A Foggy Big Sur Drive
[Big Sur, CA, Apr 19, 2019]
I came back from my conference on April 18th and turned right back around to head to the famous wine-growing region of Napa for B’s birthday. We had picked up a convertible from the airport the night before, and we were ready to hit the road early as we were planning to take the scenic route up to Napa.
The plan was to drive up to Hearst castle and do a tour there, then continue north on Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur until we reached Monterey, CA. The only way to see the grounds and the inside of Hearst castle is to book a tour, and it’s best to do so ahead of time. If you do it once you get there, you may have to wait a couple of hours until the next available slot. We had booked a 12:40 tour of the upstairs rooms. With a 7 am departure time from LA, we had plenty of time to get up there – we wanted to make sure we had some wiggle room since traffic can be so unpredictable.
The weather was cloudy and foggy when we left LA, but it started to clear a bit as we got closer to Hearst Castle. We put the top down as soon as the sun came out and the temperature hovered closer to 60F / 16 C.
We arrived at Hearst castle with a little over an hour to spare until our tour time. Hearst castle sits atop a very big hill. You can’t drive up to it – you park at the visitor center half-way up, then take the shuttle to the top. Since we had so much time, we were able to watch the 40-minute introductory video in the movie theater at the visitor center.
William Randolph Hearst’s dad bought the land where Hearst Castle now sits in 1885. Hearst spent his childhood playing and camping in the hills. He amassed his fortune in the newspaper publishing business and decided to build a castle on the land he inherited from his father. Together with architect Julia Morgan, he worked on the estate from 1919 till his death in 1951. The designs kept changing, forcing enormous, expensive re-builds. Shortly before his death, he said he was only 40% done!
Trying to spot the castle from the patio at the visitor center. It’s behind the clouds somewhere!
Once it was time for our tour, we boarded the shuttle from the visitor center and headed up the hill. It was a huge job just bringing up all the materials for the construction to the top of the hill, which is one of the many reasons it took a long time to build.
Our first stop was the Neptune pool. This is the third iteration of the pool; two smaller pools were initially built here. Originally, the space was supposed to be a temple garden with only an ornamental pool. Hearst then changed his mind and wrote his architect to make it bigger, like a regular pool. The final version we see today is even bigger; perhaps it was the statues and colonnades that required a larger space.
The fog mixed with sun made for an interesting atmosphere as we approached the castle.
Our tour of the upstairs rooms took us through a few bedrooms, Hearst’s library and his office. There are 42 bedrooms and 69 bathrooms in the castle. In the 1920s and 1930s, when the castle reached its social peak, they were all used for the many guests Hearst would invite for days at a time. The guest list consisted mostly of the Hollywood stars for the period – Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, among others. You might be curious to know the Hearst’s lifestyle was satirized in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane.
The library was on the top floor of the castle. Here, we could see Hearst’s collection of antique Greek vases as well as his travel books.
Even though the library was nice, the room I was most impressed with was his office.
Before we left, we went through the indoor Roman pool. It is styled like an ancient Roman bath and is decorated with statues of eight Roman gods, goddesses and heroes. It’s decorated from floor to ceiling with glass tiles that are either colored (blue and orange) or clear with fused gold inside. This creates a breathtaking effect that’s hard to capture in pictures.
The most scenic parts of our drive began as we headed north. This rugged mountainous section of the central California coast is known as Big Sur. The Santa Lucia mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific ocean, creating the longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous US.
The two-lane highway that sneaks up the coast was completed in 1937 and offers dramatic views at every twist and turn. Landslides are common here; the most recent one in 2017 closed a section of the highway for more than a year. The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal plan, which severely restricts development. The highway required the construction of 29 bridges. The most famous one is Bixby bridge, completed in 1932.
The fog from earlier in the day had started to lift in parts, creating a dramatic effect. We had the top down, which made it possible for me to take good photos from the car. I ran a race here last year – 21 miles from Andrew Molera State Park to Monterey. I pointed out the steep 2-mile hill we covered on the course, and he couldn’t believe it.
We made it to Napa just after dark, around 8:30 pm. It was a long drive from LA but so worth it! Driving through Big Sur never gets old!