fan since that weekend, and I highly recommend Lady Linda as a “wing woman” if you ever find yourself in need of one.


To be continued…

– Sheila


4 Responses to “Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: San Simeon, San Luis Obispo, Solvang and Santa Barbara”

  1. Elizabeth Hadley September 30, 2013 at 5:46 PM #

    LOVE it, as always!! xoxo

  2. louisebhenry September 30, 2013 at 11:17 PM # are such a great writer, will be waiting for your book!

  3. patti haugen October 1, 2013 at 12:30 PM #

    i am actually sad there’s not another one to read!! I don’t really enjoy reading but you keep me amused, entranced and lost in the imagery at every moment. please write a book. and I do remember your Dave Matthews encounter!! good times!! thanks for sharing.

  4. Lily Rice (Kendall) HSIA October 1, 2013 at 2:12 PM #

    Hi Chip and Sheila…….Your travelogue reminded me so much of my trip along the same route many years ago. What a trip that is! I am so glad you did NOT visit the cave where
    the elephant seals reside (or get too close to them) – they STINK ! And I mean really foul.
    And there is no escaping it ! Did you see the Hearst’s pool…… I could spend a lifetime
    floating around in that. What a wonderful – extraordinary – writer you are. I agree with your friends. Keep on truckin, girl. Much love from Lily
    ps. Will be in DC weekend of 11th Oct. Hoping to see Julie and Dick. You around?

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