San Simeon rests in an idyllic location along the central coast of California. The landscape rolls over hills that grab your imagination and drag you to from crest to crest. The surf hits the rocky shore with breathtaking gusto. When the sun sets, it dawdles over the ocean, allowing lovers and amateur photographers time to linger by the water’s edge.
Yes, San Simeon is surrounded by beauty, but little else. It’s the spot you would choose to build a home if you had all the money in the world and no place to be Monday morning. In other words, it’s the place you’d build a home if you were William Randolph Hearst.
San Simeon is nothing to write home about . . . until you spot the castle. (Click on the photo to see it.)
Hearst had it all, plus the deed to the land when it was all scrub brush. In creating the oasis known as Hearst Castle, the land now is only mostly scrub brush, and it’s well worth a visit. This hidden treasure is everything you would want in a house . . . and more. It’s the quintessential monument to American overindulgence. Even the Wizard of Oz would be jealous.
A trip to the castle should headline your list of Things to Do Today. One warning, though: you can’t easily get there. San Simeon is a long drive up the coast from Los Angeles or down the coast from San Francisco. The nearest railway station in San Luis Obispo is still about an hour’s drive away. Of course you have to drive there; this is California, after all. Rent a car—a big car preferably, one with air conditioning and satellite radio.
Plan to spend at least a couple days in the area. Book accommodations in quaint Cambria, down the road apiece. Tour the vineyards of nearby Paso Robles. Big Sur is a few hours to the north. Carmel and Monterrey lay a little further north and Santa Barbara a little further south, but trust us: you won’t be able to tear yourself away from San Simeon.
When we went, we stared in wide-eyed awe at the ornately carved, 54,000-square-foot main house, named Casa Grande by someone who learned high school Spanish. We wandered the gardens, tossed coins into the fountains, and gazed at the rare sculptures like we belonged there. We were dreaming, of course; even the Pope would feel out of place in this lavish opulence.
Instead, we laughed out loud at the velvet-lined 50-seat movie theater, the bowling alley that never was, and the indoor Roman Pool, with its Italian glass tiles and alabaster details. Yes, we laughed. It was our only defense, the only way to survive the over-the-top conspicuous consumption surrounding us. How could we take our own miserable lives as aspiring writers seriously after roaming through the 85-foot-long assembly room with its six ancient tapestries or the refectory with its royal dining table and Renaissance ceiling?
Hearst surrounded himself with art, guests, and wild animals (during its heyday, his “home” featured a working zoo). He knew enough people—most of Hollywood, plus his society connections and political cronies—to fill the 114 bedrooms on the estate. He had things we can only dream of: rich friends, a mistress, and good taste.
If you decide to visit, make sure you see it all. Take all four of the guided tours, including one at night. You have to pay separately for each, of course, but now that the State of California owns the property, they need to make up for other fiscal shortcomings. Think of the poor California caribou going to bed hungry.
As you roam the grounds, do what we did: imagine you’re an invited guest like Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Howard Hughes, Buster Keaton, Charles Lindberg, Mary Pickford, or George Bernard Shaw. They all spent time here. Play a game of billiards. Swim in the pool. Use the ashtrays. Expect service from the employees.
They may eventually kick you off the grounds with stern words and flailing gestures, but you’ll spend a nice afternoon before they catch you. Besides, you’ve gone out of your way to get there and paid an exorbitant fee to get in. Just don’t tell them it was our idea.
Lessons Learned: Hearst Castle is a place out of time. No one, not even Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, or Madonna—even if they had all of Hearst’s money and even some of his taste in art—could build such a house today. That’s what makes San Simeon worth the visit. Hearst’s achievements will never be duplicated. At least not in this country.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport
Native Population: 470
Normal Attractions: Hearst Castle, shoreline, lighthouses, shopping, bed & breakfasts.
Final Point of Interest: Each tour costs between $24 and $30 during peak season. Don’t do more than two in a day, even if you can afford it.