California's Central Coast: Yesterday's Highways

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On the drive north to Carmel-by-the-Sea, Eric Anderson, MD, and Nancy Anderson, RN, swing by the Morro Rock, a town of just 18, Hearst Castle and get stuck in traffic in Big Sur.

Photography by the authors

We are heading north to Carmel-By-The-Sea on the Monterey Peninsula.

We start in the little hamlet of Ballard, more famous for its Ballard Inn than for its 467 inhabitants. This spot was once a Wells Fargo stagecoach station named in 1862 after William Ballard who ran the station until 1870. It’s now an upscale bedroom community in Santa Barbara county whose only commercial business, essentially, is the similarly upscale inn built in 1985 and since 2004 owned by prize-winning Chef Budi Kazali.

The inn has 15 rooms and the restaurant only 12 tables, but the cuisine here is probably the reason travelers come and stay. When we came on a Sunday (the restaurant is open Wednesday through Saturday) we found Chef Budi simply doing chores around his inn. He wasn’t wearing his white toque.

Christine Forsyth, the general manager, is an example of how little turnover of staff happens at the inn. She started her career here 17 years ago and has been GM for 14. She is standing in front of an inn photograph where she is holding her baby, Hayley, in her arms. Hayley, now in college, was born the same day actress Hayley Mills caught the cover of People magazine.

We had noticed the social websites rave about her staff as well as the cuisine.

“We have a very flexible staff here,” Christine says. “They are mostly college students from Santa Barbara so we have their four years in college to train them. Each of them is our concierge! And they’ve helped us find our niche, a boutique, down to earth, comfortable, relaxing inn.”

There are other nearby places to spend the night in this bucolic countryside. The Santa Ynez Inn, for example, has been around for only 12 years but already has a great reputation for customer service. The Fess Parker Inn in Los Olivos has a different reputation of being pretentious — but it tries to be that (in California’s different wine countries, it takes work to avoid pomposity).

There’s nothing pompous about Montaña de Oro one of the largest California state parks. It stretches over 8,000 acres from sea level to the 1,347-foot elevation of Valencia Peak. Its rustic charm is a three-hour 200-mile drive from the glitz of L.A. and babble of LAX — and a detour of about 15 miles off Highway 101 if you want to stretch your legs or dip your toes in the Pacific.

But a more fun stop is little Morro Bay. It lies north of San Luis Obispo, which is the decision point for either staying with Highway 101 that swings inland or heading for the California coast on famous Highway 1.

Our editor wrote about California Dreamin’: Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in August 2012, but nothing changes really along that highway, and in fact the best resource for driving Highway 1 is still the somewhat dated 1985 edition of The California Highway 1 Book by Adams & McCorkle.

Morro Rock has a 22-million-year history but nothing as curious as its connection with salesman developer E. G. Lewis in 1919. He bought 463 acres of land on the coastal side of Highway 1 here and started auctioning them to East Coast persons.

“Lewis put in streets, curbs and gutters, even added decorative iron lamps, but ignored services such as water and sewage,” says Rick Adams.

Ultimately the Land Commission seized his land for taxes. The harbor has seafood cafes and shops selling t-Shirts and, out in the bay and on Morro Rock, peregrine falcons are nesting although the bird attacking what we believe is a sea otter in our lucky photograph would appear to be a common seagull.

A quick stop and a real attraction is the community of Harmony, population 18. We are startled by the signpost — it has grown; it used to be population 10!

Harmony is a mix of a ghost town and, say, Brigadoon. It has a glass blower, a wine maker, a wedding planner and a chapel, and a nice guy making an attempt at a café. It’s an easy on-off to the highway. Pause to read on a painted wall how Swiss dairy farmers started a creamery here with the town reaching a population of 400 in 1936.The mural explains how Harmony got its name The online history is less helpful.

To the north are the cool little town of Cambria and nothing-is-little-about San Simeon with its Hearst Castle. San Simeon is a state park as well as a name for the extravaganza that William Randolph Hearst built on a hilltop here, a castle he felt worthy for any American feudal lord.

Hearst took years to create San Simeon and was consumed in its details. He was still working on it when he died. At that time he owned 18 newspapers and every day in America it took 32 tons of newsprint to publish them. He ravaged the churches and castles of Europe to feed his frenzy and at his death enormous crates of artifacts were found in storage as yet unopened.

Highway 1 runs north through the Ventana Wilderness and the Big Sur coast to our destination, the Monterey Peninsula. Once you take Highway 1 you are committed to it as no convenient roads exist inland as you head north. For visitors with lots of time this Central Coast road trip is the lure. It’s been called America’s make-believe most romantic road.

Coastal fog sometimes creates problems but there are places to pull off to survey the high lands, the surf and the endless ocean. However, the last year has seen heavy construction and dense slow traffic; it’s one thing to glance to the left and appreciate the sea boiling around you then you look ahead and decide, no way are you going to drop out of this traffic and hope to get back in line again!

But, Carmel, we are on our way!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.