Carless in California? You can still do the coast

For me, the best way to take the most popular California sightseeing trip -- along the coast, between Los Angeles and San Francisco -- is by tour nbus. Now I've done it both ways -- from L.A. up the coast and from San Francisco down.

The basic tour covers that beautiful stretch of land along the Pacific Ocean that includes the familiar names of Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Monterey, Carmel, and the fantastic American palace that sits on the top of its privately owned mountain, the Hearst castle.

The first time I took the three-day Parlor Car tour that leaves Los Angeles in the morning and ends in San Francisco on the third afternoon. This time I took the five-day tour, which included my main goal, Yosemite National Park, and headed out of San Francisco on the deluxe Lounge Car tour.

The Lounge Car tour is unique in that the bus is fully carpeted, and instead of regular two-person bus seats it has one individual swivel armchair at each window, to a total of 18 passengers. They included three women from New Jersey and five couples from various points in the East. Everyone became quickly acquainted and by the second day this had become "our group."

The first day we spent mostly rolling through the golden hills that gave California its name of the Golden State -- the hills are covered with wild oats that turn gold in mid- June. As our driver-guide liked to say, there's scenery everywhere, but it just depends on how it's put together. The miles and miles of rolling hills and space look like all the western movies we've ever seen.

Ponderosa pine trees appear as we climb higher. Suddenly we're in Mariposa, the old gold-mining town in real gold rush country, a short way from Sutter's Mill. The Mariposa Museum is a small treasure of old West folklore, containing such authentic Americana as the oldest courthouse in the West, a one-room miner's cabin and all his worldly possessions, the original press and print shop of the Mariposa Gazette of 1854, and hundreds of small artifacts. Just outside is machinery for mining from the period of the gold pan to the stamp mill, which was used for crushing gold- bearing quartz. On the road again, we see the fastest white-water river in the US, (which was pretty slow at the time because of a dry summer) where several people with claims are dredging for gold along the river.

When we reach Yosemite, some of our group are dropped off at the Yosemite Lodge and a few of us at the Awahnee Hotel (depending on what reservation we requested). The focus of our two nights and a day at Yosemite is on the valley, which is 4,000 feet above sea level. Hammered out by a giant glacier, rock peaks tower over us, and in the glistening morning sun the almost mile-high rock face of El Capitan looks like mellow pewter. The gorges are scary in their immensity, and cascading waterfalls have apt names like Bridalveil. That one, incidentally, is the only one nature hasn't turned off in autumn, but when the melting snows reactivate them in the spring, they all gush down.

The Awahnee, built on a natural meadow between peaks and forests, is an impressive hotel marked as a historical monument, with a lot of atmosphere but no air conditioning yet and no TV. Dinner in their dining room is a more formal affair than you might expect in a national park. Jackets and ties are requested of the men and dresses or "dressy pantsuits" of the women. The dinner itself averages around $16.50 a person, and although the dining room is majestic in its rustic immensity, huge log beams, and Indian lore decoration, it meant more than I wanted to eat or spend. On the advice of my fellow passengers I took the free shuttle tram from the hotel into the village, where there is a delicatessen for takeout food, a small restaurant, and a bit farther, a cafeteria. The food was not memorable, but adequate.

I also bought a can of antimosquito spray. The bus driver has advised us not to swat a large creature if seen on the wall, as it would be harmless to us and a first-class mosquito eater. May and June are the months for these hungry creatures.

The next day our tour included a special six-hour excursion through the park to the 7,000-foot high Mariposa Grove. The shuttle bus picks up passengers from several hostel areas and delivers them to the caterpillar tram -- one open car pulling several open wagons, something like the various World's Fairs had. We wind around trails through sentinels of giant sequoia trees, some of which are 3 ,000 years old. One is 90 feet around the 300 feet tall, with branches larger than the trunks of any other species. Many of the trees have special names, and each is carefully introduced to us, with bits of folklore added for interest. We are cautioned, in the words of the famous naturalist John Muir, "Don't take anything but pictures and don't leave anything but footprints." In other words, don't pick anything and don't litter.

Several times we get out of the tram to walk a bit near the trails, and once we have to vacate because a wheel has jammed into a giant root on the narrow track and we are stuck, which occasions a great deal of advice and traffic direction from the passengers.

The air is soft and fragrant, and it is easily possible to imagine the Indians, who were looking down at the breath- taking sight of the valley below some 5,000 years before the white man discovered it. We ride and ride through groves of giant trees, always green, and see monoliths of granite, like free-standing sculptures of stone.

The third day of the tour finds us on our way out of the park, heading southwest toward the ocean and one of the most famous scenic routes in the country. By afternoon the landscape is another world of rugged coastline so close that the road seems part of the beach, and the waves roll and crash a stone's throw away. At one point several conflicting ocean currents meet, and we are out of the bus again, to watch the unique sight. Offshore, where Spanish galleons sailed into the bay in the 16th century, some huge rocks are home to pelicans and cormorants, while others are occupied be sea lions and seals, whose barking we can hear. Closer by are the sea otters, called water walkers because they feed on kelp at the surface.

Later we pass some derelict buildings which are pointed out as the originals of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, but there is little left of reminders. Most of the old cannery area has been turned into a large arcade of shops, many art-oriented. Steinbeck would never recognize it, but our shoppers liked it.

By late afternoon we are in the old Spanish and Mexican- govered town of Monterey, which wasn't under US jurisdiction until 1850. Alas, the hotel, the Doubletree Inn, was full, so we roost instead at the Casa Munras.

The next morning we continue heading south, winding through the Santa Lucia Range that reaches right to the sea, always with the ocean in our sights. High on a hilltop in the distance stands the Hearst castle, our destination. It is important to arrive there on time, because although the special tour buses that take over leave every 10 minutes, they are booked solid in advance.

William Randolph Hearst was a controversial figure among the American millionaires who built European castles in this country to establish themselves as American aristocracy. The Hearst fortune started with Hearst's father, who got his hands on the Comstock silver mine, and for a $250 investment ended up with $8 million.

The opulence and luxury of this castle, now a state historical monument, reflect the life style of the 1920s, when it played host to the most glamorous and influential people of the time. The general tour, for starters, takes our group to the outdoor Neptune pool, a huge oval of black marble tiles surrounded by ancient Greek arcades and statues of gods. Elaborate stairs and patios, interspersed with Italian cypress trees, flowers, and statuary on inlaid mosaics , lead up to the three guest houses, any one of which would be considered a mansion in itself. The main terrace has a pond of reeds and papyrus from the Nile.

Back to reality, we are on our way to San Luis Obispo, where we spend our fourth and last night in this pleasant little agricultural town of beautiful scenery. Then on the last day we stop at Solvang, the "Danish town," where tourists turn into avid shoppers among the multitude of stores. A huge variety of Danish objects and food are available everywhere; prices are pretty much the same in all the stores.

A look at a Spanish mission and a little tour of the charming old Spanish town of Santa Barbara completes the tour, two hours before it comes to an end in Los Angeles.

The Lounge Car tour costs slightly more than the Parlor Car tour, but the consensus on board is that it is worth it. The 1980 rates for the five days, including everything except meals, were $349 each if you stayed at Yosemite Lodge and $379 if you elected the Awahnee. Either way, everyone I talked to loved the w hole thing.

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