the enchanted hill
Before entering Big Sur, the final destination on our California road trip, we made a stop in San Simeon. This tiny hamlet would not even be on the map today if it wasn’t for William Randolph Hearst, the real life Citizen Kane, who built his Xanadu at San Simeon, on land that once formed part of his father’s cattle ranch.
It took Hearst the better part of three decades to build his castle, a project that started with laying a road that ascended 1,600 feet to the top of a hill in the Santa Lucia Range and ended with the acquisition of as much fine art and antiques as Hearst could get his hands on. He bought most of the artwork in the 1920s and 1930s — when Europe was rebuilding after one war and preparing for another — which meant that art collectors were willing to reluctantly part with some of their most prized possessions.
At one point, the newspaper magnate had as many as 30 homes scattered throughout the world. The “ranch at San Simeon,” as he called it, was his favorite. Even before the San Simeon estate was completed, Hearst told his children that he was building a living museum, which he intended for the people of California to enjoy after his death. He died in 1951, a few years after construction on the castle and grounds was completed. Several years later, his corporation transferred the property to the state of California, in accordance with his last wishes, to be administered as a state park.
The castle is such a popular tourist destination that the Parks Department had to create a triage center. There is a massive parking lot at the bottom of la cuesta encantada — the enchanted hill on which the castle sits — and a visitor center that would rival most amusement parks. Tours sell out during the busy summer months, so we purchased our tickets in advance, selecting a 4pm tour — one of the latest available times that day.
After scanning our tickets and taking a canned picture of us that was superimposed on a photo of one of the castle’s rooms, the park staff ushered us onto a waiting bus for the 15-minute ride to the top of the hill. As soon as the bus was full, the doors closed, cheery Hollywood-esque music blared from the loudspeakers, and the jovial voice of Jeopardy host Alex Trebek began narrating the Hearst family history while the bus slowly wound its way up the serpentine path to the castle.
A tour guide waited for us at the steps that led up to main house. There are too many rooms for one visit, so the Parks Department organizes various 45-minute tours, and we chose the downstairs “grand rooms.” After the personal and highly entertaining tour of Scotty’s Castle, we were rather underwhelmed by the Hearst Castle tour. Whereas the former was both engaging and informative, the latter was bland and rushed.
Our busload of visitors was preceded by a similar busload and followed by another. The guide did not have much of interest to say and focused primarily on sticking to the schedule, herding the group from room to room after pointing out the dates and origin of a few of the many art pieces that were crammed into every room. Whereas the castle in Death Valley was tastefully decorated, Hearst’s house was ostentatious and so overflowing with precious artwork and antiques as to make it impossible to actually appreciate any of the pieces.
By far the best part of the tour was when it ended. After being rushed through several rooms, we were set loose on castle grounds and had an hour and a half to ourselves to relax by the stunning Neptune Pool and walk around the estate.