Castle In The Air
"They are a very undersold feature. We can do them every day if there is a demand." So says public information officer Dan Eller, talking about private tours of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, high upon its "Enchanted Hill" above Highway 1. He glides visitors through the fabulous chambers as though they're a cross between interested academics and potential purchasers. The price is $500 for one to six people (mostly refundable if canceled). From the visitor's center you drive your own car up the 15-minute approach road to the castle, and you're met by a guide in jacket and tie. You can craft your own tour ahead of time, specializing, say, on paintings or old Hollywood guests—guide staff will whistle up one of their experts. Or have your photo taken next to William Randolph Hearst's desk, use his tower elevators, or sit in the seats of the cinema.
There are three public tours at $10 each, but to see it all you would have to go up and down the hill three times on the bus. Arrange your private tour at least a week in advance and start at 8 a.m. so you'll be done by lunch. As for America's Castle itself, Eller puts it nicely, "Some come to mock and go away marveling." 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, CA 93452; 800-444-4445, 805-927-2020; www.hearstcastle.org.
Vive La France!
A local Paso Robles winemaker exclaimed, "We are so grateful for M. Laurent." Laurent Grangien has become a chef of such note you wonder if he might be cooking below his weight in this Central Coast town.
Bistro Laurent is a small 45-seater in an 1890s corner red-brick building on Paso Robles' main square. It has an open kitchen and quite close tables, which means the solitary diner meets new friends. An imperial appetizer is mussels gratin with curry and fennel. Another specialty is crispy tarts, for example, tart with local goat cheese and escargots, or with salmon and onion. Grangien is proud of his tasting menu—a shrimp salad with a Chardonnay, sea bass with a Gigondas, roast lamb with a Zinfandel, and chocolate tart with a dessert Zin. At $39 it's a good bet. Fine older French and southern Central Coast wines. 1 1202 Pine St. (corner of 12th and Pine), Paso Robles, CA 93446; 805-226-8191.
B&B The Arbor Inn is a bed and breakfast of grand proportions, on 80 acres of vineyards. It has an imposing central staircase. The reception room has a cathedral ceiling. Decor is formal English country, with black marble fireplace, gleaming brass, ship-shiny hardwood floors. The housekeeping staff might almost bob a quick curtsy.
The nine bedrooms are large and plush, all with wide walk-in shower and a bath. They're named after wines: the Cabernet Suite ($255); the Moscato Allegro Room ($235), which has a king-size fourposter and a Jacuzzi tub brazenly in the bedroom. The Meritage ($185), in green and mauve, has a vaulted ceiling and sleigh bed.
The Arbor is an accessory to the Treana Vineyard owned by Chuck and Marlyn Hope, and the winery offers a 20 percent discount for residents. The inn's guests are invited to drink the wine and mingle in the lounge for hors d'oeuvres from 5 to 6 p.m. A thumping breakfast of country omelettes, fresh fruit, and pastries is served from 8:30 a.m. in a formal dining room. $160-$225. 1 2130 Arbor Rd., Paso Robles, CA 93447; 805-227-4673.
If you are keen to eat fabulous steak fries in a 100-year-old building on the only street of an Old West town opposite a grain silo with two Santa Fe diesel engines grumbling in the sidings, then McPhee's Grill in Templeton is your heart's desire. There's a long varnished bar backed by old marbled mirrors. The ceiling has a faux finish of coffered gold. Beneath are booths and "trencherman" tables.
Lunch and dinner menus are forceful and as solid as the train engines: Ancho chile and apricot-glazed prime rib of pork with mustard slaw and steak fries, oak-grilled rib-eye with salsa and chile cheesecake. The wine list has a touch of the Wild West about it, and most bottles are $25-$45. Lunch with wine, $40; dinner with a bottle, $100. 1 416 Main St., Templeton, CA 93465; 805-434-3204.