35° 38″ N, 121° 11″ W Discover this quaint and historic California community (published May 2013)
I’d been here before, as a kid. My 10-year-old eyes were wide and my childhood brain delighted in imagining—what if this was my house? These swimming pools, my own airport, my own zebras and buffalo on the hillsides…
William Randolph Hearst’s corporation donated the late magnate’s castle, contents and land to the state of California in 1957. Since then it has been a state park, open to visitors year round. In my childhood, Hearst Castle was a familiar waypoint during summertime car trips up the California coast. Now, age 43, I’d returned with my own family, but on our 1978 Fuji 40, Del Viento.
The Castle is perched 1,600-feet up in the Santa Lucia Range above the community of San Simeon. For sailors heading up and down this part of the California coastline, small San Simeon Bay offers good holding and good protection from the prevailing NW winds. For cruisers heading north, it offers almost the only protection between Morro Bay and Monterey. We dropped the hook just inside the long pier and rowed ashore to brave the waves for a beach landing. Fortunately, we timed the small surf right and our dry sacks proved unnecessary.
We walked into town to explore, but “town” is a bit of a misnomer—an exaggeration, really. San Simeon is a community of fewer than 500 people along Highway 1, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Except for a half-dozen, walled-off Spanish-style buildings along the beach, the population is spread out among ranches and homes dotting the area. An abandoned one-room schoolhouse sits alone in a field of grass. Besides Hearst Castle, the community of San Simeon is available to visitors in a single wood building.
Sebastian’s Store once served a thriving whaling community but now operates as a small general store and café for travelers and tourists. Popular sandwiches are served using local, Hearst Ranch-branded beef. Tucked into the back of the building is the 130-year-old branch of the San Simeon post office and recently opened in the front is a tasting room for the Hearst Ranch Winery.
To get to the Hearst Castle visitor’s center (from which all tours of the castle originate), we walked a half-mile from the head of the pier, across Highway 1, and up a drive. There we immersed ourselves in the on-site museum filled with artifacts, letters and multimedia that detail the entire, fascinating history of the castle and the man who inspired it. Afterward, we enjoyed lunch and browsed the shops before heading back to the boat.
“But Dad, why aren’t we going to see the castle?” “Well, it’s kind of expensive. How old are you?” “I’ll be nine in two months.” “Tell you what: that means you’ll be ten when we head back down this coast; why don’t we plan to do it then? It’ll be a good age, trust me.”