Located in San Simeon, about four hours from Los Angeles and 45 minutes from San Luis Obispo proper, the opulent, century-old Hearst Castle is a popular tourist attraction, but after visiting, my goal was to find hidden gems in nearby towns like Cambria and Avila Beach. From foraging seaweed to visiting a shipwreck, these activities make for a one-of-a-kind Highway 1 road trip.
How to get there
San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport is the airport closest to the castle; Alaska Airlines offers nonstop flights between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and SBP.
If you can’t find a flight into SBP, I’d recommend Burbank over bigger, hectic LAX. I took the road trip with a friend with a car in Los Angeles, but Hertz, Avis and Enterprise have rentals at the airport. Consider also a service like Turo or Zipcar. It takes about four hours to drive from Burbank to Cambria.
Cambria, Hearst Castle and kelp
Cambria is a charming seaside village with a population of fewer than 6,000. The beaches and scenery alone make it worthwhile, and there are also plenty of great restaurants, wineries and unique outdoor activities.
For accommodations, Cambria Beach Lodge is an excellent midrange option. Located directly across the street from Moonstone Beach, the hotel has an old-fashioned beachy vibe, with ocean-inspired décor all around — even the floors are sun-bleached. One of the hotel’s best features is its rooftop terrace, which offers a stunning view of sunsets over the ocean.
Hearst Castle is a 10-minute drive away. The castle and surrounding guesthouses, sprawling over 90,000 square feet, can only be explored on tours ($30-$100, hearstcastle.org). There are a number of options, each focusing on a different section of the massive estate. Options include tours of the upstairs suites, the cottages and kitchen, and the new Julia Morgan Tour. The first certified female architect in California, Morgan played a key role in designing the castle. The tour focuses on her extraordinary career and her personal life.
Touring the upstairs suites allows guests to see the bedrooms used by William Randolph Hearst and his parade of celebrity visitors, including the likes of Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. It also showcases Hearst’s extraordinary libraries, and the massive indoor Roman pool is a work of art.
After touring Hearst Castle, the Hearst Ranch Winery, which overlooks the gorgeous San Simeon Bay, has an outdoor patio that is the perfect place to enjoy some wine and charcuterie. The wines are all sustainably grown at the winery’s vineyards in Paso Robles.
Animal lovers will likely want to make a stop at Piedras Blancas Rookery, which claims to be the world’s only elephant seal rookery that is free and open to the public 365 days a year.
One of the unique experiences on the trip was a seaweed foraging adventure with Kelpful. This small, woman-owned cooperative sustainably harvests seaweed and uses it to make everything from bath salts to condiments.
Foraging is a fun, hands-on way to learn about this unique process. Kelpful guides take guests to a spot on the coast that’s considered a local secret and explain how to identify and sustainably harvest a variety of local wild seaweeds. A mesh bag and scissors are provided so you can take your harvested seaweed home. At the end of the excursion, guides provide a packet of information about each species of seaweed, how to dry and process it at home, and a list of recipes so you can try making something on your own.
Another hidden gem is Tula Yoga, a small company that offers private yoga sessions in nature. The “nature bathing” excursion led by Terri Harrington was unlike any yoga class I’d ever taken, consisting of an easy hike with frequent stops to meditate, perform basic yoga moves, and slow down to appreciate nature. As you walk through the forest, you’ll collect flowers, stones, leaves and anything else that grows in abundance. At the conclusion of the hike, the group joins together to create one design using what each member has gathered.
Dining in Cambria is excellent, especially the seafood. Moonstone Bar & Grill was perfect for our first night in Cambria, and Robin’s was a worthwhile splurge for our final meal before heading off to Avila Beach. The mocequa, a Brazilian seafood stew, is highly recommended although it seems you can’t go wrong.
Cayucos, a shipwreck and a smoothie
Depending on traffic, it takes from 45 minutes to an hour to reach Avila Beach. On the way is Cayucos; it’s well worth stopping in this tiny coastal town for a few hours.
Hidden Kitchen is hands-down one of the best brunch spots in California. It’s fairly impossible to choose just one dish, and I noticed many customers ordered a variety of sweet and savory menu items to share, so we got a taste of everything. Hidden Kitchen is also known for its incredible superfood smoothies, so be sure to check out the options.
Although it is difficult to find, the Cayucos Shipwreck is a fun road trip pit stop for the adventurous.
In July 2017, a commercial fishing vessel departed from Morro Bay Harbor southeast of Cayucos and ran aground at Estero Bluffs State Park. Today, the vessel sits close to shore.
The easiest way to find the shipwreck is by plugging the following coordinates into your GPS: 35°26’58.1″N, 120°55’05.5″W. This will lead you to a small dirt parking lot. From there, a dirt trail leads to a viewpoint on the cliff. It’s a great view, but there’s also the option of hiking down to the shore to get a closer look at the ship.
Be aware: There isn’t a path to the shore; getting to the beach involves climbing over rocks and finding a creative route, so be cautious and pay attention to every step.
Avila Beach, animals, hot springs and wine
Avila Beach is a beautiful unincorporated community on San Luis Obispo Bay. Because Avila Beach is so small (the population is fewer than 2,000), several of the following destinations are technically located in San Luis Obispo.
Located on 125 acres of meadows and forests, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa is a quiet, peaceful respite from city life. In addition to its full-service spa, the resort boasts the Oasis Waterfall Lagoon, a private area with fresh, naturally heated mineral spring water. The lagoon is available to rent by the hour and can accommodate up to 20 people.
Avila Valley Barn is a family-owned farm and local favorite — and it’s easy to see why. Explore the bakery and shop, feed the farm animals or take a hayride or pony ride. It’s easy to spend several hours at the farm, but if you’re pressed for time, be sure to grab lunch at the on-site Chicken Shack & Smoke House. You can’t go wrong with a fried chicken sandwich or salad.
You can take in the area’s beautiful scenery from both land and water. The Bob Jones Trail is paved and makes for a great bike ride. Sycamore Springs offers bike rentals, and of course there’s also the option of walking the trail. If you love all things aquatic, Avila Beach Paddlesports has single kayaks, tandem kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for rent. Ask the friendly staff how to make the most of your time on the sea. They’ll tell you the best places to spot otters and seals, and how to navigate to the historical Point San Luis Lighthouse.
There are also a number of excellent wineries in the area. Biddle Ranch Vineyard and Saucelito Canyon Tasting Room both offer lovely wine tastings in beautiful settings, but a unique experience can be found at Sinor-LaVallee. The tasting room features a “Shuck Shack,” visitors can learn how to shuck fresh local oysters.
Still hungry? Do yourself a favor and get dinner at Blue Moon Over Avila, a seaside bistro that specializes in European (specifically French) cuisine.
Arroyo Grande, Nipomo and a flight home
Between Cambria and the airport, there are two stops with sites worth visiting to complete your road trip.
First up is Arroyo Grande, home to a historical swinging bridge. The landmark was originally constructed in 1875; it spans 171 feet and is suspended 40 feet above the Arroyo Grande Creek. The bridge itself is a quick stop, but Arroyo Grande has a number of fun boutiques and coffee shops on its main drag, so it’s the perfect place to stretch your legs and caffeinate before your drive.
A 10-minute drive from Arroyo Grande is Nipomo, where you can visit The Luffa Farm. There aren’t too many opportunities to explore a farm that grows sponges, and you’ll get to see exactly how luffas are grown in greenhouses and harvested from gourds on heirloom vines.
It’s a sterling conclusion to a Highway 1 road trip full of hidden gems.