December 27, 2018

A Vintage Christmas at Hearst Castle


I always enjoy guiding tours to California’s scenic central coast, especially when the tour includes a visit to Hearst Castle during the holiday season.  Our journey today took us along highway 101 through Calabasas and Thousand Oaks areas where we could easily see the charred hills leftover from the Woolsey Fire which burned almost 100,000 acres in November of this year. The fire killed three people and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people. It also destroyed 1,643 structures, including the homes of Hollywood Celebrities such as Gerard Butler, Shannen Doherty and Robin Thicke.

Upon arrival in the Santa Barbara area, we enjoyed a driving tour through Montecito and along oceanfront Channel Drive where we passed the mysterious Clark Mansion as well as the gorgeous Biltmore hotel en route to our lunch stop at Stearn’s Wharf.  Named for lumberman John Stearn and originally completed in 1872, Stearn’s Wharf became the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Since then, it has been rebuilt two times due to a catastrophic earthquake in 1925 and a fire in 1973 which caused it to close for six years.  Today, the wharf features numerous restaurants and shops and also the Ty Warner Sea Center, which is the number one attraction on the wharf.  Ty Warner is the inventor of the beanie babies and owns many things in the Santa Barbara area.  The sun peaked out at just the right time, so our time at the wharf was very enjoyable, however some of our travelers opted to stay on the bus to continue downtown for lunch and shopping along State Street and Paseo Nuevo Mall.  It’s always difficult to choose between these two Santa Barbara lunch options, because both are varied and interesting!

After lunch, we stopped at the Santa Barbara Courthouse to enjoy the spectacular 360-degree view from their clock tower. From top, you can see all the red tile rooftops which make Santa Barbara so quaint as well as amazing views of the mountains and ocean. Built in 1929, the courthouse is of the most photographed buildings in the USA and considered to be one of the most impressive examples of Moorish architecture.  Another highlight here is a visit to the Mural room on the second floor to see the hand painted Groesbeck murals and hand stenciled ceilings.  As a Hollywood storyboard artist, Dan Sayre Groesbeck actually helped Cecil B. DeMille visualize the lavish sets for the movie 10 Commandments shot in Santa Barbara back in 1923.   The murals depict scenes of California history and it actually feels like a gigantic storyboard.

Our last official tour stop of the day was at beautiful Mission Santa Barbara, called the Queen of Missions for its graceful beauty. The mission was the 10th of 21 built up the California coast, and was founded by Father Fermin Lasuen. Mission Santa Barbara’s name comes from the legend of Saint Barbara, a girl who was supposedly beheaded by her father for following the Christian Faith.  The mission continues to serve the community as a parish church today.

Back on Hwy. 101, we headed through Pismo Beach and enjoyed the always stunning ocean views here before continuing on to our overnight accommodations at the Apple Farm Inn in San Luis Obispo.  People always rave about this place, and for good reason!  The cozy rooms are a wonderful mix of charming old and modern new furnishings and all contain gas fireplaces.  Antiques fill the hallways and the whole place was totally decked out for the holidays.  The hotel has a wonderful restaurant, that includes a bakery with homemade pies, pastries and even gingerbread men.  Their gift shop contains one-of-a-kind items and is a perfect place to do a little Christmas shopping for those hard to buy for people.   Everyone always enjoys the complimentary beverages in the (newly remodeled) lobby here, including hot chocolate and hot apple cider.  Our included group welcome dinner in the restaurant was very well done and people really enjoyed the food.


We started our day with a driving tour of San Luis Obispo.  Our first stop was at Bubble Gum Alley, perhaps the city’s most talked about attraction.  In fact, it has been featured on a number of television shows, including the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Known for its accumulation of used bubble gum on the walls, this 15-foot high, 70-foot long alley was supposedly started in the late 1950s as a rivalry between San Luis Obispo High School and Cal Poly students.

Our driving tour continued by the Children’s Museum, the beautiful old Carnegie Library (now a historical museum) en route to the city’s main attraction, Mission San Luis Obispo. The mission here was founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772.  Its construction is unique in that it has a combination belfry and vestibule, which is found nowhere else among the California missions.  It also contains a secondary nave of almost equal size (to the main sanctuary) which is situated to the right of the altar, making it the only L-shaped mission church among all of the California missions. The mission church today is still an active parish church of the Diocese of Monterey.

We continued our driving tour of through SLO’s “Chinatown” which is not readily evident to the casual observer.  One of the remaining Chinatown-era buildings is the historic Ah Louis Store.  Laborers were brought from China by Ah Louis in order to construct the Pacific Coast Railway.  The town’s Chinatown revolved around Ah Louis Store. Mee Heng Low chop suey shop is the only other remaining building, although more Chinatown-themed commercial development is being planned by the city.  I read that a display of some of the unearthed relics from this period can be seen on the first floor of the Palm Street parking garage, which was built over the location where Chinatown once stood.

Our driving tour of the San Luis Obispo area concluded with a drive through California Polytechnic State University.  Cal Poly’s 9700-acre campus is massive and includes 4 ranches, making it the second largest land holding university behind only Cal Berkeley.  Cal Poly uses all of its land holdings in active support of the education of its students.  Cal Poly Business School as gained a bit of notoriety from its Senior projects which have often led to students obtaining jobs or recognition for their work.  For example, Jamba Juice, originally founded as “Juice Club”, was inspired by the Senior Project idea.   Famous Cal Poly alumni include Weird Al Yankovic, Peter Oppenheimer and Alex Spanos.  Alex Spanos was an aerospace engineering major at Cal Poly and attended the university back in the 1940s.  Throughout his life, Spanos has been a benefactor to countless sports activities and has a stadium and theater named in his honor.

Leaving San Luis Obispo, our route took us along scenic Hwy. 101 past Morro Bay. This town’s most striking feature is Morro Rock, a 576-foot high volcanic plug. Morro Rock stands majestically at the entrance to the harbor and is quite spectacular. There is no public access to the rock itself because it is a reserve for the locally endangered peregrine falcon. A definite highlight of the morning was a stop on the main (and only) drag of tiny Harmony, CA, population 18.  Harmony was originally settled by Swiss-Italian dairy farmers who founded the Harmony Valley Dairy Co-op in 1901. Tourists traveling Hwy 1 often stopped for fresh buttermilk and famed publisher William Randolph Hearst stopped often in Harmony on his way to his opulent home in San Simeon, 12 miles northwest, as did many of the Hollywood celebrities who were frequent guests of Hearst.  After the Hearst era, the town fell onto hard times but was rediscovered in the 1970s by California’s young counter-culture population, a.k.a. “The Hippies!”  Today a small group of artisans keep Harmony alive, with retail shops selling art objects, locally hand-blown glass and pottery, and there is also Harmony Cellars which produces quality local wines.  Harmony Glassworks and Harmony Pottery Works are the two main shops and both stores were filled with absolutely beautiful items.  The old creamery is still there and is being used as a makeshift post office where we were delighted to find complimentary coffee and hot chocolate available. Our travelers really enjoyed their time in Harmony!

We stopped for lunch and some shopping time in charming Cambria.  Without a doubt, everyone’s favorite restaurant in Cambria is Linn’s, which is most famous for their Olallieberry pie. The olallieberry is a cross between the loganberry and the youngberry which was developed in 1935 by the USDA and Oregon State University.  The best way to enjoy this pie is warmed up with ice cream melting on top.  Many of my tour passengers opted to forego lunch and go straight to dessert! Cambria started out as a mining town back in 1862 with the discovery of cinnabar, the mineral in which quicksilver is found.  It became a boom time for a while, before the price of mercury declined.  A second boom happened in the early 1900s with the building of nearby Hearst Castle. Cambria provided supplies, services, and accommodations for many who came to build the Castle, creating prosperity in the town. Today, the primary economic activity of Cambria is tourism, and there are many wonderful shops and restaurants to choose from as well as charming hotels and bed & breakfasts.

A beautiful and clear weather afternoon was in store for us at spectacular Moonstone Beach, where we combed the beach looking for moonstones and walked on the scenic one-mile boardwalk along the rocky coast.  The surf was very high so the views were quite dramatic.  The Moonstone found here is not the gem-quality Moonstone (a derivative of feldspar) found in abundance in places such as Sri Lanka, rather, it is derived from quartz washed out of local sea caves.  “Moonstones” was the name given to these rocks by the local Chumash Indians as their milky white translucent appearance reminded them of the moon. Moonstone has been used in jewelry for millennia, including ancient civilizations. Romans admired moonstone, as they believed it was born from solidified rays of the Moon.

We got our first taste of Hearst Castle with a stop at the Visitor Center where we enjoyed time for shopping at the gift shop, visiting the museum and we also enjoyed a screening of “Hearst Castle – Building the Dream,” a movie that was produced exclusively for the Hearst Castle Theater.  The movie includes breathtaking original cinematography combined with vintage clips from the 1920s and 30s which talk about the construction and history of the Castle.  The theater is huge and features a five-story screen.

Next, we stopped a delightful early dinner at the oceanfront Cavalier Resort in San Simeon.  Afterwards, many enjoyed a stroll along the beach to enjoy the sunset. None too soon, it was on to the tour’s main attraction, Hearst Castle!  Back at the Visitor Center we boarded park service buses for our 5-mile journey up La Cuesta Encantada, or the Enchanted Hill. This spectacular mansion was designed by architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947 for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.  In 1957, the Hearst Corporation donated the property to the state of California.

When Hearst originally approached Julia Morgan and told her that he would like to build on the hill at San Simeon, he actually had something simple in mind.  As a child he had camped here, but told Morgan that he was getting too old to sleep in tents and that he would like to build something that was a little more comfortable. What he ended up with was a 90,000 sq. ft. castle with 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield, and the world’s largest private zoo!  Zebras and other exotic animals still roam the grounds. Invitations to Hearst Castle were highly coveted during its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. The Hollywood and political elite often visited, usually flying into the estate’s airfield or taking a private Hearst-owned train car from Los Angeles.

On our “The Holiday Twilight Tour” we got to get a little taste of what it would have been like to be a guest at the castle.  As we arrived at the top of the hill, we were greeted by our guide who shared many interesting stories of holiday festivities during the estate’s heyday. Our first stop was at the fabulous (outside) Neptune Pool which was a popular gathering place during the day for Hearst guests.  Our visit also included a tour of the Casa del Sol-guest house as well as the grand social rooms of Casa Grande, the main house.  Along the way, we saw various actors in period costume who were portrayed as guests of Hearst.  They really added to what was a magical experience.  Along the way, we saw Hearst’s celebrated art collection and enjoyed the warm glow of thousands of holiday lights and numerous Christmas trees. The tour ended in Hearst’s own private movie studio, where we watched silent film footage of Hearst himself entertaining his A-list guests.  Our exit back to the bus was via the indoor Roman pool which is truly spectacular.


We reluctantly checked out of our cozy accommodations at the Apple Farm Inn this morning.  We took the scenic route through beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, filled with vineyards and horse farms made famous in the movie Sideways. Our route took us by the Quicksilver Miniature Horse Farm and the charming community of Los Olivos, home to the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Fess Parker Winery. This area was also home to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

The very Danish town of Solvang was our last official tour stop, and it never disappoints!  Solvang was founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who came out to California from the Midwest, primarily to escape the cold winters. Today the town is home to a number of bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark. The architecture of many of the facades and buildings reflects traditional Danish style, but it didn’t happen by accident.  Initially, most of Solvang’s buildings were built in the same style as other towns in the area, however that was all changed by two men who were instrumental in the transformation of Solvang to the Danish-style village we know today.

After World War II, Ferdinand Sorensen, after returning to Solvang from a trip to Denmark, decided to build the town’s first Møllebakken, or Danish-styled home.  He then went on to build the first of the town’s four windmills. A few years later, Earl Petersen, a local architect, gave the older buildings a new look, adding facades in the so-called “Danish Provincial” style.  As a result of these two men’s vision and hard work, Solvang has gained a reputation for its old-world charm, and has become a major California tourist attraction, with over one million visitors per year.  There is even a copy of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen. (3:1 scale replica) as well as a museum devoted to Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s renowned Fairy Tale Writer.  Another landmark in Solvang is a replica of Copenhagen’s Round Tower or Rundetårn (3:1 scale replica)

Many people come to Solvang to shop for imported Danish items, however I think the town’s unique food offerings are equally enticing!  I always tell my tour members to be sure to try Almond Kringle and the Danish Butter Cookies at one of many of Solvang’s Bakeries. (My favorite is Olsen’s Danish Bakery out on the highway) Solvang Bakery is also famous for their gingerbread houses, and they have a huge online mail order business.  (You can easily spend up to $500 for specially-made gingerbread house!)

Other food items to try include the famous Danish spiced pork sausage, and æbleskiver, Danish Pancakes with powdered sugar and raspberry jam which are available at Solvang Restaurant on Copenhagen St. from their take-out window. When you’re in Solvang, it’s impossible to miss the storks (sculptures) on the roof tops!  In Denmark these birds are believed to bring good luck and protection to any household they nest upon. Danish people would go to great lengths to attract them to their rooftops, putting up stick nests and wheels, hoping a stork would come.

Our lunch was at the famous Pea Soup Andersen’s, located in nearby Buellton, CA. Opened in 1924 when Anton Andersen, born in Denmark, purchased a piece of land from R.T. Buell and opened a restaurant. The cafe was on the road to Hearst Castle and, as this was the heyday of Hearst’s newspaper empire, many of the Hearst writers and reporters were known to regularly stop at Andersen’s restaurant.  Celebrities, such as Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge, became regulars and the two men became fast friends. Since then, the restaurant has been the favorite of salesmen, tourists and truck drivers and is somewhat of a California legend.   The restaurant still has an old-fashioned feel of warmth, and our menu of course included some of their famous split pea soup.  Yum!  There is also a unique gift shop with hand-made crafts from selected makers around the world with a section that is completely devoted to Christmas year-round.

Leaving Buellton, the drive along the coast was spectacular and, all too soon, it was time to head back to San Diego with many happy memories of our 3-days of warm holiday exploration on California’s beautiful central coast.

Mark Jacobson
DayTripper Tour Manager

Tour: 3-day Vintage Christmas at Hears Castle
Date: December 17-19, 2018


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