Most people have an idea of their dream home – a swimming pool, a spacious kitchen, maybe vaulted ceilings. Or, if you are William Randolph Hearst, a 115-room mansion surrounded by three guesthouses, with two swimming pools, a movie theater, tennis courts, and a 360 degree view of his land all the way down to the Pacific Ocean. And he had the money to build that dream.
Hearst’s reputation is well known as a ruthless newspaper baron who helped drive the sensationalism of yellow journalism in the early twentieth century. But his publishing accomplishments fade away when you stand before his grand estate in San Simeon where the enormous presence of the house overtakes any myth of the man.
To get there, it’s a bumpy 20-minute ride in a bus from the visitors center, climbing up the hills, catching a beautiful view of the coastline and, possibly, a zebra – a lasting legacy of the private zoo Hearst once had with more than 300 animals. As the house comes into view, reality seems far away. You have the sense that you are stepping into someone’s else’s vision of what life can be.
The bus stops at the base of Casa Grande – the main house – and you are led to the Neptune pool. It is outdoors, surrounded by Roman statues and marble arches through which you can see out to the ocean. The water is a clear, enticing blue, inviting you to grab a bathing suit from one of the pool houses and dive in as the guests used to do. If only!
At sunset, the colors of the sky give the pool a warm glow. It was the perfect time for a couple to slip away from an evening tour I was on. In front of the pool, he handed his girlfriend a rose with a diamond ring. Not surprisingly, she said yes.
The house is so big, it is broken up into three separate tours. Casa Grande is always a good place to start. In the heyday of his entertaining, Hearst regularly invited the most influential people of the 1920’s and 30’s – actors, artists, politicians and writers that stayed in the 84 bedrooms available on the estate. His guest list included Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Louis B. Meyer, Calvin Coolidge, George Bernard Shaw, and Howard Hughes.
He wanted to curry favors and glean scoops, but he also wanted to be entertained. Being a good storyteller was a good way to be invited back – and most people wanted to be invited back. Dinners were at a long table in a huge dining room modeled after a monastery. He seated the newest arrivals nearest to him, and they were moved farther down the line the longer they stayed.
Next to the dining room was a large sitting room with books and seating arranged to encourage conversation. But, a guide told me on a tour, it came with a rule – a two-drink maximum. After dinner, a movie was featured in his private, plush movie theater.
And then there are the bedrooms – opulent and unique, they spread down hallways and into turrets, anticipating every guest’s possible desire. Almost. Rule #2 was that unmarried men and women could not room together. He did not practice this himself - he built an entire wing of the castle for his mistress, actress Marion Davis, while his wife lived in a different home.
During special evening tours, actors dress up in costumes from the 1920’s and act as guests – playing tennis on the court, lounging in the sitting room, chatting in the bedrooms as they pretend to get ready for dinner. It sounds cheesy, but it actually does make the house come alive. Touring with a group, it is so hard to imagine anyone actually living there, becoming accustomed to the surrounding splendor.
The final stop on the tour is the second swimming pool. It is all tile – with stars on the bottom as if when you are underwater, the bottom is up. And there’s a diving platform to dive into the stars.
After the tour is over, you are shuttled down the mountain to – lets face it – a less splendid reality.
Or, as I did last time, to get another ticket for a different tour and return to the castle.
Book your vacation along the California coast with California Tours today and don’t miss the history and decadence of Hearst Castle!
Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.