ENCHANTMENT IN SAN SIMEON
by Shelia O'Connor
"You can't eat the fruit," the guide reminds us. "It's for ornamental purposes only." And so it is with Hearst Castle, home of the late William Randolph Hearst, the legendary publishing magnate. It's for ornamental purposes only. But it's a unique ornament, beautiful to behold. Here you'll find priceless paintings, sculptures, and antiquities that range from monastery ceilings and Gothic castle fireplaces to Byzantine tapestries and Egyptian statuettes. It's ornament on the grandest scale inspiring awe in the 700,000 visitors who come annually to see how the other half lived.
Make no mistake about it, everything here is breathtaking, whether it's to your taste or not. Take, for example, the classic Neptune swimming pool, an architectural masterpiece surrounded by fourth-century Roman columns, Italian bas-reliefs, and contemporary statues from Paris. The marble-lined pool was rebuilt three times to reach the size you see today. The marble came from Vermont; the statues were sculpted in the 1930s‹their bobbed-hair styles give their real age away!
Julia Morgan, a native Californian, designed the castle. She was the first woman with a degree in architecture, and she created more than 700 structures.
Hearst chose the site for the castle, 1,600 feet above sea level, because he had spent time there with his father and later camped there in huge tents with his wife and sons. But he wanted something a little more comfortable than tents.
Building the castle was an immensely complex project. It took two years to pour the concrete for the lower two floors, and trees and vegetation had to be transported up the five-mile custom-made dirt road to create more scenic surroundings for Hearst's "Enchanted Castle." Everything about the place is elaborate and extravagant. Each of the 165 bedrooms and 41 bathrooms has its own style and furnishings, and almost all of the furnishings are 300 to 500 years old. Many are so fragile they have to be protected from the humidity of the Californian climate.
Hearst collected most of his antiques in Europe, starting at the age of ten, when he went there with his mother. With an allowance of $10,000 per month, he could purchase spectacular artifacts (Hearst's father had made his fortune when he discovered silver in Nevada. The young William Hearst was brought up to believe he could do anything he wanted, and so he did).
The castle houses only some two to three percent of Hearst's total collection of antiques, this property being home to his Spanish and Italian artifacts. Many other pieces are stored in warehouses throughout the country.
Hearst enjoyed having guests at his home on the weekends, and to be invited there was an honor. However, guests had to follow three rules: do not get drunk; do not use bad language or tell off-color jokes; sleep in separate bedrooms if an unmarried couple. (This was ironic because Hearst himself had a mistress, a former chorus girl named Marion Davies, with whom he spent most of his life). Food was not allowed in the rooms; if you wanted to eat, you had to go to the kitchen‹if you could find your way there.
If you did get lost, each hallway had a phone from which you could call the operator for directions to any location. However, you had to give a clear description of where you were and not say, as one guest did, "I'm in a room with a lot of old furniture."
Guests did not see much of Hearst, who had a reputation for working hard and expected the same of his employees. He worked most of the day, seven days a week, on any one of his 27 newspapers, 138 magazines, or eight radio stations (not bad for a man who was asked to leave Harvard because he had too many incompletes). Nonetheless, this workaholic lifestyle didn't seem to cause him any harm; he lived to be 88 at a time when life expectancy was only 54.
Hearst was most fond of the library. There, set among the 5,000 books, are such gems as Greek vases dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC. The antique Spanish ceiling, hung by suspended cables, sways in the event of an earthquake (but all the priceless treasures are anchored, because this is earthquake country). Much of the collection came from churches and houses overseas, but 90 percent of the items were purchased at auction houses around the world, bid on by a staff of treasure seekers Hearst employed.
With all the wonders of the castle and its contents, it's surprising to find Hearst's own room simple compared to the rest of the house. It does, however, have the oldest ceiling in the castle, dating to 1300, and also the oldest painting, also dating to 1300. The latter is a holy painting believed to be English, although its exact origin is unknown. Across from Hearst's room is Marion Davies' room, where you'll find two separate beds. These were put in after the Hearst family handed the property over to the Park Service, and were probably installed to maintain an air of propriety.
The castle was heated by its own hydroelectric generators. If guests found it too warm for their liking, they could go for a cool swim. If the huge outdoor pool wasn't shaded enough, they could use an indoor pool. This was designed with the ceiling representing the bottom of the ocean and the bottom of the pool representing the night sky, complete with sparkling stars. The idea was that when diving, you were diving from the ocean to the sky! The gold in and around the pool is all of 22-carat quality.
When you've finished your tour of the castle, don't miss out on the Visitors' Center. Here you'll find the castle's newest exhibit, the Hearst Castle Theatre, with a giant five-story screen, up to eight times larger than most conventional theatre screens. In the theatre, you can see the film "Enchanted Castle," which tells the story of the castle's development from idea to reality. The film is shown hourly and costs $6 for adults and $4 for children under 12.
There are many castle tours to choose from, each lasting one hour, 45 minutes, including bus trips to and from the Visitors' Center. Cost is $14 for adults; $8 for children aged 6 to 12. Children under six are admitted free. All tours include a half-mile walk and 150 to 400 stairs. Wheelchair-accessible tours are available by reservation. Tour One is recommended for first-time visitors.
Don't miss out on a visit to Hearst Castle for an enchanting experience.
More to See and Do
Other attractions in San Luis Obispo County include wineries (over 40 offer tastings); Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History, with tour guides available; the Madonna Inn, with extravagant furnishings; Chumash Indian rock paintings; the quaint town of Cambria, six miles away (where a sign in a store window says, "Closed today due to exhaustion"); and the historic mission town of San Luis Obispo, over 40 miles away. In San Luis Obispo, the new Center for the Performing Arts has outstanding acoustics, and throughout the county many outdoor activities are available, including mountain biking, ocean kayaking, windsurfing, hiking, deep-sea fishing, golf, and tennis.
About the author: Sheila O'Connor is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She has been widely published in such countries as U.S., U.K., Hong Kong, and Singapore. This is her first article for Grand Times.
Hearst Castle is in San Simeon, 200 miles south of San Francisco and 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Air, rail, and ground transportation are available from Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco.
To make tour reservations, call Hearst Castle at 800-444-4445. For information on accommodations and surrounding attractions, visit the San Luis Obispo County Visitors and Conference Bureau, or call for a free Visitor's Guide:1037 Mill Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401; 800-634-1414.
You can find various campgrounds in the vicinity of San Simeon.
The Santa Margarita/San Luis Obispo KOA is one of the best for its proximity to Hearst Castle, Cambria, Pismo Beach, and Morro Bay, as well as local wineries and missions. It has a solar-heated pool, Kamping Kabins, and laundry facilities. Pets are accepted. It has 65 sites and costs $20 for two adults with tent; from $20 for a RV with no hookup to $26 with water, electricity, and sewer. The location is 4765 Santa Margarita Lake Road, Santa Margarita, CA 93453; 800-KOA-5619.
Morro Dunes RV Park offers 178 spaces, laundry facilities, and television. Prices range from $16.50 to $25.30. The park is located at 1700 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, CA 93442; 805-772-2722.