The tour bus rattles as it makes its way up the winding, pristine slopes of Hearst Ranch—an 80,000-acre plot of land that surrounds the infinitely majestic and calendar-pretty Hearst Castle. The crowd inside the bus is typical—a mishmash of locals playing tourist in their state and actual tourists with their petulant, uninterested-looking sons and daughters. Look left and right, the narrator’s voice blares through the speakers. If we keep a close eye on the landscape, we might be able to spot a few of the animals William Randolph Hearst’s brought to free-roam his enormous property. (His zoo was once considered the world’s largest).
At the very end of the road, there’s a castle—a castle that, from afar, looks as though it’s floating in the heavens, nestled in a bed of clouds. But to get to the castle, you have to sign up for a tour. (It’s a requirement. Once you’re done with the tour, you’ll have some time to dawdle on your own). Our tour guide is a petite lady dressed in a conservative white shirt and black vest-slash-skirt combo. She speaks softly and eloquently, with the enthusiasm of someone who never tires of her job. On top of that, she has this uncanny ability to evoke an imagined life on the grounds, bringing us into the story as if we were one of Hearst’s guests who stayed here over the years.
Hearst was a busy man, she says. The publishing tycoon, who built the estate after inheriting the land and a significant sum from his father, George Hearst, was somewhat of a workaholic. Even though the San Simeon castle was originally meant to be a family home, it became more of a social destination crawling with all sorts of Hollywood stars and political luminaries. Everyone loved it there—and it’s just so easy to see why.
Hearst Castle is a magical place—like Disneyland, like Hogwarts, like Narnia. Maybe even the Gatsby Mansion. It’s an ambitious property, unapologetically grand and opulent to the point of unnecessity. (Think about this for a second: the indoor Roman Pool, one of the two swimming holes on the property, is accented with 22-carat gold leaf.)
One of the more interesting tidbits I learn is: Even though Hearst was the mastermind behind the operation, it was Julia Morgan—known as America’s first truly independent female architect—who brought his dream to life. Hearst culled the tapestries, the sculptures, the furniture, troves of artwork and ceiling panels, which he passionately collected. Julia personally designed most of the structures, grounds and pools. It took about 28 years of collaboration between the two to create this place. Twenty-eight years. That’s longer than the amount of time I’ve lived on earth.
Inside the main house, aptly named Casa Grande, we weave through a labyrinth of rooms—every room more impressive, more ornate, more mind-boggling than the other. We stop in the refectory, where Hearst’s guests would hunker down for dinner. Our guide tells us that, back then, if you were a first-time visitor, you’d most likely sit closer to Hearst and his wife. The following time you made the trip out to San Simeon, you’d be assigned the next seat over. Visit more frequently, and you’d wind up at the butt-end of the infinitely long, 17th century dining table. Point is, Hearst liked having fresh brains to pick.
A part of me wonders what it would’ve been like to sit at the cool kids table. (As I mentioned, our friendly tour guide does her best to push that visual along). You can’t help but hear the noise that must’ve been: the chatter of guests, the clink-clank of cutlery and wine glasses, the popping and snapping of wood as it burned in the massive fireplace. Only the kids who grew up watching Anastasia—a 1997-animated film based loosely on the story of the Grand Duchess of Russia—will understand this, but being inside the castle feels exactly like the hauntingly beautiful “Once Upon a December” sequence. Everything comes alive. In the adjacent room, where Hearst’s guests would often “hang out” after dinner, I even imagine their figures dancing gracefully.
The 60-minute “Grand Rooms” tour ends in the theater where Hearst would often host movie nights. In about 15 minutes, our next one starts. Before making the trip out to San Simeon, we were told by many friends not to skip the upstairs tour—and boy, were they right! The first tour covered the larger, more grandiose spaces that Hearst Castle guests once congregated in, but the upstairs tour provides glimpses into the quiet, more private moments they must’ve experienced. To me, at least, that seems a heckuva lot more interesting.
We climb the narrow, spiral staircase to the fourth floor, and meander into the Celestial Suite and its sitting room, which, erm, sits at the highest point of the building. (In other words, the views are plentiful). The bedroom itself is octagonal, sparkling with the sheen of a golden-yellow topaz. The outside light hits the holes of the carved wall panels, playing them like piano trill. “This is the room guests must’ve fought over,” I chime, spinning slowly in place. Looking out the window, I can’t help but mentally embellish the sky with magical elements—like, dragons spreading their wings and leaping into the air. It all feels like a page out of fantasy novel. Very Game-of-thrones-esque. You could rule a kingdom from up here, or you know, you could also relax and read a book, I think.
We explore a few other areas—the expansive library, more guest accommodations, and Hearst’s own private study, where he would sometimes hole up and work. The hour flies by, and soon enough, we’re left completely alone outside. Where do we even start? The Neptune Pool, which we’d only briefly admired earlier, beckons. The pool, which underwent a four-year renovation that ended in 2017, boasts marble flooring and sculptures of Neptune and Nereid, commissioned by Parisian artist Charles-Georges Cassou. It’s encircled by Greek-style colonnades which lead to the main centerpiece, the façade of a Roman temple. But Hearst was no ordinary fellow and this is no ordinary temple. Parts were plucked from an Ancient Roman Temple, and then shipped from Europe to San Simeon. Because, of course.
It’s about 6:30, and the castle is about to close for the day. As we make our way back to the bus, I realize, being invited here must’ve been sort of a blessing and a curse. Who would ever want to go back to a normal casa after experiencing life in Casa Grande? I’ve only been here for a few hours, and already, I don’t want to leave. (I haven’t even been fed, mind you, which I can only assume makes parting with the castle a lot more difficult). On the drive home, I catch myself thinking about today, my head still in (the house on) the clouds. Tomorrow will be more real, perhaps.
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