Romantic Travel; Central Coast Winery and Hearst Castle
Written by Randy Tierney
When I was a teen growing up in Cambria, the small coastal village located halfway between Orange County and San Francisco, the rolling hills and rugged coastline was my playground, but it was a paradise I took for granted. I fished the creeks for steelhead and the rocky coast for lingcod. I hiked and rode my dirt bike through the forests of Monterey pines that hid this hamlet from the travelers (well not all of them) heading north on Highway 1. I washed dishes at the restaurants in town and cleaned the restrooms at Hearst Castle in my summer job as a maintenance worker.
Vine Valentine: Among the vines, overlooking the gardens and tasting room of Niner Vineyard in Paso Robles, is Heart Hill, where a stand of oaks form the target of Cupid’s arrow.
Back then Cambria was a lot of things to me: a source of odd jobs to make some money for my first car and a sort of Tom Sawyer theme park where my friends and I always found some risky way to raise our adrenalin. But I never thought of it as a beautiful or romantic place. These days as a middle-aged warrior-poet, I look at Cambria and the Central Coast differently. After a recent four-day trip through Cambria, San Simeon, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, I’ve brought back a few heart-starting highlights of what’s new in the area for traveling valentines.
Hearst Castle at Night
A docent dressed in period costume—one of many on the tour—seated at a vanity in one of the castle’s upper bedrooms.
Tours have been running since the late 1950s, but evening tours started just last October at the storied palace, located six miles north of Cambria. It was a never-ending project whose walls and grounds were built, torn down, built again, remodeled and added onto between 1919 to 1947 by newspaper tycoon and editor-in-chief William Randolph Hearst and pioneering architect Julia Morgan. The castle includes 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens terraces, pools, walkways, a zoo and a bridal path. The story of the controversial Hearst, who was called “The Chief,” by his guests, was famously told on screen by Orson Wells in one of my favorite movies, “Citizen Kane,” but you can also see a film on the man at the park’s IMAX theatre at the visitor center prior to boarding the bus that takes you up the hill. The evening tour focuses on the rooms and common areas where social history of the castle plays out. In its heyday, during the constant construction, political and Hollywood elite stayed and partied at the castle as guests of Hearst. During the tour, volunteer docents dressed in period costume populate the parlor, library, poolside and the bedrooms, acting as a “Living History” dimension as the guide tells the stories about such guests as the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Hearst himself and his mistress, Marion Davies. As you walk into the parlor, men in three-piece pinstripes and women in mink coats and feathered hats are engrossed in a game of cards. Peer into a guest bedroom and you’ll see a woman who looks vaguely like Greta Garbo in a silk robe sitting on the bed, brushing her hair. Even if you have done every tour at Hearst Castle, the cloak of night adds a mystery to the evening tour that a daytime tour cannot. You’ll work up an appetite from the over 300 steps, so make reservations for dinner afterward at the casually elegant Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria. Set in an historic adobe home, with patio dining and fireside dining inside. Robin’s Restaurant, 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, California 93428, 805-927-5007.
The Neptune Pool at night: The cloak of darkness, punctuated by alabaster-shaded lamps, adds mystery to the evening tour.
Tickets for the Hearst Castle Evening Tour are $36 for adults. Check the website for the Spring 2012 Evening Tour schedule. Hearst Castle is located about six miles north of Cambria on Highway 1. For tickets, 1-800-444-4445, or go to www.hearstcastle.org
Paso Robles Wine Valentines
The romance of the rails combines with that of the vines at Pomar Junction Vineyard in Templeton, one of a cluster of wineries gaining attention just south of Paso Robles.
What was once just 20 wineries around Paso Robles as recently as 1990 has multiplied to over 200 wineries in this area today, including some world-class labels that would make Napa Valley envious. In fact, Paso Robles winemakers are still boasting about the crowning of Justin Smith, who in 2010 received from The Wine Advocate a perfect, 100-point rating for his Saxum Winery 2007 Proprietary Red, a milestone nod for this area. Despite the growing attention, the tasting atmosphere is still laid-back. If you were not fortunate enough to visit Napa decades ago when it was a relaxed and friendly with many free tastings, don’t worry, because you can do the old Napa in Paso Robles today.
Three romantic wineries and tasting rooms offer three very different wine experiences for lovers. Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery in Templeton is one of several new grape destinations emerging off the beaten path, on the backroads of Templeton, Paso Robles’s neighboring town to the south. At Pomar, the tasting room, gardens and 90 acres of rolling vineyards is presided over by the Merrill Family: Dana, Marsha and son Matthew and his wife Nicole, along with winemaker Kevin Riley. The wine-growing legacy of the friendly Merrill family on the Central Coast dates back eight generations. Pomar Junction’s setting combines the romance of the rails with that of the vine. A retired Sante Fe Railroad boxcar and a caboose, along with antique farm equipment surround the gardens and picnic area. New for romantics are the horse-drawn carriage ride ($100 per person) and the tractor-pulled gondola ride ($300 per group of up to 20). The carriage ride includes a picnic lunch and tasting, and both rides include a tour by the owner. The cozy tasting room is in a restored 1920s farmhouse. Try the Train Wreck, a blend of red varietals that the Merrills say is “no accident.” Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery, free tastings, open daily, 11a.m. to 5p.m., 5036 S. EL Pomar Road, Templeton, California 93465, 805-238-9940. www.pomarjunction.com.
A former studio drummer, educated in enology at UC Davis, Bob Dunning now makes music with his vines at Dunning Vineyards with his wife Jo-Ann.
At the hidden 40-acre vineyard, tasting room and luxury guest villa of Dunning Vineyards Estate Winery gentleman farmer Bob Dunning and his wife Jo-Ann do much of the work themselves. A former studio percussionist, educated in winemaking at UC Davis, Bob now makes music with his vines. The road to Dunning is shrouded in majestic oaks in the back hills of West Highway 46, but it is not hard to find. Deer and wild turkey roam in this area west of Paso Robles, where the rocky limestone soil creates an intense, complex grape. Bob and his wife Jo-Ann pour the wine, prune the vines and give the tours. Bob is the guide for an agricultural tour ($25 per person) around the estate, offering a rare opportunity to learn about the process from a master. The energetic Bob Dunning buzzes around his estate on his ATV as if he were pounding out a drum solo, and trying to stay up with him was a challenge for me in my Volvo as he led the way up the hill to show their luxury, 600-square-foot guest villa with all the amenities and a view across the entire West 46 wine country. A perfectly isolated valentine retreat, the weekend rate for the bed and breakfast is only $219 a night. The view alone is worth it. And make sure to take home a bottle of the 2009 Private Reserve Zinfandel to re-live your wine romance. Though tucked away, Dunning is only 15 minutes from the town of Paso Robles. Dunning Vineyards, free tastings, open Thursday through Monday 11a.m. to 5p.m., 1953 Niderer Road, Paso Robles, California 93446, 805-238-4763. www.dunningvineyards.com.
The area’s most magnificent tasting room is located at the Niner Wine Estates on West Highway 46, and its presence is marked by a valentine from nature, a giant heart-shaped oak forest situated in the bosom of two hills facing the highway. It is known as Heart Hill, and legend has it, says Niner winemaker Amanda Cramer, that owner Richard Niner, having started on 224 acres at nearby Bootjack Ranch, was looking for a place to plant a second vineyard and erect a tasting room when he spotted Heart Hill from his car and proclaimed, “That’s the place.” He purchased the 139-acre vineyard and here he built from local rock a rustically elegant stone barn, with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame a view of the oak-forest heart. Now you can’t get a more romantic setting than that if you are looking to taste the grape with your lover. The passionate and charming Cramer gave us a walking tour inside the heart of Heart Hill upon our whimsical request, and a steep hike was rewarded with the mystical experience of being inside nature’s valentine. A former math teacher, who studied at UC Davis and gained experience at Far Niente winery in Napa, Cramer points out that majestic views around Heart Hill are enhanced by the characteristically beautiful vines of Niner, vines which, unlike those of their neighbors, are meticulously pruned and tied for peak performance. Such attention to detail, she says, has helped produce excellent wine. Cramer is most proud of the Fog Catcher, but I liked the Petite Syrah. Niner Wine Estates, Open daily, 10a.m. to 5p.m. General tasting fee: $10 per person, including five wines. 2400 Highway 46 West, Paso Robles, California, 93446, 805-239-2233. www.ninerwine.com.
Central Coast Suite Hearts
Twenty minutes south of Paso Robles is Avila Lighthouse Suites in Avila Beach. The all-suite hotel is just steps from the sand and its 54 two-room suites are spacious, with breakfast included and spa services on the premises, but what makes this place worth recommending is the beach-walk location. Quaint Avila Beach, with its pier and New England style-shops and restaurants overlooking the calm waters of the small cove has all been meticulously rebuilt from the ground up over the past 15 years following oil seepage under the town. Over 6,750 truckloads of contaminated material was removed and replaced with clean sand. The businesses and homes along the beach were rebuilt as part of the $30 million settlement by Unocal. By all appearances, the clean-up was a complete success and Avila Beach was not only restored to its original condition but got a nice facelift in the process. Rates range from $179 to $239 for an oceanfront location (worth it). Avila Lighthouse Suites, 550 Front Street, Avila Beach, California 93424, 805-627-1900. www.avilalighthousesuites.com
In the center of Wine Country is The Paso Robles Inn, a historic hotel built in 1891 next to an artesian hot spring. Get a deluxe room and enjoy the hot spring waters in your own outdoor spa. The sulfur aroma of the water takes some getting used to, but they say the mineral helps to soften your skin. Spa services are also offered to guests. Rooms surround a garden with koi ponds and a small brook. You can mix with locals and other wine travelers in the Cattleman’s Lounge before dinner at The Steakhouse. Newly remodeled, The Steakhouse carries many of the local award-winning wines on its list. To turn up the romance, request a table near the fireplace or outside near the firepit. Rates start at $131 per night. The Paso Robles Inn, 1103 Spring Street, Paso Robles, California 93446, 800-676-1713. www.pasoroblesinn.com.
The most romantic stroll on the entire Central Coast is along the boardwalk that spans the bluff above Moonstone Beach in Cambria. Check into the Pelican Inn & Suites right across the street. Get the ocean view room and you’ll feel like you are right on top of the bluff because the street separating the inn from the ocean is a small two-lane road. You can fall asleep to the sound of the waves if you leave the sliding door open. Guests of Pelican Inn, one of three Four Diamond-rated Inns on Moonstone Beach Drive, get complimentary wine in the afternoon and breakfast in the morning. The real draw for the inn, however is Moonstone Beach, which offers one of the most beautiful boardwalks along any coastline, especially during sunset. Descend 20 feet from the planks to the pebbly beach below and you can beachcomb among the small pea-size rocks polished by the surf. It doesn’t take much to find jade and moonstones (the milky pebbles for which the beach is named). Harbor seals bask in the sun on low rocks, just out of reach from human visitors. Even as a kid with no concept of romance, I loved the scenery and serenity on this calm stretch of coast. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, my father, Cambria contractor Tom Tierney, built Pelican Inn & Suites in 1997. Love you, Dad! Room rates range from $110 to $240 for the oceanfront suite. 6316 Moonstone Beach Drive Cambria, California 93428, 888-454-4222. www.pelicansuites.com –
Love By The Bay
Recapturing the Romance in San Francisco
By Joni Ravenna
Harboring the hearts of so many lovers, the City by the Bay has long had its own song.
Where you stay once you arrive is every bit as important as the city itself. Just as no Valentine’s gift says I love you like diamonds; no Valentine’s stay says you’re worth it like the five-diamond Ritz Carlton, and in San Francisco especially. The hundred-year old neo-classical structure with columns and wings in the center of the city was built after the 1906 earthquake. While it’s been a Ritz Carlton property for the past twenty years, this month heralds the completion of a year-long enhancement.
“The entire lobby is marble but it had been covered with Persian rugs,” says Market Director of Public Relations, Steven Holt, “We’ve taken out the rugs and buffed the marble up to a high sheen for a more modern classism.”
And their Parallel 37 Restaurant, formerly known for its white table cloths and waiters in suits, is now the hippest place in town.
Romantic strolls from the San Francisco Ritz Carlton are a natural. Nearby China Town still has the twinkling lanterns at night and during the day a walk down the Embarcadero is a must. Grab a taxi or limo and zigzag down winding Lombard Street atop Nob Hill where the flowers are just starting to come into bloom and you can enjoy a brilliant view of the city, the bay and Alcatraz off in the distance. Then with the bread, fruit and cheese you’ve picked up at the Farmer’s Market head West to picnic at the Alamo Square Park.
Head back to the hotel for special six-course Valentine’s Dinner at Parallel 37 prepared by Chef Siegel. The chef hand picks the freshest ingredients found along the geographic latitude of the San Francisco Bay Area then offers each couple two different menus to encourage sharing. Afterwards, enter your room to find rose petal turn-down service. And in honor of the renovation, in 2012 a ‘Treat You’ package is offering a third Club Level Guest night room free.
What better way to experience a second honeymoon this Valentine’s Day? Ritz Carlton San Francisco, 600 Stockton Street at California Street, San Francisco, California 94108, 415-296-7465.