Hearst’s Hacienda: Perfect Base for a Central Coast Adventure

The clerk behind the counter at the bowling alley’s snack bar was chatting with two men sporting military haircuts and wearing camouflage jackets. Why should I be worried? It was dark, I was on an Army base, and the only open place I could find was a bowling alley.

“Where’s the Hacienda?”

They looked at me with a helpful, but “here’s another one” look.

“It’s just up the hill…” said the clerk. “You can’t miss it. It‘s the place with the red light in the tower.”

Wow… I was going to stay at a place marked by not only a tower, but tower with a red light.

Sure enough, there it was, just up the hill, a place I’d driven by moments before, thinking it was Mission San Antonio de Padua. I didn’t notice the red light in the tower.

Turns out the mission is at the bottom of the hill, about a mile away.

This romantic, missionesque masterpiece was one of William Randolph Hearst’s extravagances, now called The Hacienda Guest Lodge. I first visited it back in 2001, returning in 2005. (My friends Doug and Marie visited in 2007; see sidebar for their update.)

Designed by architect Julia Morgan (who also did his little shack on the coast, known as Hearst Castle), this is the ranch house and lodge where the early 20th century newspaper magnate (the Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone of his day) would escape when the hubbub of San Simeon was just too much.

Open to the public as a hotel, restaurant and bar during my visits in 2001 and 2005, in late 2006 I received an e-mail from the new operator saying the restaurant and pool are closed, but the bar and lodge still welcome guests.

Part of Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army base near King City, The Hacienda is a quiet place to soak up a lot of California history and experience the romance the Old Hollywood days. The rambling Spanish Colonial Revival structure was built in 1929 and originally called the Milpitas Ranch House.

Hearst sold the ranch to the War Department in 1940. The Army christened it Fort Hunter Liggett and for years it was a training facility for Fort Ord, the massive boot camp located about 50 miles north, near Monterey.

The “ranch house” was used as the officers club and base commander’s quarters, then mostly closed in the 1970s. When Fort Ord closed in 1992, Fort Hunter Liggett’s use diminished and the Hacienda was opened to the public. When I visited in January, 2001, there weren’t even any guards at the fort’s entrance. By 2005, security was on hand and a pass, given out at the gate, was required. The gate was closed at night. I don’t know what security will be like when you visit. See history from the California Military Museum.

Hearst would fly his guests up from San Simeon for rodeos, barbecues and dances. “Folks” like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Herbert Hoover stayed in what are now known as the “Tower Rooms.” Two “Garden Rooms,” bath-down-the-hall Cowboy Rooms and huge Master Suites — also known as DVQs — rounded out the 14 rooms.

The Hacienda is a great place for a quiet getaway or a base for a central coast adventure. About eight hours by car from San Diego, this is a part of California that most people drive through at 65 miles per hour or fly over. There are numerous wineries in the area, and Big Sur is a thrilling, twisty drive over the mountains.

Within easy driving distance are about 50 wineries, the spectacular Big Sur coast, Carmel and Monterey, and, of course, Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

Situated on a hill overlooking the San Antonio River valley, The Hacienda offers great views to the west and the Santa Lucia Range, the mountains that line this section of California’s coast. Mission San Antonio de Padua, founded by Father Serra in 1771, is about a mile down the road.

Most of the land to the north and west is either part of Fort Hunter Liggett or the Los Padres National Forest.

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Courtyard at the Hacienda.

Updates

  • Originally visited in 2001; updated 2005. See later updates.
  • Added history link from California Military Museum.
  • 7/7/10: Updated Ft. Hunter Liggett lodging website address, which changed again. Phone number listed is now (831) 386-2511.
  • 11/4/09: Ft. Hunter Liggett lodging website has current rates, contact info.
  • 1/16/09: E-mail from reader Andrew who reports that that Hacienda has a new phone number, which has since changed (see above). Guess I could call, but that would take the fun out of it for you.
  • 8/12/08: Los Angeles Times visits Hacienda. GO>
  • 11/3/07: My friends Doug and Marie visited. Here are their notes. GO>
  • 10/31/06: There’s a new operator at the Hacienda, who contacted Weekend Driver. The restaurant and pool are closed. As far as I know, the new operator has no web site yet. Roger McClendon, the manager in 2001, is no longer with the facility. I visited again in Summer 2005 and found it just as charming; management has changed again since then.
  • 2/4/12: Comments from a reader who just visited.

In The Area

  • Mission San Antonio de Padua P.O. Box 803, end of Mission Creek Road, Jolon, CA. About a mile from The Hacienda, on church-owned land but surrounded by Ft. Hunter Liggett. Phone: (831) 385-4478.
  • Los Padres National Forest: Information, see the web site. GO>
  • Wineries: Monterey and San Luis Obispo county wineries are north and south of The Hacienda. North, take G14 to US 101; wineries are off 101 and G16. South, take G14 to Lake Naciamento. Continue on G14 to get back to US 101