The Big Sur – A California Road Trip – Part Three

California Road Trip Part Three

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.  

  • Hearst Castle

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.

The Big Sur & Hearst Castle


This post is the third in a series, you can read the other posts here:

A California Road Trip with Teens – Part One

Whale Watching in Monterey – California Part Two

Los Angeles – A Californian Road Trip – Part Four

Las Vegas – The Road Trip Finale






  1. May 21, 2017 / 4:33 pm

    Oh wow I am very envious of this trip. It looks amazing I would love to do a drive holiday across America, particularly the west coast. I bet those sea lions were really something special to see up close as is that castle. It certainly looks fantastic. Thanks for joining us at #familyfun

    • Jo
      May 22, 2017 / 7:58 pm

      One to save up for the future when yours are a bit older maybe. I would highly recommend it. Thanks for hosting. #familyfun

  2. May 17, 2017 / 9:29 am

    What a fabulous trip! We did a big US road trip a few years back, pre-children, exploring San Francisco, Napa Valley, Yosemite, Death Valley and Las Vegas, but I really wanted to work in the route down Highway 1 too. We had to agree we’d do it another time, as it was just too much. I think for now it’s postponed until our children are older, so it’s lovely to read your post. Hearst Castle has always sounded like a bit of a bizarre place to me, but it’s definitely somewhere I’d have on my list to visit, just to see all the bling! #FamilyFun

    • Jo
      May 17, 2017 / 9:45 am

      Oh yes you went the other way round to us which is want to do next time we visit actually. The time of year wasn’t great for Yosemite as it was end of October. We did end up in Vegas and thats’ a later post so we will have to compare tales! Thanks for your comment Katy. #FamilyFun

  3. May 16, 2017 / 1:18 pm

    Oh I feel so nostalgic! We honeymooned in California and the Baja peninsula Mexico. Started off in San Fran and did that drive down so took in a lot of what you mention here. I’d forgotten about Hearst Castle! Probably as I found it underwhelming compared to our ‘proper’ ones too! God I wish we had the guts to take our kids out of the fee paying school they’re in, put them in a state school (except it’s just not worth the risk in Malta!) and have money to take the kids on holidays! #tweenteensbeyond

    • Jo
      May 17, 2017 / 9:43 am

      A trip down memory lane for you then? How could you forget Hearst Castle? I would love to do this again just the husband and I but expect we will be a bit old and doddery by the time that is possible. Life without school fees now there is a thought! Thanks for commenting. #TweensTeensBeyond

  4. Alisa
    May 15, 2017 / 1:39 pm

    Sounds like a fantastic trip! I think I’d fall in your camp on Hearst Castle but the Pacific Coastal Hwy & the seals sound utterly amazing! I love California!

    • Jo
      May 16, 2017 / 8:08 am

      It was wonderful and more so because I wasn’t really expecting to love it quite as much as I did. California is so diverse too which made it even more enjoyable. #TweensTeensBeyond

  5. May 15, 2017 / 7:01 am

    Wow. These are some gorgeous shots! That Roman Bath area looks absolutely stunning! #globalblogging

    • Jo
      May 16, 2017 / 8:07 am

      Thank you it was a photographer’s paradise for sure. The bath was quite spectacular. Thanks for hosting and congratulations on the new arrival. #GlobalBlogging

  6. Janet T
    May 14, 2017 / 9:45 pm

    I know what you mean about teens in castles! Good to know you enjoyed your road trip despite the distance. A great location! #TeensTweensBeyond

    • Jo
      May 16, 2017 / 8:09 am

      Yes that kind of sightseeing is not a good match with Teens – we were probably pushing our luck a bit. The eldest did try to have a nap on one of the many chairs scattered about but was soon reprimanded by our guide! #TweensTeensBeyond

  7. May 12, 2017 / 7:04 pm

    Oh my God I want to go now. Our teens have never been to the US but if I can get enough money together we want to go to New York this Christmas. After reading this I think second trip may be planned. I really need to start saving!! xx #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      May 16, 2017 / 8:06 am

      New York is another favourite. We took ours in the October half term about five years ago and it was amazing. I hope you make it. #TweensTeensBeyond

  8. May 11, 2017 / 4:15 am

    Loved this post. The pictures are breathtaking. This is the first I’ve heard of elephant seals. They look cute and clumsy :-).
    Thos indoor baths are so beautiful. We have some ancient ruins of similar baths in India too – though they’re not preserved too well.

    • Jo
      May 12, 2017 / 9:42 am

      It is impossible not to have good photos there to be honest. The elephant seals are totally amazing although the males battling is actually quite vicious. Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for your lovely comments. x

  9. May 11, 2017 / 12:34 am

    Sounds like a fantastic trip. Hearst castle sounds really OTT – and yet there’s a part of me that would love to see it. #tweensteensbeyond

    • Jo
      May 12, 2017 / 9:41 am

      Yes it is a must see for sure and I would be interested in going back and seeing another area of the castle too but without Teens. #TweensTeensBeyond

  10. May 10, 2017 / 8:40 pm

    We’ve done this trip but pre-kids – I remember Hearst Castle well. I’d love to go back with the kids though. Sounds like you had an amazing trip with your gang. #tweensteensbeyond

    • Jo
      May 12, 2017 / 9:40 am

      I think Hearst Castle is one of the places that will always leave an impression. I would love to go back and do the trip again without kids, especially San Francisco. #TweensTeensBeyond

  11. May 10, 2017 / 6:34 pm

    Great photos!! I wanna go now 🙂 although I think I would have to wait until they are a bit older, not sure I could stand hearing ‘how long’ and ‘what are we going to see’ a zillion times. #tweensteensbeyond

    • Jo
      May 12, 2017 / 9:39 am

      Actually we arranged our trip so we were never in the car for longer than 4 hours which is about as long as a journey from London to Norfolk on a bad day and the teens never once asked that terrible question. It just worked. Bite the bullet Sharon. #TweensTeensBeyond

  12. May 10, 2017 / 12:43 pm

    Gorgeous pictures Jo! I was immersed in being there for just a short while. I’m interested to see that you did this with the teens. This was a trip that Mark and I did pre kids and wedding. San Francisco to San Diego and I’d live for us to do something similar with Lily. I imagine we covered similar ground although having meticulously planned hotels en route, we failed to book somewhere in Big Sur. This unfortunately coincided with a Jazz festival and we almost found ourselves sleeping in the car – save for the Lovers Point Inn (yes!). In true Kathy Bates style, we ventured in – and very quickly out the following morning – a whole other story. Fabulous post. #tweensreensbeyond

    • Jo
      May 12, 2017 / 9:38 am

      Oh that does sound interesting Nicky, can’t wait to hear all about it one day. It is a great trip to do with a teen, we got so much out of it as a family. #TweensTeensBeyond

  13. May 10, 2017 / 12:08 pm

    Wow! What an amazing trip! You’re really lucky. Thank you for sharing it with us 🙂

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 10:40 pm

      Fabulous indeed. Thanks for joining. x

    • Jo
      May 12, 2017 / 9:36 am

      It was. Thanks for reading and commenting. x

  14. oldhouseintheshires
    May 9, 2017 / 8:01 pm

    I was sooo looking forward to this post as this is the trip we would love to do! It looks as fab as I imgined! cool. #TweenTeens beyond

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 7:44 am

      It really is fantastic and you would totally love it. Can’t recommend it enough. #TweensTeensBeyond

  15. May 9, 2017 / 4:34 pm

    Wow it looks just amazing, a big California Road Trip is high up on my wish list. I would so love to see the seals an that reflection on the water is just stunning xx

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 7:45 am

      We postponed it for so many years and it was the perfect time to go with our two teens. My husband excelled himself in the photography department on this trip but it was helped by the speactacular views. #MondayEscapes

  16. May 9, 2017 / 3:24 pm

    this is a road trip we took with our 4 boys in 2007 and they loved every minute of it, i hope hubby and I can go back one day and soon
    #TweensTeensBeyond #mondayescapes

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 7:38 am

      Yes we harbour dreams of going back on our own too, although some things are never as good the second time around. It was a really memorable trip. Thanks for your comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  17. May 9, 2017 / 11:59 am

    I love road trips and now the children are older, I think they do too. Going along the Californian coast sounds fabulous. Your description of the castle made me smile. Remember going to a museum in New England and being shown a box that was 150 years old. That is over a hundred years younger than our house. It was difficult to be impressed, but I can’t help admiring their love of history that drives them to put such a collection together. #TweensTeenBeyond

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 7:41 am

      Oh that is funny. I am not sure what I was expecting but I don’t think I had appreciated it was a museum for an assortment of European treasures which as it was a home just seemed odd to me and frankly out of place. Thanks for your comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  18. May 9, 2017 / 10:55 am

    Wow what a wonderful adventure to do with the teens. The photos are amazing and really give a great snapshot of the trip – love that view from the top – oh if only I had grounds like that! Friends of ours did a California trip with their three a couple of years ago and we promised ourselves we would too – we still haven’t but reading this I’m so tempted to start planning! #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 7:42 am

      Oh you would love it Helen and the teens would for sure, they are the perfect ages. Hope you are inspired to go to the next stage! Thanks for your comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  19. May 9, 2017 / 10:40 am

    This sounds a wonderful and truly memorable trip. I remember going over to the Farne Islands to see the seals a few years ago, a truly wonderful sight and worth a trip. Just don’t go when it’s nesting season or you’ll be dive bombed, screeched at and crapped on by the terns!! 🙂 #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      May 10, 2017 / 7:43 am

      How hilarious! Glad you survived to tell the tale. Thanks for the comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  20. May 8, 2017 / 11:09 pm

    What a curious castle. I love your description of it and can see how it is very different to anything in the UK – more Disney than authentic. The seals must have been amaszing to watch. I’d love to do a road trip like this one day. Thanks for sharing it on #MondayEscapes.

    • Jo
      May 9, 2017 / 8:20 am

      Claire that it is a good description actually – I will have to use that next time! It is, however, like nothing you will ever experience again. The seals were totally stunning – big and mesmerising. Thanks for hosting. #MondayEscapes

  21. May 8, 2017 / 10:55 pm

    This looks amazing, I would love to go on a road trip but I am not a fan of sitting in a car for long periods of time! #globalblogging

    • Jo
      May 9, 2017 / 8:18 am

      Me too Tracey but somehow this was fine – the cars are big and comfortable, the scenery spectacular and there is always somewhere to stop. The longest journey we did was 4 hours which isn’t really that much. Thanks for dropping by. #globalblogging

  22. May 8, 2017 / 6:36 pm

    I practically grew up doing massive road trips across the country and moving to Europe, it’s so easy to just hop in the car and go! I’d love to do a Cali road trip to show my German husband! Hearst Castle is amazing and I’d love to see it again! #MondayEscapes

    • Jo
      May 8, 2017 / 6:53 pm

      Oh you are definitely a seasoned roadie by the sound of it. Even though I have travelled alot this was my first road trip so at 50 that is probably a bit late. Hearst Castle is definitely a must see that is for sure. Thanks for commenting. #MondayEscapes

  23. May 8, 2017 / 6:25 pm

    When I was a kid we used to do a road trip every year, and many of those road trips were down the coast all the way from our home in Canada usually as far as San Francisco – so many memories! 😉

    • Jo
      May 8, 2017 / 6:55 pm

      Wow that is a lot of travelling but it must be amazing to have all those fantastic memories to fall back on. Thanks for your comment.

  24. May 8, 2017 / 6:24 pm

    We did this trip a few years ago so I really enjoyed reading this. Hearst Castle has to be seen to be believed – plenty of bling! I remember the speed limit on the Big Sur being really slow and it taking a long time to reach our destination but we didn’t mind due to the scenery and the seals and the interesting places to stop!

    • Jo
      May 8, 2017 / 6:57 pm

      Absolutely. Unless you see it Hearst Castle it is impossible to imagine and it is so decadent outside as well as in. The scenery is so breathtaking that like you we really didn’t mind the slow drive. A great route for sure. Thanks for your comment. #MondayEscapes

  25. May 8, 2017 / 1:40 pm

    This has got me excited for our trip next year

    Great series


    • Jo
      May 8, 2017 / 4:28 pm

      Oh yes I remember you mentioning before that you were planning a trip. I am jealous! It is fantastic. Thanks for hosting. #mondayescapes

  26. May 8, 2017 / 1:16 pm

    Totally with you on the driving holidays. Driving TO a holiday is just stressful and dull, but driving as part of your holiday is wonderful if you choose the right route. I remember stopping off randomly as we drove the California highway, just to get a closer look at something we’d spotted, or to take in some sea air. Plus, the views are incredible as you drive! I so badly want to go back now we have kids and do it all over again

    • Jo
      May 8, 2017 / 4:30 pm

      It is one of those holidays that leaves you with unforgettable memories and I can completely understand why you would want to go back – we definitely do. It is still the top holiday with our teens and we have done a lot of holidays in our time with them. Thanks for commenting.

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