Even with the six-week closure of Highway 1, the shaky economy, high cost of gasoline and cool May weather, State Parks officials and North Coast businesses are counting on selling out this holiday weekend.
They figure there’s lots for visitors to do and see: Gray whales are swimming past on their way north, molting elephant seals lounge on the shore north of San Simeon, beaches are pristine, shops and restaurants are stocked, and motels and the state campground have put out their summertime welcome mats.
The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is historically the single-busiest day of the year at Hearst Castle, according to John Fixler, ticket office supervisor. As of last Wednesday, the Castle was on target to meet that trend, he said, because visitors tend to make their reservations late.
“We’ll be looking at 4,500 people plus, about 600 per hour, taking tours” today, Fixler predicted.
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Before the Alder Creek slide closed Highway 1, attendance at Hearst Castle was up about 4 percent over last year, according to Nick Franco, superintendent of the state park district that includes the Castle. Now it’s up about 2 percent.
If attendance remains up, that would be a good sign for other businesses that depend on tourists because the Castle tends to be a bellwether for county tourism overall.
But until Highway 1 reopens, “the best thing we hope for is that people come to Cambria, enjoy what’s here and all along the coast to Ragged Point, 22 miles up and back,’’ said Rody Salkeld of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a very beautiful section of the Big Sur coast.”
John MacKinnon of Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill on Cambria’s scenic Moonstone Beach Drive said he is staffed fully for the holiday. “Weekends have been pretty good” so far this year, he said, adding that he is at capacity during holiday weekends.
That didn’t happen in 2010, “which was a bumpy ride,” he said. “This year seems to have a little more momentum, and (business) has been up consistently 4 to 5 percent.”
MacKinnon said this is the first year in the past three or four “that’s up a little but maybe it would have been up more without the landslide.”
Predictably, the slide’s impact seems to be more profound closer to the road closure. Nancy Petroff has owned the Wampum Trading Post in San Simeon for about two decades.
Business “has been down noticeably” since a series of landslides began in mid-March, she said. “We definitely feel the impact of the highway being closed. There just aren’t as many people around as usual at this time of year.”
But, Petroff added, “we’re optimistic about the summer and are hoping the combination of gas prices and road closures don’t prevent a lot of people from coming.”
Some visitors on either end of the slide have been confused by Caltrans signs. One traveler asked a Cambrian recently if he could get to Big Sur on the highway. “I can’t tell from the sign that says the road is closed 36 miles north of Cambria. How far is it to Big Sur?”
“It almost has to be explained visually, with a map,” said Mary Ann Carson, the Cambria chamber’s executive director.
These days, the chamber and Petroff are doing that daily. As baffled travelers stop by, people “who don’t quite believe the signs or don’t know what they mean” study a map and are shown pictures of the landslide from The Tribune.
“People are mostly good-natured about it,” Petroff said. Plus, “we’ve met a lot of them we might not have met otherwise.”