Day-and-a-Half Trip: Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
Hearst Castle
The only thing better than driving up the radiant Golden State coast is doing it on a day when your eyes should be firmly planted in email and spreadsheets.  Despite my tragic lack of a doctor's note, Mom and I decided to play hooky one beautiful May day and trek to one of my double-plus-favorite places: Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA.

With a main house containing 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, a movie theater and seemingly endless sitting and games rooms, "The Ranch" (as owner William Randolph Hearst lovingly called it) was the pre-eminent destination for Golden Age Hollywood.  The property boasts an insanely impressive Greco-inspired outdoor pool (one built and rebuilt three times) and an equally jaw-dropping indoor pool edged in gold-flecked, one-inch-square tile.  Between the main house and three guest cabins, overall living space tops 90,000 square feet.

Though heir to a multi-million-dollar mining fortune, Hearst didn't rest on his moneybags.  Instead, he put together a billion-dollar media conglom that included newspapers such as the Los Angeles Examiner and magazines like Cosmopolitan.

assembly room 2

The Assembly Room

Hearst liked the ladies, juggling long-suffering wife Millicent and girlfriend, Marion Davies.  (Willie knew how to spread the love.)  Anyway, with wife Millicent firmly entrenched in New York, Hearst decided to build his own personal Mecca on a quarter-million acres he inherited from his mother, including 14 miles of stellar California coast.

(If you feel like you've heard this story before, you probably have - famed 40s flick "Citizen Kane" is a thinly veiled 'adaptation' of Hearst's life.)

neptune pool

Neptune Pool

Hearst's magnificent homage to art and excess was designed by one of America's first high profile female architects, Julia Morgan.  She seems to have matched Hearst in borderline insanity (or zeal, depending on one's perspective), importing marble from Rome and ceilings (yes, CEILINGS!) from Spain.  Construction was ongoing from 1919 to 1947.  (And Mom thought building a 2800 sq. ft. house in an Illinois subdivision was tiring...)

Rather than pick a specific architectural style, Hearst preferred an all-of-the-above approach.  What remains is a pastiche of periods, regions, colors.  And yet, it works.  It's colossal, amazing, overwhelming - a Roman emperor's palace by way of Renaissance Italy, ancient Egypt, Baroque France...

B-list actress Davies presided over this Shangri-La, hosting movie stars Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, among others...  It's easy to imagine Hollywood's glitterati horse-back riding, sunbathing on the terrace, perusing the private zoo and trading groundstrokes on the tennis courts.

Roman Pool

Roman Pool

While an invite to the castle was open-ended, Hearst's guests were encouraged to leave by a subtle custom; new arrivals sat nearest to Hearst in the medievally inspired dining room - the longer you stayed, the further you were bumped down the table.  When you landed at table's end, you knew it was time to skedaddle.

There's no way to convey the majesty and scope of Hearst Castle.  You just have to see it.  Part self-contained museum, part love letter to American excess, Hearst Castle is an imperative experience for anyone who cares about architecture, beauty, antiques, history, entertainment, art - and isn't that all of us?

Hearst Castle
750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, CA 93452-9741
Tours reservation line:  (800) 444-4445;  www.hearstcastle.org
±228 miles from LA ±215 miles from SF
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