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Travel
May 09, 2019

California Drivin’

Text by Ashwin Rajagopalan

Highway 1 entices Ashwin Rajagopalan with its astounding scenery, cultural pit stops and yes, its very own castle…

When Julia Morgan first arrived in Paris in 1896, she was refused admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, for the world’s premier architecture programme. The institution had never before accepted a female student. It took two years, but they relented; she went on to become one of the finest architects of her generation. I stumbled upon Morgan’s most striking landmark as I drove through my most favourite coastal drive in the world — Highway 1 — along the California coastline.

“…one of the most stunning meetings of land and sea in the world….” The New York Times’ 1986 description of Big Sur, a quintessential photo stop along Highway 1, typifies the allure of this spectacular drive with high cliffs, charming beaches and all the dots it connects — towns and popular spots with so much to explore. It’s why I keep coming back, secure in the knowledge that I will always make new discoveries on each road trip, and Hearst Castle was probably the highlight of my most recent journey.

It’s easy to understand why the estate was also commonly referred to as ‘La Cuesta Encantada’ (Spanish for ‘The Enchanted Hill’). High above the hill, with sweeping views of the Pacific Coast, is arguably America’s most imposing castle. It was William Randolph Hearst’s dream project, executed in partnership with the architectural vision of Julia Morgan. Hearst, the most influential media magnate of his time, lived in his eponymous castle from time to time between 1919 and 1947. He was never alone.

The Hollywood and political elite of the 1920s and ’30s clamoured for an invitation to Hearst Castle. Many of his guests — Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin, for instance — landed on the estate’s private airfield, and they came together at the castle’s legendary dinners. I walked through some of the grounds’ facilities as part of a tightly orchestrated tour. The most photographed spot is the shimmering indoor Neptune Pool, but my favourite stops along the way included an enchanting theatre that took me back in time. This theatre once screened films from Cosmopolitan Productions, Hearst’s own movie studio. It’s unlikely, however, that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) was screened here. Considered to be one of the finest films of all time, it was loosely based on the media tycoon’s life and renamed the castle ‘Xanadu’. Hearst didn’t approve.

It’s easy to be transported to the residence’s heyday in the Assembly Room, where Renaissance and Baroque tapestries vie for attention and where guests would convene for cocktails before dinner at the Refectory with its never-ending dining table. The castle is a treasure trove of art, but the installations were not all sourced from Italy and Spain, quite a few of the ceilings were designed by Julia Morgan and custom-made by craftsmen.

After spending an afternoon discovering a new part of Highway 1, I went back to my comfort zone. Carmel-by-the-Sea is probably my favourite small town in California. This picture-perfect town became a refuge for some of California’s most creative minds like Hank Ketcham (who created Dennis the Menace), Ansel Adams (one of America’s most notable photographers) and actor and director Clint Eastwood, who also served as its mayor. It’s a regular stop for highway trippers looking to slow things down at one of Carmel’s many chic cafes and restaurants. Hollywood legend Doris Day’s very own Cypress Inn is one such venue; the burgers truly hit the spot. Don’t arrive in high heels though. Carmel is also famous for a bizarre law — high heels are officially banned, unless you have a permit (it was enforced to prevent lawsuits from accidents caused by tripping on the town’s uneven pavements!).

There are other pockets along Highway 1 that match the popularity of Big Sur. While most visitors make multiple short stops, including one at Bixby Creek Bridge that was finished in the 1930s and offers sweeping views of the ocean below, I’d suggest staying longer. If you do, Ventana Big Sur (an Alila resort) is a great place to cast anchor. It’s now one of the area’s premier glamping sites that allows you to experience the Californian Redwoods and the outdoors from the comfort of a luxury tent. If you have an extra day and want to get off the beaten track, Morro Bay is a great option.

It was the 2016 Pixar film Finding Dory that made Morro Bay famous. Dory’s childhood home was the fictional Marine Life Institute (based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium), and referred to as the ‘jewel of Morro Bay’ in the movie. You will never run out of options along Highway 1, from the glamorous Santa Barbara and the busy Santa Monica pier just outside LA, to the vineyards and olive farms around San Luis Obispo. But ultimately, this is about the journey. One with panoramic views that not many other drives around the world can match.

Far And Away
It’s best to travel south from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Four days is a good time to explore Highway 1. You can drive anywhere in California with a valid Indian driving licence and it’s best to hire your own car. Most car rental agencies like Avis and Enterprise also offer convertibles. Besides the seaside town stops, don’t miss the 17-mile drive that takes you past Pebble Beach and the legendary Lone Cypress — one of the most photographed spots in California.

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