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The sound of seals barking on the rocks greets me when I step out onto the patio of my room at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Fireside Inn this morning. Seals are particularly vocal animals, and they have no problem expressing themselves at full volume. They're hilarious to watch, as they spend many of their waking hours telling each other who's boss. Moonstone Beach's seals look very well-fed and healthy, and seem to enjoy having an audience.
I pop into the breakfast room at the hotel for a quick breakfast -- scrambled eggs and sausage from the free buffet, and a few cups of coffee to shake off the morning fog.
I check out of the hotel, load up the Road Glide and take a short ride across CA-1 into the main part of Cambria for a little gift shopping. Cambria is a village of 6,000 residents. The local economy is built on tourism, being located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Pacific Coast. There are dozens of restaurants, cafes, art galleries and antique stores in town, nestled between the beach and the rocky cliffs. Not only is the town an attraction, it is very close to one of California's greatest manmade wonders: Hearst Castle.
Just six miles north of Cambria on CA-1, Hearst Castle is the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the target of Orson Welles' brilliant film CITIZEN KANE, but in real life, he was even more of a giant. Hearst Castle is a 165-room estate with 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, designed and created by Hearst in collaboration with architect Julia Morgan. They began construction in 1919 and completed their building in 1947. Hearst collected art, furniture, sculpture and artifacts from all over the world to fill his castle, and invited dignitaries and celebrities to help him to enjoy the property for parties and gatherings. Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Harpo Marx, Jack Warner and George Bernard Shaw were among the many, many guests at Hearst Castle over the years. The Hearst Corporation donated Hearst Castle to the People of the State of California in 1957, and it has been open for tours since 1958. Currently, there are four different tours conducted at the Castle, two of which are also conducted for visitors with accessibility issues. You can call 800-444-4445 to make reservations in advance for any or all of the tours -- which is highly recommended, especially on weekends and during holiday seasons. Tickets for the Grand Rooms Tour (the best overall starter tour), Upstairs Suites Tour and Cottages & Kitchens Tour are $25 for adults and $12 for children (ages 5 - 12). Tickets for the Evening Tour are $36 for adults and $18 for children. Parking is free.
Fifteen miles north of Cambria on CA-1, I stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Elephant seals are enormous, blubbery sea mammals with big, hanging noses that look like short versions of an elephant's trunk -- hence, the name. Male elephant seals, called "bulls," can be 16' long and can weigh up to 5,000 lbs, while females are about half that size. Only the males get the trunk -- the females look much more like other seals. Elephant seals mate and give birth on land, and the Piedras Blancas Rookery is one of the spots that many of them return to year after year. Breeding season begins in late November, and the pups are born in late January. The females remain on shore for about five weeks, and the males are onshore for about 100 days, from December to March for breeding season and in July and August for molting season. The Rookery is directly off of CA-1 -- it's just a matter of pulling into a parking lot on the ocean side of the road, and observing the site from a short distance away. Elephant seals were once thought to be extinct, but they are now protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and have made a substantial recovery. They are amazing to behold, and a lot of fun to watch on the beach. As a city guy, I have a hard time believing that such big mammals exist in the wild, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's wonderful.
After too-brief a visit with the elephant seals, I point the Road Glide south again. The fog is still pretty thick over the ocean, but seems to be lifting over the land a bit. California's Central Coast is dotted with lovely little towns, like Cayucos, Morro Bay and Los Osos, and beautiful parks like Morro Bay State Park and Montana de Oro State Park. Inland, just over the hills, towns like Atascadero, Templeton and Paso Robles have completely different climates, often registering temperatures 20 degrees higher than the coastal villages. The natural variety and beauty in this area is unbelievable.
I stop in San Luis Obispo, one of my favorite cities in all of California. I've wiled away so much time with the elephant seals that it's now time for lunch. San Luis Obispo is the county seat, and a very elegant city. Thanks to the presence of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, known to the locals as "Cal Poly SLO," there are tons of affordable eateries in town, along with cool shopping, used bookstores and great movie theaters. I've misplaced my favorite earplugs somewhere on this trip, and I've been using foam disposable plugs. I stop in to a surf shop to see if they carry Doc's ProPlugs, and I walk out with a set of medium vented plugs and a pair of Hydro-Seals, a new kind of plugs that I've never tried before. I also get a recommendation for lunch, so I head over to the Natural Cafe on Higuera Street for a turkey burger and salad.
On the way back to my bike after lunch, I stroll through downtown SLO, admiring the tree-lined streets and the creek side paths. I stop to take a few photos of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the 1794 building that gives the town its name. The Mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772, part of the chain of missions that the Franciscans built along the California coast in the late 18th Century. The San Luis Obispo Mission is still an active parish, with a school and regular schedule of masses. A gift shop and museum are open seven days a week.
Nearby, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art has a great collection and hosts frequent tours, mostly specializing in contemporary works. It's not a giant museum -- a few hours is plenty of time to explore all of its public galleries -- but free admission, along with a healthy dose of interactive multimedia makes it a worthwhile stop.
Nourished and calm, I jump back on my bike and ride on. I pick up US 101 South out of town, and ride through Pismo Beach, where Bugs Bunny always wanted to vacation. I stay on the highway through Santa Maria and Guadalupe, admiring the vineyards that are starting to wake up for the spring. The Central Coast is home to more than 200 wineries, vineyards and related businesses, according to the Central Coast Wine Growers Association. Napa and Sonoma get the press, but San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties are really starting to flourish. Signs for wine tastings and winery tours dot the route as I continue south.
I leave US 101 at CA-154, which will take me through the San Marcos Pass -- officially, the "Chumash Highway." I love this road, which leads past Los Olivos, through the Los Padres National Forest and Lake Cachuma, then drops back down to the coast and Santa Barbara. It can be a very busy road, and in sections is only one lane in each direction, but the scenery makes it all worthwhile for me. The twisty road changes elevation, revealing valleys, canyons and lakes and some breathtaking views. I stop at a vista point to admire the deep blue of Lake Cachuma. What a spot.
Finally, I ride down the road and coast into Santa Barbara to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Pepper Tree Inn on State Street. The Pepper Tree is lovely, a Spanish-style hotel with multiple buildings arranged around landscaped courtyards. A welcoming fountain sits in the middle of the motor court, and Spanish tiles decorate the main lobby. My room has a patio on the courtyard, and an inviting outdoor pool and hot tub are just steps away. A long soak in the hot tub soothes my aching muscles, and now it's time for dinner. When I mention to the front desk clerk that I'm looking for seafood, she recommends a place just two doors down from the hotel, praising it as a local hangout with really good food. Just my speed, and I won't even have to get back on the bike.
Chuck's of Hawaii is a Tiki-style steak and seafood place with some very fun, old-fashioned touches. Their menu is painted on red stoneware jugs, and the waiters wear Hawaiian shirts. Meals include a visit to the salad bar, and the specials vary with the seasons and with the fresh catch. I treat myself to a grilled artichoke appetizer before I dive in to a delicious halibut steak. Yum. I'm glad I asked for a recommendation at the BEST WESTERN.
Back to my room, I spend some time planning my last day on the road. Santa Barbara to Los Angeles can be a dull ride on the freeway, or it can be a delight of back roads and discoveries.
Guess which way I'm going to go.
NEXT: DAY SIX: SANTA BARBARA TO LOS ANGELES