During the last week of February, we drove up the California coast from Orange County to San Francisco, stopping in various places to visit friends and family and see the local sights. It wasn’t an exact repeat of last year’s trip, but we did redo Hearst Castle the second day out.

Day 1: Tuesday — LA to SLO

A crag along PCH.We left Tuesday morning (February 24) after eating breakfast at the Gypsy Den in Costa Mesa, took a relaxed drive up the 5 and Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo, stopping in Santa Barbara for lunch. From SLO we cut across to the coast and up to San Simeon on Pacific Coast Highway. After we checked into our hotel (the Best Western Cavalier again, since it really impressed us last time), we headed into Cambria for dinner at a restaurant called Robin’s.

One of the things we tried to do on this trip was to always eat at local restaurants rather than familiar chains, just to try something new. Overall, that worked out really well. The only real misstep was a crepe place in Monterey.

Funny astronomical timing: Last year we were in San Simeon the night of a lunar eclipse. This year it was ideal viewing time for Comet Lulin. After trying to spot it from the hotel grounds, I finally drove out of town a few miles for stargazing. It was a fantastic view, but the comet was too faint for me to see.

Day 2: Wednesday – Seals and Hearst Castle

Elephant seals on the beach on a gloomy day.Anyway, we spent most of Wednesday near San Simeon. First we drove up the highway a bit to a viewpoint near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse to look at the elephant seals that crowded the beach. Most of them were just lying around relaxing, but every once in a while one would move, and I saw a couple of seals fighting, and a couple of seals, um, doing something else.

Ornate and full library at Hearst Castle.Hearst Castle took up the bulk of the day, as we took two tours, one before lunch and one after. In the morning (after the seals) we toured the Casa del Monte and the North Wing (one of the latest additions to the house), showing interesting contrast in design and decoration style. Then we came back down to the visitor’s center, had lunch in the cafe (which was surprisingly good — probably because they used Hearst Ranch beef for the barbequed beef sandwiches and the chili), and went back up the hill to the next tour, which covered the upper floors of the main house.

Burton Street in Cambria.We stopped in Cambria on the way out, where Katie hit the local yarn store and I explored the nearby shops. There was one that had a huge collection of gemstones and fossils, including a lot of humongous geodes. Then we headed inland along highway 46 to pick up the 101, because I really didn’t want to drive the stretch of PCH between San Simeon and Carmel! (Winding road with 100-foot sheer drops into the ocean, during late afternoon and running past sunset? I don’t think so!) Along the way I kept looking for the turnout where you can see all the way to Morro Bay, and I found it. I managed to get a shot with sunlight this time:

Morro Bay seen from a distance, with green hills in front.

We originally planned to meet up with my aunt in the Carmel Valley area, but the timing didn’t work out, and by the time we made it to Pacific Grove I was ready to just collapse into bed. Fortunately the motel was a pleasant surprise (we experimented with using Hotwire for nights when we weren’t looking for a specific hotel): we got the Anton Inn, which was a tiny little motel surrounded by other motels way off the beaten path, but the staff was friendly, the rooms were very nice and comfortable, and the rooms were stocked with a variety of books! The only real downside is that the area has very flaky cell reception.

We walked about half a block to an Asian fusion restaurant, where I had some sort of citrus duck dish. There was only one other party in the restaurant the entire time we were there, but the food was very good, making me think they probably depend heavily on the tourist season (which is not late February). Then we walked back to the hotel, read a bit to unwind, and hit the sack.

Speaking of which, I should do that now. I really didn’t think it would take this long to write things up! (Plus my internal clock keeps telling me it’s only eleven.) Photos are up on Flickr in my California Coast photo set, with a separate WonderCon photo set. I’ll write up more of the trip later this week. Continued in Monterey and Carmel.

We stayed in three different hotels on our trip up to Northern California last week, all of them vastly different.

View from Cavalier at nightBest Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon: Excellent. Calling it a resort is pushing it—it’s really just a motel—but we had absolutely no complaints. The service was friendly, the bed was comfortable, everything was clean and worked (including the free wifi). It’s right on the coast, with a wide lawn atop a bluff where you can sit and watch the waves come in. At night they light up firepits, and you can sit, keep warm, and listen to the ocean. Even the standard room had a well-stocked mini-bar. We’ve been talking about going back to Hearst Castle to catch the tours we missed, and we’ll probably stay here again.

Best Western Silicon Valley Inn in Sunnyvale: Lousy. I forget which one of us came up with the phrase, “The Worst Best Western in the West.” The sink leaked, the hotel was on default air conditioning (even though it was ~50°F and raining outside), the heater was a loud, grinding thing that sounded like a truck engine, the bedspread had cigarette burns in it, the towels felt like sandpaper, and the wifi wouldn’t accept the password the front desk gave us (which is probably just as well, since there were 4 access points broadcasting the same SSID, so for all I know one of them could’ve been a rogue). And the staff was taciturn at best. All this for the same price as the Cavalier.

Hotel Mark Twain in San Francisco: Good. It’s located in downtown San Francisco, just a few blocks from Moscone Center (about a 10–15 minute walk), and it’s a classic hotel. On my brother’s recommendation, we paid extra for the “deluxe” rooms. Everything was comfortable, if small, and again the staff was friendly. Never got a chance to try out the Internet access. The one thing I was really disappointed with was the room service. It’s hard to eat a mostly-done pork chop with a plastic knife and fork out of a 4-inch-high cardboard box. There was also a loud party in the room next to us Saturday night, but we were up late anyway. On the plus side, there’s a coffee shop two doors away that was always packed, though we never had to wait for a table. The rate of people arriving and finishing was perfectly balanced. One caveat: The hotel is located at the edge of the financial district, so you want to leave going uphill on Taylor or east on O’Farrell. If you go downhill on Taylor, you end up walking through the Tenderloin. Update: This is now the Tilden Hotel.

I’ve driven 500 miles in the last 2 days. We’re heading up to San Francisco for WonderCon this weekend, stopping along the way to visit friends in Silicon Valley and my brother and his fiancee in San Francisco. We ended up with an extra day at the beginning of the trip, which we used to visit Hearst Castle.

We left around mid-morning on Wednesday, driving through 2 hours of crappy Los Angeles traffic until things finally cleared up out toward Ventura. Along the way we saw something we’d never seen before: Our Prius runs in part on a battery, which is recharged by the gas engine, by coasting, and by braking. It has an 8-bar battery gage that mostly moves around in the 2–7–bar range. Heading down the pass into Camarillo, for the first time, I saw it fill all 8 bars.

We took the 101 most of the way, branching off at San Luis Obispo to take Pacific Coast Highway up to San Simeon. With all the rain we’ve had this winter, the countryside is amazingly green. The last few times I remember taking the 101 up the coast, it was summer, so the hills were all golden brown. We lucked out with the weather: instead of the constant rain I was expecting from the forecast, we only had scattered showers.

We spent Wednesday night in San Simeon. Dinner was at a restaurant called The Sow’s Ear in Cambria, which was very good.

Blurry Lunar Eclipse through cloudsWe actually managed to see the lunar eclipse. Sort of. The cloud cover was just light enough to see the bright sliver shortly before totality. It screened out the reddish light completely. I have a blurry picture of the just-as-blurry eclipse.

Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle.Thursday morning we went to Hearst Castle for the morning’s first tour. We didn’t get the one we wanted (Tour 2) because it didn’t start until 9:20, and we wanted to get to San Jose by 5:00. If I could make one change to their website, it would be to list actual tour times. We got rained on a bit, but it was a good overview of just how eclectic the house is. Basically, if William Randolph Hearst was traveling and saw a piece of a building that he liked, he’d buy it, ship it back to California, and have it built into his house.

After stopping briefly in Cambria, we took highway 46 across the hills to catch up with the 101 and head north to San Jose. Partly I wanted to avoid the long, twisty, cliffside stretches of PCH, and partly we wanted to avoid getting caught in the bike race. The route goes past cattle ranches, empty hills, and wineries. At one point there’s a fantastic view of Morro Bay off in the distance. (Update: We took the same drive a year later and caught the view in the sunlight)

View of Morro Bay and Morro Rock from Highway 46
We made it to San Jose around 4:30, and managed to get tickets for the last tour of the Winchester Mystery House. Yes, we toured two big, rambling mansions in one day. It was interesting to compare the way the tours treated the two places. With Hearst Castle, it was very much a museum tour. Everything was preserved as exactly as possible, including all the furniture and decorations, and they admonished you not to touch anything. And the docents were walking encyclopedias. With Winchester, it was much more casual. The speeches felt more canned, and the tour guide wasn’t concerned with anybody touching anything except for a few places where the floors or tiles were still original.

After the tour, we met up with our friends for dinner. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was a tapas restaurant on Santana Row. Also quite good. Edit: Katie points out that it was called Consuelo.

Tomorrow: On to San Francisco. Not sure whether we’re going to WonderCon on Friday or not—it depends on what else is available (since they keep promising massive downpours of rain)—but we’ll definitely be going on Saturday. For one thing, I’m hoping to get to the premiere of Justice League: New Frontier. I really liked Darwyn Cooke’s original mini-series linking the dawn of the Silver Age and the dawn of the space age, and what I’ve seen of the animation style looks quite promising.

OK. It’s 11:30. Time to get some sleep.

Update: filling in a few pictures.

Continued in: Saturday/WonderCon and Friday–Sunday