SAN SIMEON -- Nearly a century ago, when publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst conceived a summer dwelling for a ridge top on California's Central Coast, he wanted it to make an unequivocal statement about himself.
Mission accomplished. Hearst Castle, as it is known today, is certainly a monument to the man: to his vanity, his eccentricity, his force of will, his uneven taste in art. As visitors walk the terraces and hallways today, they can't help but conclude that this is what happens when an unsophisticated fellow has more money than he knows what to do with.
Hearst was more of an art accumulator than a collector. Rooms feel crammed with
A similar disorder prevailed in the construction of the mansion itself. "Workmen didn't like working here," said guide Jacquie Calvert on a recent tour of the place, "because they would build something and he'd have it torn down the next day."
In his biography "The Chief," author David Nasaw chronicles one such incident in which Hearst walked into a completed guest house and said he didn't like the position of the fireplace.
It was ripped out, the wall closed up, and a new fireplace constructed in another location. Six months later, Hearst surveyed it again and said, "No, that was a
All of this only heightens a visitor's fascination with the castle. Europe has its estates and chateaux to enchant tourists, but beyond Elvis' Graceland (an apt comparison, actually), America is a bit shy on grand palaces of excess.
That might account for the number of foreign tongues we overheard on the buses and the tours during our visit this summer. This place may be garish and
Hearst Castle is celebrating its 50 th year of being open to the public. A state park, it averages nearly 700,000 visitors per year. They plunk down $24 per person for any one of four daytime tours (an evening tour costs more), then ride buses up the hillside to marvel at what Hearst called Casa Grande.
It's a Realtor's dream listing: 80,200 square feet of living space, including the basement and three guest houses; 56 bedrooms, including servants' quarters; 61 bathrooms. Also 41 fireplaces, two swimming pools (outdoor and indoor), a movie theater, two tennis courts. All of this perched at 1,600 feet, with an unobstructed view of miles of unspoiled coastline.
The accommodations were lavish even in the guest houses at Hearst Castle, which were outfitted with antique furnishings and art that William Randolph Hearst picked up on his buying sprees in Europe. This guest house, Casa Del Sol, is included on Tour 1, the overview experience recommended for first-time visitors.(Eric Noland)
The most-popular Experience Tour still provides an overview, and will accommodate up to 55 people, but for something a little different -- and a little more intimate -- repeat visitors should consider one of the specialty tours.
After taking the Experience Tour in the morning, we signed up for the Garden Tour in the afternoon, and joined about a dozen others for a stroll across the grounds with Calvert, a knowledgeable guide who dispensed information with enthusiasm and humor.
Like the building and its interior design, the gardens also bespoke the idiosyncrasies of the man.
-- Hearst didn't start building his castle until he was in his late 50 s, and he was too impatient to wait for trees or shrubs to grow to maturity, we were told, so he had most everything planted full-grown.
-- He wanted guests to see colorful plantings at all times of the year, so three greenhouses were kept busy and the flower beds were torn up and replanted with annuals and bulbs four times a year.
-- Fruit on the trees, he felt, provided artistic splashes of color, so he forbade it being picked.
-- Tree roses were among the more than 1,000 rose bushes on the property, so that guests
-- The native coast live oaks on the hillside were sacrosanct, with all building done around them. Accordingly, as we walked the 360-degree esplanade around the castle, we noticed that it wasn't of uniform width, but narrowed in places to accommodate the great trees.
"This was the lovers' lane," Calvert said at one point, "because guests could walk here and not be seen from the windows of the castle."
And, quirky though Hearst's edicts might have been, our group was now enjoying their result, as we walked among roses, dahlias, hydrangeas and water lilies in full glory, with citrus blossoms perfuming the air.
Each of these specialty tours also pokes into areas that the others might not. We, for example, were conducted into the wine cellar, there to survey the musty bottles -- long since drunk -- of such former prizes as an 1878 Nuit-St.-Georges.
The Garden Tour pays a visit to the Casa Del Mar guest house, which was Hearst's quarters while the main house was being built. In his oversize bathtub, he had a seawater bath every day at 2 p.m., Calvert said.
On any tour of the castle, a visitor can readily be numbed by the opulence of the furnishings and the confounding hodgepodge of art.
We found ourselves marveling instead at the little things -- beautifully painted squares of tile, the ocean breeze that wafted in through a bedroom window or the astonishing scope of that view.
Hearst's father, George, who made his fortune in silver mining, locked up that panorama when he bought three sprawling Mexican ranchos -- the Piedras Blancas, the Santa Rosa and the San Simeon -- in 1865. Just like that, the family had a swath of 250,000 acres, stretching along 50 miles of California coastline north of San Luis Obispo.
The Hearsts would spend summers in a luxury tent camp on the ridge at San Simeon, and the site clearly put a hook in William Randolph at a young age.
When he inherited the family holdings in 1919, he immediately retained San Francisco architect Julia Morgan and put his palace on a fast track. Hearst's timing couldn't have been any better for acquiring much of what would go in it. Europe at the time was reeling from the ravages of World War I, and art and antique furnishings of all sort -- including entire buildings, in some cases -- were priced to sell.
On the Experience Tour, guide Katrin Carter led us into the Assembly Room -- essentially the castle's living room -- and indicated the tapestries on the walls.
"If one is good, six are better," she said wryly. And that pretty much describes Hearst's approach to the exhibition of art here.
Unsaid was that the tapestries are Flemish works from the 1550 s, made of wool and silk, and depict scenes from the Punic Wars. We didn't discover this until we picked up a book in the gift shop at the foot of the hill.
Guides probably walk a fine line here: Too much detail could cause a tour group's eyes to glaze over. Carter erred on the side of brevity, leaving us wishing we'd gotten a little more.
But other tour guests seemed amused by all the human-interest anecdotes, such as the one about Hearst sitting down to lavish formal dinners in the medieval-
themed Refectory and insisting that bottles of ketchup be placed on the table.
Any visitor to Hearst Castle probably can't resist lapsing into some harmless fantasy. Oh, to be one of the weekend guests here back in the '30 s, mingling with Hollywood stars, taking a dip in the Neptune Pool or riding a horse under a pergola festooned with vines and fruit.
Or to own it. You'd likely design a house that says a lot about you.
Just as Hearst's monument speaks volumes about him.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Hearst Castle is on Highway 1 in San Simeon, 42 miles north of San Luis Obispo (which is 200 miles north of Los Angeles via U.S. 101). There is plenty of free parking at the visitor center -- which is really more of a huge gift shop.
TOURS: The tours have both numbers and names at Hearst Castle. Tour 1 (Experience), Tour 2 (Casa Grande Upper Floors), Tour 3 (North Wing of Casa Grande) and Tour 4 (Garden) are all offered several times daily. Cost is $24 for adults, $12 for children ages 6 to 17 (children under 6 free when accompanied by a paying adult).
Each tour lasts 1 hour, 50 minutes, with just over an hour spent at the castle (there is a 20-minute bus ride each way). A bonus on the Experience Tour is a ticket to an impressive National Geographic film, "Hearst Castle: Building the Dream," shown on a five-story IWERKS screen.
An Evening Tour is offered in the spring and fall, during which docents dress up in period garb to simulate what the castle was like when Hearst was entertaining. It costs $30 for adults, $15 for children.
Remember that Hearst Castle was built in the 1920 s. That means lots and lots of stairs. There are 150 stairs on the Experience Tour, more than 300 each on the other three daytime tours. But special wheelchair-access tours are also offered.
To book any of the tours, visit www.hearstcastle.com or call (800) 444-4445.
LODGING: There is a strip of motels along the highway at San Simeon, but a pleasant alternative is Moonstone Beach in Cambria, the first community to the south. The Cambria Chamber of Commerce Web site -- www.cambriachamber.org -- lists 18 motels along the beach road. (In the pulldown menu under "Visitors," navigate to Lodging/Moonstone Beach Lodging.)
DINING:The Black Cat is a delightful bistro and wine bar in Cambria, owned and managed by Deborah Scarborough, a refugee from Hollywood's TV and film world. It serves fresh-ingredient American cuisine with European influences, uncorks bottles from the nearby Paso Robles wine country, and has a small-town, welcoming vibe. 1602 Main St., www.blackcatbistro.com, (805) 927-1600.
A great spot for breakfast is Linn's in Cambria. Be sure to try one of the house specialties, an olallieberry-and-cream muffin. 2277 Main St., www.linnsfruitbin.com, (805) 927-0371.
THERE'S PLENTY TO DO BEYOND THE CASTLE
SAN SIMEON -- Other nearby attractions to enjoy on a trip to Hearst Castle:
Seal the deal: A few miles north of the castle, follow the signs into the parking area for the Piedras Blancas elephant-seal viewing area. A thriving colony of seals resides here year-round, as humans are restrained behind fences atop the low bluff. Many of the seals will resemble great logs of driftwood as they lounge on the sand at the water's edge, while others swim just offshore. In the winter months, you might be lucky enough to see one of the females giving birth.
Picnic spot: There is food service at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, but a better option is to bring along a picnic lunch and head for William R. Hearst Memorial Beach State Park directly across the highway. There are picnic tables on a grassy slope, a pier and eucalyptus trees that attract Monarch butterflies in the winter. Best of all, no day-use fee is charged here. While walking the beach just north of the pier, keep watch for the bobbing heads of sea otters in the kelp.
History lesson: Adjacent to Hearst State Beach is historic San Simeon Village, an enclave of warehouses and dwellings that were essential to the construction of the castle. The most charming is Sebastian's Store, housed in an 1852 building and operated by the same Portuguese family since 1914. There is also a one-room schoolhouse standing out in a field, but fences bar access to it.
Zebra sightings: Hearst once had all kinds of exotic animals roaming his estate. A remnant herd of zebras still calls the pasture home. Watch for them on the inland side of the highway, just north of San Simeon State Park. We stopped along the highway and counted about a dozen far up the hillside. Remember to pack binoculars.
A good walk: Moonstone Beach in Cambria has an extensive boardwalk that runs along the bluff, with the occasional stairway down to the beach. Benches are positioned periodically for contemplation of sunsets and swooping squadrons of pelicans.
-- Eric Noland