Driving for long stretches is historically my idea of a holiday from hell, but our California Road Trip changed all that. It is hard to believe how you could have more fun in a hire car than on the Pacific Coast Highway, aka Highway 1.
Traveling from North to South so that the sea is on your side is the only way to tackle the journey, albeit slowly as everyone pulls over to admire the spectacular views.
Leaving Carmel and Monterey behind, one of the most memorable spots to stop along the Big Sur is at the colony of elephant seals at Piedras Blancas As you emerge from your car the first thing that hits you is the noise and the second the smell.
Coming from Norfolk and growing up close to Blakeney Point which is home to England's largest colony of grey seals, I didn't think there was much more that could impress me with regard to seals but yet again on this trip I was proven wrong.
One of the great things about the US is the abundance of people on hand eager to help and at the viewing point a volunteer ranger was only too happy to share his knowledge about the seals to the hoards of tourists and bystanders.
Perhaps not surprisingly, elephant seals derive their name from their size and from the male's large nose, which begins to develop when the male reaches puberty at about five years and is fully developed by eight to nine years. The largest seal in the northern hemisphere and the second largest in the world, the adult elephant males are particularly impressive to see. You cannot help but be struck by their sheer size and on mass they are quite an intimidating sight.
The beach at the rookery spreads over 6 miles and even though it wasn't the busiest time when we were there, there were elephant seals stretched as far as the eye could see.
The seals are in the open ocean eight to ten months of the year only coming ashore to the rookery at three key periods. In the winter they come for the pupping and mating season, and in the late spring and early summer to molt and grow new fur.
October when we were there was the third population peak as this is the time that the young seals arrive on the beach for a rest and to spar with each other which really does make for entertaining viewing. It is so breathtaking that you can easily wile away time just admiring the view and watching these enormous creatures battle it out with each other as the females doze in the sun seemingly oblivious.
From here we made our way to Hearst Castle, the fantastical creation of the millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst, developed in collaboration with America's first licensed female architect Julia Morgan over many decades. Overlooking San Simeon La Cuesta Encantada, which means Enchanted Hill, certainly lives up to its name and boasts yet more glorious views of the Pacific Ocean. What's not to like about this??!!
Hearst Castle is not a place for exploring unaided, in order to see the estate you have to book on to a guided tour of which there are several to choose from. Leaving your car at the visitor centre at the bottom, a bus takes you on the 5 mile ascent up the winding hill and then once at the top you are met by a guide who takes you around the public areas of the estate.
Seeing really is believing this place. This sprawling estate comprises 165 rooms, acres of landscaped gardens, pools and fountains, statues from ancient Greece and Moorish Spain and the ruins of what was once the worlds largest private zoo; in fact after our visit as we continued along Highway 1 we spotted herds of zebra grazing on the hillside.
For the teens this was without doubt the least interesting part of our road trip but we felt that we could not justify driving past and not taking a look. To be honest I am not a great one for following the pack, preferring to explore in my own time and did find myself siding with the teens at a couple of points so was thankful that we had only booked the introductory Grand Rooms tour which was still a good two hours.
Interestingly, when I asked the ranger at the seal rookery whether he would recommend a trip to the castle, he said it wouldn't compare to anything that we have in the UK and in a sense he was right. Hearst Castle is not a place of heritage or steeped in history as we know it, it is literally the realisation of a very rich man's quest to build a museum where he could house his personal collections of rare and ancient works of art - of which there are many.
Hearst Castle is in effect a new build castle, a monument to ostentatiousness and I left feeling slightly disappointed and with lowered expectations. Each room houses an assortment of artefacts from around the world, most acquired as a result of the plundering during the World Wars.
Renaissance and Baroque tapestries hang above neoclassical scultpure. Church pews align the walls alongside 20th century sofas and armchairs. Silver candlesticks from the Middles Ages sit on a refectory style dining table with mustard and ketchup bottles. A 15th century Spanish ceiling adorns the billiard room with a Flemish tapestry from 1500. Then just when you think you have seen everything, on the way out you are taken through the decadent indoor Roman bath with intricate blue and gold tiling and adorned with sculptures of Greek and Roman gods .
Considering this was formerly a private estate, it lacks any form of design cohesion that you would normally associate with a home. Overall for me Hearst Castle was all a bit incongruous, but nevertheless the collection itself is not to be dismissed and rivals that of many museums even today, it is certainly a place not to be missed.
This post is the third in a series on our California Road Trip with Teens. If you missed the first posts you can view them via the links below.