Coasts, Crazy Architecture and Madonna: The Pacific Coast Highway, CA

Last time I fled Los Angeles, creeped out of my wits. Was it going to the Last Bookstore on Earth? Perhaps. Was it because someone gets paid to pretend to be Norman Bates for tourists? Maybe. Was it because I accidentally stayed in a hotel that was hosting a child pageant? Definitely. But fleeing from LA did lead to one great thing: the Pacific Coast Highway. It starts in LA and takes you up an incredibly beautiful coast line, up through San Francisco and up into Northern California.


Pacific Coast Highway

Clinging tightly to the coast, as it does, it also becomes one of the few genuinely fun roads to drive in the US as tight curves swing you in and out of valleys, open up magnificent vistas and sweep down from cliff-edge to beach and back up.

The landscape and perennially pleasant weather means there’s plenty of people enjoying cruising along, stopping in at the various attractions along the way or, er, sand-sledding. I guess that’s what happens in a place without snow.

Sand Sledding

My first stop up the coast is the Madonna Inn. This part of my itinerary comes courtesy of the excellent podcast Answer Me This. Helen has told me that I must stop in here and, a little worryingly, insist that I go to the men’s lavatories. Recommendations like that have gotten me in trouble before, but I’m willing to take the risk.

Madonna Inn

What’s inside was worth taking pictures of, but, again, taking pictures in a men’s lavatory has also gotten me in trouble before. Here, then, at great personal risk, is the Madonna Inn’s pride and joy: rock wall urinals.

Rock Wall Urinal

… Not for the first time, I wonder what my life has come to. The rock theme extends to the basins, because I’m sure you were asking:

Rock Basin

Upstairs it’s a little less rock themed, but it’s definitely themed. I think.

Theme Undisclosed

When it called itself the Madonna Inn, I sort of assumed it in a “mother of Jesus” kind of way, but it’s not even in a “mother of grabbed African children” sense. A little information stand at the entrance acknowledges that a lot of people ask for the history of the Inn. They begin by telling you the date the first twelve rooms were completed. I’m pretty sure that’s not the question people were asking. Let’s keep on up the coast.

Pacific Coast Highway

Our next location comes with plenty of history. It’s Hearst Castle, the home of newspaper magnate and Citizen Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst. After Hearst’s death, the Hearst Corporation donated the mansion to California, who opened it up for public tours. Now, incredible wealth, immense power, I know what your worry is: this place – a place called a castle – is going to be absurd and ostentatious. Don’t worry, it was decorated with a subtle touch.

 Subtle as hell.

The tour guides were quick to dismiss any Citizen Kane chicanery, although Hearst’s own legacy – as a pioneer of yellow journalism – is well noted. The Daily Mail has a bust of him in their offices. (Do they? Who cares? Let’s just say anonymous sources tipped us off).

Hearst Castle

Hearst built his castle from a hodgepodge of architectural styles, mainly influenced by his time in Europe. He would see a building and think: “I’d love to see that in California”. Then, deciding that trying to replicate something like that across the globe would be difficult, he would often buy the building and ship it over. Hence the flow of the castle is somewhat unusual, as different ancient structures had to be slapped together in some semblance of order. Credit where it’s due, though, he does have a pretty spankingly good library:

Hearst Castle

And some of the other rooms do look pretty fun:

Hearst Castle

And I can’t fault him for his choice of crazy castle location, with some stunning views of the coastline and the Pacific:

Hearst Castle

His desire for whatever he wanted would probably make the British Museum pretty jealous. The Egyptian statue in the foreground is, indeed, genuine and procured by whatever method necessary to get it over to Hearst’s home.

Hearst Castle

I don’t know if I could live here though – firstly, it’s a coach ride, then a drive to get to the nearest shop, and I don’t think I can afford to have my newspapers flown in. But more significantly, I think I’m too Catholic to live in a place that looks like a Spanish church:

Hearst Castle

The outdoor swimming pool is pretty bitchin’ though.

Hearst Castle
I believe “bitchin’” is how Franklin Roosevelt described it upon his visit.

Elsewhere I round a corner and run into – perhaps – the reason William Randolph Hearst is no longer with us:

Weeping Angel
Don’t blink.

Well, this has put rather a hitch into my cross-America trip. Can’t blink, can’t escape, but I still have 11 more states to go. I think there is only one noble, honourable option left: sacrifice a friend instead.

Bertie and the Angel
Go get ‘em, Bertie.

Other people might feel somewhat guilty about abandoning their buddy to the highest stakes staring match in history, but I assuage my guilt by checking out the indoor pool (beneath the tennis courts). That’s gold-leaf inlay. This place is ridiculous.

Hearst Castle

I think it’s about time to leave the home of the fat cats and instead find the home of the fat seals:

Elephant Seal

A little ways down the road, the beach has become inundated with elephant seals, visiting the south for the nice weather.

Elephant Seals

In spite of this looking like some maritime disaster, I assure you, they’re all quite peaceful and happy. Although periodically they get into a shouting match, chests puffed out, over one particular bit of sand – identical to all the other bits of sand. Seals, am I right?

Pacific Coast Highway

There’s still plenty more coast to go. I get held up briefly because, unlike the broad interstates, this is a narrow two-lane road (see above) and I get stuck behind not one, but two RVs. And not just RVs, who are coping – just about – with the terrain. Each one of them is towing an SUV. Because not everywhere can cope with an RV, but you still want to burn as much gas as possible.

Pacific Coast Highway

Fortunately they pull over to let me and a few other cars pass and it’s back to enjoying the drive. (Although now each time I stop to take a picture I have a dread fear that I’ll look back to see them looming towards me). Still worth it, though, as I head through the beautiful Big Sur region.

Big Sur

Now near Santa Cruz I swing off Route 1 and instead head towards San Jose. I’ve come to take a look at another of the nuttier architectural delights of the US: the Winchester Mystery House.

Winchester House

The house was owned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of magnate William Winchester (a lot of William magnates in today’s adventure…). She became convinced that the spirits of all the people the Winchesters had killed were coming after her and that the only way to keep them at bay, and keep herself alive, was to continuously build her house. I should clarify, when I say killed by the Winchesters, I mean these fellas:


And not William and Sarah. Or these guys:

Winchester Brothers

Now it wasn’t enough to just keep building a house every day until she died, she also tried to trick the spirits as best she could. This includes building staircases that went straight into the ceiling, secret passages, and doors to nowhere:

Nowhere Door

The tour, unfortunately, doesn’t allow photography. Being the anarchist I am, I still managed to grab that shot before politely apologising and putting my camera away. So you’ll just have to take the rest on faith. In and around Mrs. Winchester’s living area, the staircases are long, twisting things with each step only taking you up a couple of inches. This was done to aid Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and might be the most logical part of the entire place. There are windows that open not to the outside, but to an area above the kitchens, so Mrs. Winchester could eavesdrop on the staff, there’s a widow’s walk that has a roof built over it and chimneys that don’t go all the way up. She was obsessed with the number 13 (of course. Why is that?), leading to things like clothes hooks in multiples of thirteens. The house used to have a tower which was taken out by the 1906 earthquake and construction only came to a halt the day Mrs. Winchester died. Though in case there are any believers out there, I should clarify that she died first, which then caused the construction to stop, not vice versa.

Pacific Coast Highway

It’s been a fun ride up the PCH, with some great road and two people with unique visions for their homes, the obscene wealth to pull it off and varying degrees of batshit insanity. Speaking of obscene wealth, next time we’ll be visiting San Francisco.



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