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Central Coast: A Castle, a Rock, and Bubble Gum
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Central Coast: A Castle, a Rock, and Bubble Gum


Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2005 - 2017

It was April of 2005. We had been planning this trip for some time and it was with serious reservations that we left for this two day trip. My father was in the hospital with pneumonia and we hoped his condition wouldn't get worse while we were gone. We left early Saturday morning, heading north on Highway 101 from Los Angeles. We stopped for an hour at famous Pismo Beach, but the large clams are hard to find these days. Pismo is one of the few beaches in California that allows vehicular traffic on the beach and I had to be observant as I made my photographs.
We pushed on to San Luis Obispo and found our accommodations at the Madonna Inn, probably one of the most well know and unique hotels in California. This inn is noted for having 109 rooms, each different in theme and design, we stayed in the Indian Room. Originally opened in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, the inn has come to occupy a unique place in California kitsch. We were early and our room wasn't ready, so we pushed on.
After about a half hour drive through beautiful California countryside, Highway 1 emerged from a canyon onto the shore of the Pacific Ocean at Morrow Bay with its famous Morrow Rock beyond. Morrow Bay is a tourist and fishing village with many boats in its small harbor with Morrow Rock looming above the water beyond. We had a little time before our first tour at Hearst Castle, so we wandered the wharf and watched the playful sea otters.
We stopped a few times to look at the coast line as we headed north along Highway 1 to San Simeon, the correct name for Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearst commissioned architect Julia Morgan to design this modest little shelter for his camping expeditions, built between 1919 to 1947. The complex eventually encompassed 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, all surrounded by a ranch of 250,000 acres, extending to the sea several miles west.
Just off the highway is the visitor center with a museum, film presentation, and waiting areas. It is best to order your tickets in advance, but there are ticket counters selling tickets to the five different tours offered. We had reservations for three tours, the first was the Experience Tour (a general tour) which we didn't realize included the movie. We waited for our tour to begin, then onto the bus and up the hill. The Experience tour includes the large outdoor pool, one of Guest Houses (Casa del Sol), then a tour of most of the main rooms of the castle (Casa Grande), ending with a visit to the indoor pool. I had taken this tour before, but it was all new to my wife.
We had several hours before the Evening Tour, so we headed back south to Cambria, once the second largest town in San Luis Obispo County, it is now a quaint little tourist town along Highway 1. Main Street is lined with many nice restaurants, we selected one at random, the Main Street Grill, and enjoyed our dinner. We walked a few blocks to visit the Lens from Piedras Blancas Light House, the top from the historic light house, now protected in a large kiosk. We would have liked to stay in Cambria longer, but we needed to get back to San Simeon for the evening tour.
The tour began as the first tour did, with a five mile bus ride up the hill. Only this time, the light was fading. The evening tour includes pieces of the other tours, only with the magic of a star filled sky above, soft artificial light within, and living history docents acting out a typical evening of relaxing at the "Enchanted Hill". This tour included parts of the upper floors and guest rooms, not on the earlier tour, and the huge kitchen. It was past nine when we headed back to San Luis Obispo.
While the Madonna Inn is a beautiful and unique hotel, the first look at our room was through tired half-closed eyes. We settled off to sleep quickly in the peace of the Central California Coast night.
The next morning, I stepped out of our room to see the fog covered hills beyond, being grazed by a few horses. My wife was still tired, so I went off to Town alone to attend Mass at Mission San Luis Obispo. This was my second visit to the Mission and following Mass, I wandered the surrounding area. A few blocks away, I walked through Bubble Gum Alley, a narrow passage between two commercial buildings that for some reason was chosen by the public to become folk art. Most of the walls of this passage are covered in many layers of used chewing gum. I was a little squeamish, so I avoided touching the walls. I resisted the urge to add my own contribution to the art. Across the plaza from the Mission is a small historic building, the Murray Adobe, signage states pre-1850.
By the time I got back to our room, my wife was packed and ready to go. She had an extra hour to enjoy our special room, a room I barely got to see. Check out time was well before we would have been returning from our third Hearst Castle tour, so we checked out, ate breakfast, and headed north again. This time I could not resist a quick stop in the town of Harmony. Harmony is a small town with an optimistic name on the right side (going north) off Highway 1. Legend says that the name was adopted after a killing, and the residents wanted to encourage this to be the last. The largest thing in this small town is the Harmony Pottery Shop. There are a few more tourist centered businesses in town, mostly art and shopping. When in the area, stop off in Harmony and see if some peace rubs off on you.
Back through Morro Bay and Cambria, we arrived for the third time at the San Simeon Visitor Center. This time we took Tour 3, the North Wing Tour. This tour took us through a number of large guest rooms, private rooms, and an unfinished section that was to have been the grand entry. It was still mid day, but we had a long drive home and one more stop, so back south along Highway 1 to Highway 101 south.
Near the southern side of San Luis Obispo county is the Dana Adobe. Captain Dana, a naturalized citizen in business in Santa Barbara, applied for a grant to Rancho Nipomo, one of the first and largest Mexican land grant in San Luis Obispo County. The adobe was in the midst of a major restoration. While it wasn't much to look at that day, the docent explained all that was happening to this historic house and the plans for a history park to surround it. By the time you read this, the adobe may be showing an improved face.
It was now late afternoon and we pressed for home, arriving home a bit after sunset. My father's condition had grown slightly worse over the weekend and he died a few days later. Hopefully our next trip to San Luis Obispo County will be better timed.

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