The narrow road, flanked by endless open hills and towering trees, sharply darts from one bend to the next. It rises, as if without end, to the turrets only partially visible above the trees.
Even from a distance, it seems apropos that something so unimaginable a century ago, at least in America, would bear so many names: "The Ranch," an understatement given how much more the estate would become; "America's Castle," a moniker that has stood the test of time; and "La Cuesta Encantada," enchanted hill, indeed.
Nothing like this estate, in its entirety, exists anywhere else in the world, something the California State Parks must have realized when the Hearst family donated the property to the state in 1957. The retreat that once entertained Hollywood's elite opened its doors to the public a year later.
Now, 50 years later, more than half a million visitors annually ascend the hill for a peek into the home and life of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. To celebrate its 50 years of public tours, Hearst Castle will offer the "Experience Tour" for free on a first-come, first-served basis on June 2. This tour, recommended for first-time visitors, showcases the Esplanade, Casa del Sol guesthouse and five ground-floor rooms of Casa Grande, the 68,500-square-foot main house.
Castle at dusk
The 127-acre estate goes well beyond the notion of sprawling, with 110,000 square feet of buildings, surrounded by terraces, vibrant gardens, classic sculptures and views that span at least 50 miles of coastline. Enchanted Hill is so expansive it takes four tours, at 11/2 hours each, to see everything.
If you don't have time for all of them, take the "Evening Tour" (offered Fridays and Saturdays during select months), which offers snippets from the daytime tours. The estate rolls back in time, with docents dressing in 1930s attire, as the sun sets over San Simeon Bay. Among the most remarkable sights are the last strains of daylight from the open walkway of "The Cloisters" guest rooms.
Even after eight hours on the hill, you still walk away wondering if you've really seen it all. With more than 22,000 artifacts and intricate details sweeping from the Persian rugs to the carved and hand-painted ceilings, taking a second trip through the same room reveals something overlooked the first time.
It's easy to see how guests invited here 80 years ago could overstay their welcome.
A boy's dream
When I told my mom about my impending trip, she smiled. "You realize you're jaded," she said.
True enough; I spent seven years of my childhood traipsing through Europe while living in England and then Germany. I've seen where royalty slept in Windsor Castle, stood among the ruins of the Parthenon and gawked at Neuschwanstein, the castle that inspired fairy tales.
When you've seen the real deal, how can an imitation compare?
For starters, none of those had William Randolph Hearst.
Here was a man who took the struggling San Francisco Examiner and launched a publishing empire. Despite his wealth, a park docent explains, Hearst had great contempt for the "idle rich," believing that all people should do something with themselves and their wealth.
For his part, Hearst tried to re-create the style and art he encountered on a 11/2-year European tour he took at age 10 with his mother.
Inspiration discovered as a boy simmered for more than 45 years, until he broke ground on the same San Simeon hill where he camped with his family as a child. Architect Julia Morgan came on board to build what Hearst called "a little something," and until Hearst's departure in 1947 due to ailing health, she oversaw construction on the much grander project.
Just how grand? Try 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 41 fireplaces. It has an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, tennis courts, a library with 4,000 books, a refectory that could seat 48 for dinner, and, at one time, a zoo that rivaled some public ones.
Man behind it all
All of that would amount to no more than a palatial estate if not for Hearst.
The docents make the castle come alive as they recount stories of his life, sometimes referring to him in the present tense, as if he still roams the halls. You can almost see him in his private study, poring over his newspapers with a red crayon. Or hear him encouraging his guests to swim, play tennis or ride horses because "Sleep is like practicing for death," he said.
Hearst is a character in his own fairy-tale castle. He would hasten a guest's departure by moving his seat at dinner closer to the massive fireplace. He would gift one of his dogs to any guest who bonded with the animal. When a gardener asked how many flowers to plant, Hearst replied that he didn't want to see any bare dirt, which is how 700,000 annuals came to be at the castle. (Today, a mere 20,000 blanket the estate.)
In some ways, his eccentricities were exorbitant. He had the opulent, Greek-inspired outdoor Neptune pool rebuilt three times so he could include a temple front.
He was also a man of contradictions. Unmarried guests who arrived with dates were assigned sleeping quarters far from their companions, even while the still-married Hearst slept only a sitting room away from his movie star girlfriend, Marion Davies. On the theater screen downstairs, a newsreel he produced includes his appeal to "buy American," while only a hundred feet away, his contractors installed imported Italian tile in the indoor Roman pool.
Contradictions aside, it's details such as those Italian tiles — made of 22-karat gold mixed with deep blue Venetian glass — that make Hearst Castle a marvel without precedence.
You can find more breathtaking images at Neuschwanstein, more pageantry at Windsor, more artistic wonder in the Sistine Chapel and more authenticity in almost any historic building in Europe. What you won't find is a blending of styles and culture that know no boundaries.
Hearst took what he loved about every country and either replicated it, or bought it. Here, Spanish Colonial meets Greek Revival, Italian Renaissance, classic Mediterranean and everything in between, sometimes without an inch of separation.
Nowhere is that more present than in the refectory. In each corner of the long dining room stand 15th century monastery choir stalls. The imported hand-carved ceiling is from northeastern Italy. Beneath it hang Palio race banners from Tuscany.
Flemish tapestries adorn the walls. The massive candlesticks come from Belgium, the silver vase from Ireland, the silver-service pieces from Spain. And the china on the table, well, that belonged to his mother.
So many different styles, so many different cultures, but still Hearst found a way to blend them seamlessly, as if they were made for each other. About the only thing that didn't quite fit on the antique banquet table were the glass bottles of ketchup — one of Hearst's weaknesses.
And yet, those also seem to belong. It's a subtle statement, a testament that Hearst wasn't trying to duplicate Europe's cathedrals and castles and monuments so much as he was trying to create a home unlike any other.
Reach Ann Tatko-Peterson at 925-952-2614 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of the events planned to celebrate the castle being opened to the public for 50 years. Call 805-927-2138 or visit www.friendsofhearstcastle.org for more information or to reserve tickets.