California History and Opulence at Hearst Castle
By Greg Aragon
William Randolph Hearst knew how to throw a party. When he wanted company, he would fly friends to his estate on private planes, land them at his airport, and then transport them to the top of his mountain estate in luxury cars. Of course, friends such as Howard Hughes Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh flew themselves in.
To cool off from the summer heat, a couple friends and I headed down the California coast to the Hearst’s famed residence, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in idyllic San Simeon. I hadn’t been to the castle in about 10 years, so I was eager to see if anything changed.
Built between 1919 and 1947, the Hearst Castle was the most lavish mansion in the country in its heyday. It covers 127 acres of rolling hills and is highlighted by 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, and 61 bathrooms scattered throughout four main buildings.
The grounds are covered with countless pieces of priceless art and statues from around the world, as well as two swimming pools – one with real gold trim, the other surrounded by Roman statues.
“This is probably the way God would have done it, if He had the money,” is what playwright George Bernard Shaw was rumored to say after his first visit to the castle.
Our journey began with an original movie in the Hearst Castle Theater at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center. Here, on a five-story screen, we watched “Hearst Castle, Building the Dream.” The movie combines vintage clips and stills from the 1920s and ‘30s and begins with an incredible scene in which Hearst’s mail plane takes off from the mountain.
This is the companion film to daytime castle tours and is included in the ticket price.
After the film, we took a five-mile bus ride from the visitor’s center to the castle at the top of Enchanted Hill. Along the way, the voice of Alex Trebek of “Jeopardy” fame narrated some of the castle’s history. While listening, we spotted zebra left from Hearst’s zoo, and passed through countryside teeming with coyote, bobcat, rabbit, deer, quail, mountain lion, and hawks.
At the hilltop we strolled through the esplanade and gardens, where marble sculptures and flowers abound near trickling fountains. We then entered Casa Del Sol, an 18-room guesthouse facing the ocean.
Near here we found the Neptune Pool, a magnificent Greco-Roman style pool that also overlooks the ocean. Constructed in the 1930s, the 104-foot-long pool is surrounded by authentic ancient marble statues and 17th century Italian colonnades. The pool, which holds 345,000 gallons of water when full, is currently getting repaired to fix leaks and is scheduled to reopen this fall.
Our favorite stop was the indoor Roman Pool, covered with square mosaic tiles inlaid with real gold. Styled after an ancient Roman bath, the pool is surrounded by eight Greek and Roman marble statues, copied by an Italian sculptor.
We were on the Grand Rooms Tour, which takes guests through the Castle’s opulent social rooms to imagine what being a guest of William Randolph Hearst might have been like. This overview of the mansion travels around the main building, also called Casa Grande. The 60,645-square-foot Casa Grande boasts a magnificent sitting room filled with Spanish antiques and Flemish tapestries, a Billiard Room featuring two 1920s billiard tables and a huge theater room.
The tour also stops at the Assembly Room, Refectory, Morning Room, Billiard Room, and Theater. After the tour, we hopped on the bus back to the Visitor Center, where we grabbed a couple burgers and drinks at Chief’s Galley Café.
While visiting Hearst Castle, we stayed at one of my favorite Central Coast hideaways, the FogCatcher Inn (fogcatcherinn.com) in Cambria, about seven miles away. Located across the street from the ocean and breathtaking Moonstone Beach, the inn boasts an old English feel and is highlighted by a rounded thatched- roof, flower-lined brick paths, and fireplaces in every room.
Moonstone Beach is one of the area’s most romantic and unspoiled beaches. It’s also a great place to go tide pooling or see elephant seals and migrating whales from one of many coves.
Hearst Castle is located at 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA 93452. The Grand Rooms Tour is $25 for adults and $14 for kids five to 12-years-old. For more info call (800) 444-4445 or visit hearstcastle.org.