California's Central Coast seems to put a smile on every visitor's face.  With its scenic coast, charming towns, wine tasting, and cool climate, what's not to like?  Imagine going there by train during the Holiday Season with a visit to Hearst Castle at night, the Cambria Christmas Market, and Solvange.   That's exactly what we did this month as I served as the Tour Director for this Good Times Travel (a wonderful tour company based in Fountain Valley) for this three-day holiday adventure.

The Cambria Christmas Market Holiday Light Display was a dazzling feast for the eyes and the best I've ever seen.

     The itinerary for the trip was ambitious and well-timed.  The Chicago Club of Laguna Woods and I boarded a motor coach and were dropped off at the Oxnard Amtrak Station for the Coast Starlight Train bound for San Luis Obispo.  This route shows you parts of the coast not accessible to cars or the public.  We traveled through exclusive Hollister Ranch beyond Gaviota and then through Vandenberg Air Force Base with its open spaces, rugged coast and missile silos.

At San Luis Obispo, the bus picked us up and took us to Hearst Castle where we enjoyed the unusual night-time holiday tour.  The next morning we explored the coast at the Elephant Seal Rookery and WR Hearst State Beach and spent the afternoon wine-tasting and shopping in Cambria's East and West Village.  That evening, we enjoyed the spectacular light display at the Cambria Christmas Market which was built on the grounds of our comfortable hotel - the Cambria Pines Lodge.  On Day 3, we headed for home enjoying a two-hour stop at charming Solvang.  What a trip and what a wonderful introduction to the beauty of the Central Coast!
The Observation Car on Amtrak's Starlight Train was everyone's favorite.  When you get to your regular seats,
I recommend moving quickly to this car.  The views are spectacular, but it's first come, first served!

Many of the train stations in California - such as this one in Santa Barbara - featured the rounded gable of
Mission Revival architecture.

The dining car on the Coast Starlight was quite a hit!  The food, service and views were great.
One thing about traveling by train - you see a different perspective of the landscape.

The Coast Starlight gave us glimpses of the many missile silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Our Christmas Twilight Tour of Hearst Castle started with the stunning Neptune Pool.  Hearst purchased and brought
in many of the statues for his architect, Julia Morgan.

Since Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark, they don't decorate the exterior for Christmas.  

One of the fun aspects of the Christmas Twilight Tour is the staff in 1920s period clothing, posing for photos
and chatting it up.

As you can see, the Christmas decorations are tasteful and reflective of Heart's time period.
This is the first floor Assembly Room.

Our wonderful tour guide in the Main Dining Hall.  As you can see, WR Hearst loved tapestries.
Persian tiles in the Casa del Sol building.
I was amazed that the Roman Pool had gold leaf mosaic tiles on the flooring and throughout the pool.  Over the top, baby!

The Elephant Seal Rookery just north of Hearst Castle is a wonderful attraction.  Adults begin hauling out of the water in the fall.  Males, such as the big boy pictured above, fight for dominance in November and December.

This female is resting.  Birthing season is Dec/Jan and molting occurs in April and May.  These amazing pinnipeds can dive up to 5000 feet and hold their breath for over an hour.  Compared to sea lions that have retractable hind and larger side flippers, elephant and harbor seals are quite awkward on land, moving a bit like a caterpillar!
Cambria's Christmas Market runs for one month following Thanksgiving.  Food and craft booths are on the upper level, but the real show stopper is the Light Display below the grounds of the Cambria Pines Lodge.
The Light Tunnel is the beginning of the almost hal-mile display with over 2 million bulbs.
Kids loved crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Cambria Christmas Market display, illuminated by over 2 million bulbs, was the best holiday light show I have ever seen.
The Christmas Market attracts people from all over the Central Coast region.  Wonderful family fun.
On our way home, we stopped at the Danish village Solvang.  The windmill is a great landmark for the center
of town.  The food and pastries were great, although many of our group thought that the famous "aebleskivers" were
too much like pancakes.
Solvang has a strict architectural review board and the resulting beauty proves that it works.
People love to pose for a photo at the famous Danish red shoe.

Solvang was founded in 1911 but the half-timbered Danish style did not begin until the 1940s.  Strict architectural codes
require all signs to be made of wood.  Even the bus stops look like a charming Danish cottage!