Rugged seaside road along California cliffs offers scenic splendor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.

Henry Miller

"Big Sur and the Orange of Hieronymous Bosch" Arugged, raw wilderness perched on rocky cliffs ringing an untamed Pacific Ocean, California's Central Coast for years has served as a haven for artists, writers and scientists. It has inspired accomplished Americans such as newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, author Henry Miller and two-time Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Linus Pauling.

Running like a thread from Big Sur south to San Louis Obispo is California's scenic Route 1, which many consider the world's most beautiful highway. More than a road, it is a journey that joins together an eclectic group of villages that offers travelers a respite from the forced theatricalism of many vacation sites. And despite the feeling of romantic remoteness that these villages exude, there is something to interest almost everyone.

Highway 1 runs throughout the entirety of the state. But it is this portion of the Central Coast region that is especially unspoiled, a secret as yet undiscovered by hordes of well-meaning tourists.

Construction on the portion of this road that connects Monterey County with San Luis Obispo County was begun in 1919. Like the road itself, the official opening of Highway 1 in 1938 was some what unconventional. The ceremonies began with a toast to President Roosevelt, a pigeon release, a barbecue and the appearance of a Pony Express rider.

This roughly 150-mile journey encompasses dramatic views of nature, ranging from sea cliffs to rolling farmland and majestic mountains. It includes green winding hills of grapevines, used by the region's wineries to make award-winning wines that are sold all over the world. Hearst Castle perches atop a mountain and seemingly overlooks the universe, just the way its owner, famed publisher William Randolph Hearst, would have liked it. Quaint villages and inlets, featuring art galleries, one-of-a-kind restaurants and craft shops, add to the region's appeal.

The range of options provided by the varied scenery and communities attracts outdoor enthusiasts -- biking, hiking, camping and swimming are all popular activities nearly year-round. Indeed, Big Sur, as well as the Central Coast region to its south, is a natural habitat for migrating gray whales, sea otters and harbor seals and is the winter home of the monarch butterfly. Above all, the climate is consistently mild and sunny.

A winding road

And it all begins on Highway 1, south of Monterey. The road quickly becomes narrow and winding, as much of this part of the two-lane highway was blasted out of the western slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains. At times, as drivers timidly negotiate constant twists and turns, hills and valleys, one can appreciate a sheer 1,000-foot drop into the sea that is not more than three feet from the road's edge. Few houses are apparent in this wilderness, but occasionally one spots dirt driveways that appear to rise into air.

At times, the drive can be terrifying, but it's also invigorating. Few cars pass. Frequent "vista turn-outs," small dirt areas where one can park, walk and enjoy the scenery, provide numerous opportunities for picnics and photographs. Small towns, such as Anderson Creek and Lucia, are tucked into hillsides and offer occasional post offices proclaiming their existence. A scattering of unconventional art galleries and restaurants boasts scenic views.

It is nature here that is magical, and travelers can enjoy enchanting views of towering redwoods, spruce trees, wildflowers and rugged beaches at their own pace by visiting several campgrounds. Most notably, the Peiffer-Big Sur State Park is an idyllic state campground running along a lovely river in a luxuriant forest.

There are, of course, other places to discover in Big Sur. The Ventana Inn, a romantic country inn sitting high above the highway, offers privileged privacy. For those who want to enjoy the view, its restaurant, featuring a huge patio deck towering over the countryside, is flanked by lowering redwood trees, grassy meadows and deep canyons, and offers breathtaking glimpses of the Pacific's wide expanse. Nearby, the Henry Miller Library, tucked in among redwood trees, provides an intimate glimpse into the controversial author, whose tantalizing works were banned from the United States for many years.

Farther south, the famed Nepenthe features a wild-West style, handcrafted, wood-trimmed restaurant built into the side of a mountain, with breathtaking views of the Pacific just hundreds of feet below. Named after a Greek word meaning "sorrow banisher," the restaurant was built around a log cabin once owned by Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth. Today, it also features a huge gift shop that sells a wide array of jewelry, art and literature on the region, much of it crafted out of the natural resources of the area.

Gradually, the highway descends into San Luis Obispo County, and the rocky ledges of the Santa Lucia Mountains fade into emerald green mountains. Cattle graze in picturesque meadows, but the land still feels desolate. Open spaces recall the grand Old West discovered by early explorers. Amid this pastoral tranquillity lies the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, a mansion built by William Randolph Hearst on his family's San Simeon Ranch. Nicknamed Hearst Castle because of its grandeur, the monument serves as a beacon to the area, drawing more than 1 million visitors a year from all over the world. It was designed by architect Julia Morgan -- with much input from Hearst. Construction began in 1919 and continued unabated until 1947, when ill health forced the aging publisher to move to Southern California.

Hearst Castle offers a mystique that is difficult to define. It's not just that the main house and surrounding guest cottages, which tower 1,600 feet above the Pacific, are magnificently grand in a traditional Spanish style of architecture. Or that the view of San Simeon, of the sprawling Pacific, of the green mountains beyond, is mesmerizing. It is perhaps the extravagance of this 100-room mansion, which houses only a portion of Hearst's collection of art and antiques, the accumulation of a lifetime of world travel. The "Castle" is a living museum of a pastime long gone but scarcely forgotten.

Hearst Castle is so large that visitors must take four separate tours to see it, and many of those are so fascinated by the house that they return time and time again. Among its unusual features are twin turrets and 137-foot ceilings in its main rooms. Its grounds are manicured with greenery and fresh flowers of all sorts, pools and sculpture. Wild animals, the offspring of Hearst's original zoo on the ranch, range from deer to zebra and still roam the expansive rolling hills.

San Simeon, south of Hearst Castle, is quite a contrast to the elaborate Hearst ranch. Aside from a strip of motels, restaurants, galleries and gift shops that straddles the highway, it is well-known for the San Simeon State Beach, which consists of more than 540 acres of rolling hills, freshwater marsh and 13,000 feet of ocean frontage.

A whimsical village

Also south of the magnificence of Hearst Castle lies Cambria, "where the pines meet the sea." A whimsical village tucked into a pine forest, this quaint town attracts visitors to its spectacular mountain-backed seascapes. Its sheltered location by the Pacific lends it one of the mildest climates in California.

A profusion of art galleries lends this idyllic place its personality. More than 14 varied galleries, exhibiting and selling works of artisans that range from museum-quality fine art and photography to stained glass and handcrafted jewelry, complement an array of gourmet restaurants, book shops, gift stores and romantic bed and breakfast inns. Originally an active Central Coast center of shipping, mining, dairy farming, lumbering and ranching, Cambria first developed in the 1860s and now boasts more than 6,000 residents, making it the region's second largest city.

The popularity of Cambria's art galleries has spilled over to nearby Harmony, population 18. A popular arts community, Harmony is nestled into a meadow off Highway 1 and offers a restaurant, winery and galleries with boutiques selling pottery, hand-painted scarves, jackets and sweaters, and jewelry. Often, artists are on hand to discuss the process of their creations, and observers can watch a husband-and-wife artisan team create glass crafts in their studio at the end of Harmony's only street. Prices are amazingly reasonable for this one-of-a-kind art.

For wine lovers, a daylong detour off Highway 1 at Harmony becomes a wonderful adventure. A number of distinctive Central Coast wineries are located along state Route 46. Appropriately named Green Valley Drive, this journey offers a misty view of the Pacific and surrounding mountains and valleys. Inland, the land gradually becomes flatter, harsher, drier -- more desert-like with brown vines and pointy, brush-like green bushes and trees.

The first winery in the region, which spans a 30-mile stretch from Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo, opened in 1882. Today there are more than 25, with more than 8,000 acres of vineyards. Much like the well-established Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries in Northern California, these are concentrated in two valleys: Eberle to the north, and Edna to the south. A point of pride among many owners of these wineries is that 70 percent of their grapes are purchased and shipped annually to the Napa Valley for processing. Shifts in climate between the northern and southern valleys result in a profusion of white grapes to the south and a concentration on red grapes to the north.

And while wine-making is a passion and a business for these vintners, visitors feel welcome and comfortable. Tasting rooms range from ornate (Arciero Winery, whose owners' publicized passion for auto racing is evident in the racing car situated in its wine shop) to simple (Eberle Winery's tasting room is paneled in oak and complements a large picture window overlooking the valley). They are concentrated in convenient clusters within the two valleys, making it easy for visitors to taste the specialties of a number of vintners.

Highway 1 south of Harmony is surrounded by pastoral farmlands with herds of grazing cows. An occasional farmhouse and one or two more modern buildings dot the landscape. Still, the setting feels wild. The road curves, twists and turns, offering revealing glimpses of sparkling blue water, and shortly thereafter one arrives in Cayucos, a village that was originally settled in 1867 and that now bills itself as "the town that time forgot." Nestled into the curve of Morro Bay, Cayucos is made up mainly of wide, clean beaches and a Main Street with a number of antique emporiums, an old-time saloon, a few cafes and numerous gift shops.

What's special about Cayucos? "There's nothing to do," says Debbie Mills, owner of Things To Do, a gift gallery. The only beach town along this strip of Route 1, Cayucos is a wonderful retreat for anyone wanting to step back from life's busy pace. It's especially fun for children, with playgrounds on the beach and a profusion of gentle, secluded pools for sea anemones and starfish.

Artists' galleries

Like Cambria and Harmony, Cayucos promotes the artistry of its residents through galleries and the Cayucos Art Association. "We're carving out a niche for the community in the region as a creative center," says Al Musso, a painter who retired eight years ago and moved to Cayucos from Los Angeles and has since sold several hundred paintings and watercolors. "Because the artwork is high in quality and reasonably priced, we are receiving more and more recognition up and down the coast."

Back on the highway, the road follows the ocean's path once again, running past Morro Bay and the dormant Morro Rock, originally one of the Seven Sisters volcanoes, which are scattered along California's coast.

The scenery, while still replete with mountains, becomes flatter and more desert-like. Descending into the town of San Luis Obispo, the region's largest with a population of more than 80,000, one can glimpse tiny buildings in the distance. If Hearst Castle is often the beacon that draws visitors to the region, San Luis Obispo is its heart. The home of California Polytechnic Institute, world renowned for its schools of engineering, architecture and agriculture, the city was founded in 1772 when Father Junipero Serra established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Built on a knoll beside San Luis Creek, the mission was a hub of the growing settlement.

Today, it remains at the center of all downtown activity and is surrounded by bountiful gardens of roses and daisies, as well as oak, pine and cypress trees. The town, enjoying a downtown renaissance, is comprised of inviting restaurants, galleries and specialty shops with a regional flair.

Architecturally, San Luis Obispo showcases its multicultural /^ heritage -- traditional Spanish-style buildings stand comfortably alongside Victorian and contemporary styles.

For many, the nicest part of San Luis Obispo is its location. Geographically, it is nestled in a gentle valley bordered by the Coast Range Mountains, which shelter it from ocean winds. San Luis Obispo boasts vast sand dunes, secluded ocean coves, large scenic reservoirs, picturesque hot springs and an inviting mountain wilderness. "Nature really is right next door," says Inna Altschul, a transplanted New Yorker who attends Cal Poly.

All along Highway 1, friendly "natives" make travelers fee welcome through a contagious enthusiasm that is not often found in more populated areas. It's easy to understand. Many area residents who own shops and businesses in the area discovered this idyllic part of the Central Coast themselves while on vacation.

As Debbie Mills, the proprietor of a shop in Cayucos, confesses, "My husband and I discovered this part of California quite by accident. Several years later he announced that he'd quit his job, and we moved from Los Angeles. We love it here."

If you go . . .

Depending on your itinerary, there are a number of airports to choose from when visiting the Central Coast. Most convenient are the Monterey Airport, at the north end of the journey, and San Luis Obispo Airport to the south. Many travelers fly into San Francisco and rent cars. The Monterey/Carmel gateway to the Central Coast is 1 1/2 hours from the San Francisco area.

For information on Big Sur parks and campsites, as well as galleries and the Henry Miller Library, call (805) 927-3624.

The best bet for visiting Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is to call ahead and reserve tickets. There are four tours, each about 1 3/4 hours. Tours begin at 8:20 a.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day; the last tour begins at 3 p.m. in winter, later in summer. Cost for each of the four tours is $14 for adults; $8 for children. For first-time visitors, Tour 1, which covers public rooms, guest houses, a theater and both pools, is recommended. For ticket reservations or more information, call (800) 444-PARK.

For more on other San Simeon attractions, as well as lodging, contact the Chamber of Commerce at (805) 927-3500.

In Cambria, call the Chamber of Commerce at (805) 927-3624 for information on local attractions, restaurants and shops. There are many types of lodging, from one-of-a-kind motels to quaint bed and breakfasts. There are no chain establishments of any kind. An important note: Cambria is a popular weekend destination for Los Angeles and San Francisco residents, so plan accordingly.

For details on attractions throughout the rest of San Luis Obispo County, which includes Cayucos, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, call the Chamber of Commerce at (805) 781-2777.

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