The village of San Simeon, just across Highway 1 from the sprawling 80,000-acre Hearst Ranch and the entrance to Hearst Castle, is an overlooked gem on California's Central Coast. Whether you stop for a wine tasting or spend the day sightseeing, kayaking, windsurfing or hiking, this sleepy hamlet offers plenty to do. The tab: $330, including meals and one night at the Pelican Inn & Suites in nearby Cambria.
I snagged a last-minute booking at the Pelican Inn & Suites for $159 (6316 Moonstone Beach Drive;  454-4222, http://www.pelicansuites.com). The inn, nestled along a seaside strip of quaint cottages, features in-room fireplaces, a heated swimming pool, Jacuzzi and my daughter's requisite free hot breakfast buffet. In the morning, we walked across the road for a brisk stroll on the 11/2-half-mile boardwalk along Moonstone Beach. A stairway led down to the rocky shore, where we discovered tide pools filled with urchins and crabs.
The old Western-style store that now houses Sebastian's Cafe (442 Slo San Simeon Road, San Simeon;  927-3307) was built on San Simeon Point in 1852, then towed into town by horses in 1878. In 1914, it was purchased by Manuel Sebastian, who would often joke to customers that it was "Will [William Randolph Hearst] and I who own all the land around here." The sandwiches and burgers are massive, so we split a Hearst Ranch, grass-fed beef dip sandwich and a side of potato salad for $12.50. We grabbed some candy at the adjacent General Store, which is stocked with antiques and a tasting room for the Hearst Winery in nearby Paso Robles. Six tastes are $10 or free if you buy a bottle. The outdoor patio offers a gorgeous view of the ocean.
We burned off our lunch by strolling past the red and white one-room schoolhouse attended by Hearst's grandson, John Jr., as well as generations of ranch employees' children. There are also a few Mission Revival-style employee residences and warehouses that once stored the newspaper magnate's extensive art collection. All were designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan.
A nature trail guided us along the rugged coastline through a wooded forest leading to San Simeon Point. This fairy tale-like area was once a barren bluff until Hearst planted hundreds of Monterey pines, cypress and eucalyptus trees. My daughter/nature guide pointed out several rock formations she'd been studying in school: a headland, a sea arch and a sea stack. There are plenty of spots to picnic with postcard-perfect panoramic views of the Pacific or the rolling vista that stretches above the eastern shoreline to meet the hilltop Hearst Castle. A 2005 conservation deal ensures that the 13 miles of coastline and surrounding land will be preserved in the same condition as it looked when Hearst left San Simeon in 1947 to seek medical treatment. (He died in Beverly Hills in 1951 at the age of 88.)
The lesson learned
Hearst once wrote to his mother that "I'd rather spend a whole month at the ranch than anywhere in the world." One way for regular folks to spend an evening on the Hearst Ranch property is by participating in the annual Best Buddies Challenge (bestbuddieschallenge.org/hc) on Sept. 6. The daylong ride, run or walk event, which raises money for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, culminates with a barbecue, awards ceremony and concert at the Hearst dairy barn.