Castle By The Sea

Trip Start Jun 14, 2009
Trip End Jul 31, 2009

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Flag of United States  , California
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunday morning we headed back down South a bit to visit the famed "Hearst Castle" built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In order to actually visit the castle, which sits a good 15-minute drive from the visitor's center, you need to purchase a ticket for one of the various tours offered. We opted for the basic tour, suggested for first-time visitors.

After a scenic bus ride up to the castle, we were greeted by our guide. Our tour included stops in a few of the outside courtyards, one of the several guest houses, a few of the main rooms in the big house, and the inside and outside pools. Our tour guide proved to be extremely effective, weaving information about various parts of the grounds with an interesting narrative about Hearst's life before and during the castle's tenure.

The story of the castle goes a bit like this:

In 1918 Hearst inherited his parents’ land holdings and in 1919 he began designing, with architect Julia Morgan, a ranch home overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the small town of San Simeon, CA.  As a child traveling in Europe with his mother, Hearst had gained a real appreciation for art and architecture.  To that end, the ranch home eventually became a project to build a Mediterranean Italian Renaissance village.

In 1947, when he left to move permanently into the LA area, Hearst declared the project “half done.”

While the Hearst family has donated the house and 150 acres to the State of California, they retain ownership of the rest of the ranch, which still runs several thousand head of grass-fed beef.  Now that the State of California owns and administers the house and grounds, they offer a variety of tours covering various parts of the main house and grounds.  Many of the paintings, mosaics, relief pieces, gates, statues, furniture pieces, fountains and hand-carved wooden panels were purchased in Europe and shipped to the castle.  Many of the pieces are several hundred years old; a few pieces are over a thousand years old.

Back in the heyday of Hearst’s living on the grounds of his ranch house, he tended to entertain quite a range of guests including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Ira Gershwin and Winston Churchill.  His most regular “guest” was his mistress Marion Davies, who lived there with him.  It is no stretch at all to say that Hearst lived in and entertained his guests in the lap of luxury with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, gold-gilded ceilings, a fireplace mantle and tapestries from actual castles and several levels of terraced patios and gardens serving as yards both front and back.

Interestingly and unsurprisingly, his guests seem to all fall into the category of rich or famous or both, which is to be expected of a man who owned sevral such houses across the world. However, on our tour we were rather surprised to find some glimpses of the non-traditional. First, we thought it pretty significant that one of the most famous and well-designed buildings in our country was designed by a female architect in the early 1900s. Then our tour guide informed us that the staff of the castle, those cooking the food and turning the beds for the famed guests, were always invited to view the latest movies with Hearst's guests in his home theater ... an incentive to keep them working at a place that was rather isolated (a pretty good incentive too, if you ask us.) And the best perk? Since Hearst's guests were all too afraid to swim in the gigantic and luxurious Italian-glass-tiled indoor pool, it became the staff pool.

As we boarded our tour bus to leave the land of luxury we were appropriately snapped back into reality with our tour guide's mention that, due to the CA budget crisis, the state parks were planning to switch from live people to recordings for the tours in the castle. She was not sure she would have a job very soon. We can say that, for the sake of the many visitors who will come through the castle, we hope she still does.

We spent the late afternoon driving back up the valley in hopes of finding a campground along the coast above Monterey.  Once more our efforts were foiled by several full campgrounds.  And we resorted again to our GPS to find a decently priced motel. This time it came through.

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