Curious about the vociferous elephant seals I heard bellowing last fall as I drove Highway 1, I returned in May to Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve near San Simeon with my husband, Paul. I was lured by the promise of a peak “molt season” at one of California’s largest coastal rookeries. “What molt?” he asked, perplexed. Soon, he would hear more than he wanted about the annual shedding of skin and hair these massive pinnipeds undergo onshore. We came for the elephant seals — molt season lasts until August — but stayed for the historic light station and spectacular views along the northern San Luis Obispo County coast. The tab: $179 a night for an oceanfront room at Best Western Plus Cavalier in San Simeon, taxes and fees excluded; $120 for meals, and $70 for admission fees.
Seven miles south of Piedras Blancas is the Best Western Plus Cavalier Oceanfront Resort [9415 Hearst Drive, San Simeon; (805) 927-4688, www.cavalierresort.com). From our balcony we saw leaping dolphins and a whale swimming just offshore, appearing as we unpacked as though on cue. Hardier travelers were bundled up to watch the sunset at the resort’s cliff-side fire pits, but we chose the view from the cozy chairs next to our in-room fireplace.
Hands down: the locally recommended Sebastian’s [442 San Simeon Road, San Simeon; (805) 927-3307]. We ordered a tri-tip sandwich and the (loaded) bacon avocado cheeseburger. My Texas-born husband gobbled the Hearst Ranch “free-range, grass-fed, grass-finished” beef and insisted on returning the next day for pulled pork and fresh fish tacos.
The tour at the Piedras Blancas Light Station near San Simeon [(805) 927-7361, www.piedrasblancas.org) covers it all — history, landscape and wildlife. There are colorful stories about this old tower on the rugged windy point with its piedras blancas, or white rocks, offshore, bedeviled by earthquakes, water shortages and a controversy over a confusing light pattern. And we got a first sighting of the area’s marquee stars: the northern elephant seals (so-called because of the mature male's large nose) piled by the hundreds on the beaches below. The tan and silvery lumps look like driftwood, yet if you watch carefully, you’ll see small, endearing movements: a flipper tossing sand over a hot, heavy body. The scratching of an irritating bit of skin that won’t slough off. Or a massive yawn. Later, at an official vista point, a blue-jacketed volunteer with Friends of the Elephant Seal explained that the ragged-looking creatures were conserving their energy. No meals until they return to sea, said Tom, pointing out the silvery seals that had finished their molt and would swim away soon.
The area has treasures galore beyond famed Hearst Castle [750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon; (800) 444-4445, www.hearstcastle.org). Then again, on a weekday spring afternoon, there was no waiting. On a whim, we joined a tour of the upper rooms. From the newspaper magnate’s richly appointed bedroom, we got a final, far-away glimpse of our light station shrouded in the mist. Perfect.