Business along the North Coast of San Luis Obispo County has been awakened like a “sleeping giant” in the near month since Highway 1 from Cambria to Carmel has been open to through traffic.
Those sentiments shared by Wiley Ramey, whose family has owned and operated Ragged Point Inn resort since 1961, are shared by a number of business owners now that the world-renowned stretch of highway that hugs cliffs and curves along the Big Sur coastline is once again open after 18 months of closures due to a series of rain-triggered landslides that required emergency construction of a replacement bridge at Pfeiffer Canyon and complete reconstruction and relocation of the roadway at Mud Creek, among other spots.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that it keeps up for a while,” said Jim Ramey, another member of the Ragged Point Inn family.
Entrepreneurs up and down the highway say there’s been a noticeable — even dramatic — increase in business since the mid-July reopening.
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Couple that with a long siege of triple-digit heat inland, smoke drifting over the area from distant wildfires and enticingly cooler weather on the coast — plus the looming end of summer and the earlier start to the school year — there’s been a tsunami of traffic on the North Coast.
The Cambria Chamber of Commerce visitor center has had “record-breaking traffic, with a lot of the visitors being from foreign countries,” said Mary Ann Carson, the chamber’s executive director.
“Business is greatly improved. The business community is just ecstatic,” she said. “Traffic is up, parking lots are full, there are people on the sidewalks. Some of the shops have noted that they’ve had their best business days of the year.”
Business at the San Simeon Lodge and San Simeon Beach Bar & Grill “is up 40 percent,” according to partner Fidel Figueroa.
The lodge has been full every night since the reopening, he said, which was definitely not the case before that. He reported earlier this year that the bar and grill business had been down 30 percent in 2017 compared with 2016; at the adjacent lodge, it was down 20 percent.
“As far as I know,” Figueroa said, “the other businesses in San Simeon are doing good, as well.”
He said business at the partnership’s Cambria Mimosas and La Terraza restaurants also is up 20 percent.
Aaron Linn, general manager of his family’s Linn’s restaurant and shops, a member of the Cambria chamber board of directors and that agency’s representative to the North Coast Advisory Council, said business at the restaurant and the other businesses is up 15.8 percent.
Heather Trimble, longtime owner of Casa de Oro jewelry store and art gallery on Burton Drive in Cambria, said business and foot traffic “have been like the good old days, way up” over what it’s been for more than three years of landslide-closed road, drought, wildfires and more.
Trimble expects the intensity to subside a bit “while people get their kids back in school,” but she hopes “double-income people without children but with lots of disposable income” to hit the road and shop during the fall season.
“It is a wonderful time, fast and furious right now,” said Jim Ramey, who manages the Ragged Point resort. “It feels like the road never closed. We’re doing great. We’re getting a lot of families, a lot of Europeans, but mostly just lots of folks.”
He estimates business to be about double what the resort was doing prior to the road opening.
“It’s a full on deluge, with so much pent-up demand to travel the coast, so folks are doing it now,” he said.
There has been one downside, he said.
“We’re having all the kinds of problems you like to have,” such as “trying to find enough people to work, making sure we don’t overload our workers,” he said.
Figueroa echoed that concern: “The biggest problem so far in the increase (in business) is just a shortage of workers … We are having trouble finding employees.
He said La Terraza is closed for lunch for that very reason.
“There are no dishwashers, no housekeepers and no cooks,” he said.
Impact on Hearst Castle
It took a while for the traffic increase to hit Hearst Castle tours, according to stats tracked by Dan Falat, superintendent of the state park district that includes the castle.
Visitation was actually down about 5 percent from July 18 to 31, he said. Falat thinks that’s due in part to “a lot of people had already prescheduled their vacation time, and it takes a week or two for the word to get out.”
And those who had traveled to the area may have done so on the spur of the moment to take the Cambria-to-Carmel trek through Big Sur, he said, without allocating time for a castle tour on the way.
But since Aug. 1, during what is historically the Castle’s busiest time of the year, visitation was up about 10 percent, or about 3,400 visitors, according to Falat.
Even midday Tuesday, “the parking lot was about 70 percent filled,” Falat said, “which is pretty good for a Tuesday.”
As for the increase in car traffic, another way State Parks judges tourism, especially along the lengthy, coastal Hearst San Simeon State Park that spans most of the shoreline from Cambria to Ragged Point?
“I’ve made more vehicle stops along the coast since Highway 1 opened than I have during the whole rest of the summer,” said Falat, who is also a ranger.
His advice? Don’t get in a hurry, turn off the cell phone, drive carefully, relax and enjoy the view and the cool coastal air.