San Simeon

Overview

Introduction

Few places in the U.S. are as opulent as the Hearst Castle, which publisher William Randolph Hearst built in 1919 in the hills above San Simeon, California. It is roughly the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Outfitted with imported treasures from around the world (ancient Greek vases, Italian tapestries, Oriental carpets), the palatial mansion and grounds became—and still are—symbols for ostentation.

In fact, Hearst Castle was the model for the mansion Xanadu in Orson Welles' movie Citizen Kane, which is a thinly veiled portrait of Hearst.

Only in recent years has the estate's architect, Julia Morgan, begun to receive her due as a pioneer in a field previously reserved for men. She worked for Hearst for 27 years, continually adapting the building to fit his ever-changing wishes. (Morgan reportedly even designed the ceilings to be adjustable in the event he wanted them higher or lower.) It could be argued that Hearst's robber-baron tastes occasionally nudged the architect's hand a little too much. Witness, for example, the outdoor Neptune Pool, a pseudo-Greco-Roman folly that is the very definition of gaudy.

Run by California State Parks, there are four separate tours, each focusing on a different part of the grounds. Seeing all four tours in one day is best left to those with the hardiest constitutions. If you can settle for less, Tour 1 is the best option. Make reservations well in advance; many visitors arrive without them and are dismayed to be turned away at the gates, especially during the popular summer season.

If you're in the area at the proper time (Friday and Saturday nights September-December and March-May), you can see the castle on an evening tour. Docents in 1930s clothing pretend to be the guests and staff at one of Hearst's cocktail parties. Those on the tour can wander through the elaborate rooms as the actors sip martinis, work on puzzles and socialize in grand fashion.

Those who don't want to spring for any of the tours can wander the museum at the base of the hill for no charge. Toll-free 800-444-4445. http://hearstcastle.org.

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