Number 32 - November 2010
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Touring Hearst Castle

A few times each year, I get requests to take visitors on a day trip from San Francisco to San Simeon so they can see the Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst's country estate. I politely respond by telling the inquirers that, while the Castle is well worth visiting, the drive from San Francisco takes between 4.5 and 5.5 hours. That usually scuttles their plans, which is unfortunate as Hearst Castle is magnificent. The drive to the Castle through Big Sur is one of the world's great road trips. Hearst Castle can be visited in a two-day, one-night round trip from San Francisco or on a drive along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Hearst Castle offers one self-guided and five guided tours. Most visitors take guided Tour 1, the Experience Tour, which includes a visit to both pools; some of the large rooms on the first floor of the main building, Casa Grande; and one of the guesthouses, Casa del Sol; as well as admission to the film, "Hearst Castle Building the Dream." This is a terrific introduction to Hearst's estate. I have taken Tour 1 many times and long wanted to take the other tours so I could see more of Casa Grande as well as the other two guest houses, Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar. Earlier this year, I returned to the Castle to take Tours 2, 3, and 4. Tour 2 was my favorite as it includes the bedrooms and suites on the second floor of Casa Grande. Tour 4 includes a walk through the gardens; a visit to Casa del Mar, the largest of the 3 guest houses; and a visit to Hearst's wine cellar. Tour 3 was my least favorite but was still interesting. The tour contrasts the 1920s construction of the Casa del Monte guesthouse with the 1940s construction of the North Wing of Casa Grande. I was surprised to see how simple some of the rooms are in the North Wing. On this tour, you can see how construction just stopped in 1947.

If you've got the time and interest, taking all four tours will give you a full appreciation of the Castle; it's owner, William Randolph Hearst; and the architect, Julia Morgan. Unfortunately, there is no discount for purchasing tickets to more than one tour. Theoretically, you could take all four tours in one day but you'd probably be numb when you finished. We did one tour per day but could easily have taken two.

When we visited, Tour 5, the Evening Tour, was not offered. However Evening Tours are available from October through December. Space is very limited, and the Castle's guides highly recommended taking the tour between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day when the Castle is decorated for the holidays. They said tickets sell out fast so, if you want to visit this fall, make your reservation sooner than later

A self-guided tour through the gardens is also available, but we did not take this tour.

Winetasting in Paso Robles

If you have the time, spend an extra day or two winetasting in nearby Paso Robles. This wine region is growing by leaps and bounds with over 150 wineries located in the area. While there is just one wine region - Paso Robles - the climate is much warmer and drier east of the city of Paso Robles than on the west side, where a majority of the wineries are located.

Wine grapes have been grown in the area for decades but, until recently, the area was best known for less expensive, bulk wines. About 10 years ago, the Zinfandels produced in Paso Robles started getting noticed. More recently, some excellent wines from Rhone varietals, such as Syrah, Petite Syrah (Durif), Mourvedre, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier, have been produced.

On our journey, we tasted west of Paso Robles, starting at two fairly well known producers - Justin Vineyards and Winery and Tablas Creek Vineyards. Justin is one of the larger producers of premium wine in Paso Robles, making around 60,000 cases per year, and is best known for Cabernet. You can taste wine while lunching at Deborah's Room, which we did, or in the winery's tasting room. Tablas Creek produces some excellent Rhone-style wines. The tasting room, like all of the rooms we visited, was small. The staff were friendly and attentive, even though they were stretched thin on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Local folks turned us on to two small producers that I was not familiar with: Jada Vineyard and Winery and Halter Ranch Vineyard. Both produced very good wines from Rhone varietals. At both wineries, staff were very friendly and answered our many questions. Jada offers cheeses paired with their wines.

We also tasted some wines which weren't very good and visited one winery -- Denner Vineyards -- where the staff were more interested in cleaning glasses and chatting with each other than talking with us.

I definitely recommend doing some winetasting in Paso Robles, particularly if you like Zinfandel and/or Rhone wines. Tasting fees are reasonable -- usually no more than $10 or $15/person. The tasting rooms are small and can be crowded on Saturdays, so try to visit on another day.

For more information on winetasting in Paso Robles, visit the Paso Robles Wine Alliance's excellent website:

Lodging in San Simeon, Cambria, and Paso Robles

When you visit Hearst Castle or go winetasting near Paso Robles, where to stay depends on whether you want to stay on the coast, how much time you will spend tasting wine, and how close you want to stay to good food.

If you decide to stay on the coast, you have three areas to choose from. The first option is to stay in San Simeon, where there are motels lining CA Route 1, a few miles south of the Hearst Castle. The motels on the ocean side generally cost more than those on the inland side, particularly if you have a room with an ocean view.

The next two options are in the small town of Cambria, a few miles south of San Simeon. Cambria is a real town with shops, galleries, and restaurants and is much more interesting than San Simeon's row of motels. You can either stay at a motel/bed and breakfast on Moonstone Beach or at a bed and breakfast in town. Some of the establishments along Moonstone Beach call themselves bed and breakfasts but are really motels that serve breakfast. The motels along Moonstone Beach sit across a small road from the beach, while those in San Simeon are on a low bluff overlooking the beach. The bed and breakfasts in town are real B & Bs and closer to the town's shops and restaurants, but you sacrifice an ocean view or an easy walk along the Pacific.

If you want to stay in Paso Robles' wine country, your lodging decision probably depends on where you want to focus your winetasting. If you only want to taste on the east side of Paso Robles, stay in the town of Paso Robles or at a bed and breakfast east of town. If you decide to focus your tasting on the west side of Paso Robles, you can stay in the city of Paso Robles, at a bed and breakfast in the countryside, or along the coast near Cambria or San Simeon. If you plan to visit wineries both east and west of Paso Robles and not spend too much time on the coast, you likely will want to stay in Paso Robles or at a bed and breakfast that is in the countryside but not too far away from town.

Should you decide to stay in the city of Paso Robles, there are a variety of hotels to pick from. My recommendation is to stay at one of the two hotels near the main square so you can easily walk to one of the city's good restaurants (more below), tasting rooms, and wine bars. Hotel Cheval is an upscale boutique hotel while Paso Robles Inn is a much larger and less expensive hotel that is a member of Historic Hotels of America. You'll do fine at either. Your decision depends on your budget and the type of experience you want to have.

For more detailed lodging information visit the websites of the Paso Robles Wine Alliance, Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce, Cambria Chamber of Commerce, or San Simeon Chamber of Commerce.

Dining in Paso Robles, Cambria, and San Simeon

There's no place I recommend for dinner in San Simeon. However, for lunch, stop by Sebastian's Store in old San Simeon for tasty, and large, sandwiches and salads. The food is delicious but don't go if you are in a rush as service can be very slow. You can eat inside, outside, or at picnic tables in the adjacent park.

If you are staying in Cambria, I recommend Black Cat Bistro. I've also heard good thing's about Madeline's Restaurant but not eaten there. There are other options but these seem to be the top choices.

For dinner, Paso Robles is home to a few excellent restaurants. We've eaten at Artisan and Bistro Laurent and enjoyed both. Also recommended are Villa Creek and Il Cortile.

There are limited options for dining once you are out of the towns and in wine country. Justin Winery, west of Paso Robles, is home to Deborah's Room, an upscale restaurant where you can have a gourmet dinner or a more casual lunch. We lunched there and enjoyed sitting outside on their terrace. Lunch options include burgers, bratwurst, and salads. Dinner is much more sophisticated, consisting of a five-course, tasting menu. Dinner is served nightly and lunch is offered on Saturdays during the winter months and on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer. If you plan to eat dinner at Deborah's Room and are not staying at the Just Inn, watch your wine consumption as the drive back to Paso Robles or Cambria is along unlit, narrow country roads.

Another lunch option on the west side of Paso Robles is to picnic at a winery. You can get supplies in Cambria, Paso Robles, or at Farmstand 46 at the intersection of CA 46 and Vineyard Drive.

East of Paso Robles, you can lunch at Cass Cafe at Cass Winery. The menu is limited but includes a salad, sandwich, pizza, and cheese plate. The cafe is open daily from noon until 4:00 p.m. You can also picnic at many of the wineries on the east side.

Hopefully, you'll have a chance to visit the Central California coast either as part of a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles or on a roundtrip from one of these two cities. To take a tour starting and/or ending in San Francisco that includes a visit to Hearst Castle and/or winetasting in the Paso Robles area, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

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See you on the road,

Rick Spear
Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel
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