Rides and Destinations: Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California
By Joe Berk
Stop on the Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the Santa Lucia Mountains to tour the historic Hearts Castle.
What: Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, California, 93452, (800) 444-4445. Tickets start at $25 per adult, and they’re worth every penny.
How to Get There: Find your way to the Pacific Coast Highway, head north from Los Angeles or south from San Francisco.
Best Kept Secret: Nearby Cambria. Spend the night in a B&B or any of several hotels. The restaurants in Cambria are reasonably priced, and if there’s a bad one, we haven’t found it.
Don’t Miss: The Hearst Castle movie in the Visitor Center. It’s good, and it provides a deeper perspective on William Randolph Hearst and his California castle.
More Info: Hearst Castle
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Situated atop the Santa Lucia Mountains on the central California coast, Hearst Castle is one of the world’s great destinations on one of the world’s premier roads. Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway, a visit to Hearst Castle is a bucket list road trip.
Image by Joe Berk
You have to be wealthy to build your own castle, and the Hearst family was. George Hearst (William Randolph Hearst’s father) reached California during the 1849 Gold Rush. There was no gold for George, but he made the family fortune in silver. A good businessman and self-educated mining engineer, Hearst became a U.S. senator and fell into the newspaper business when he took the San Francisco Examiner as payment for a gambling debt. That paved a path for son William Randolph Hearst into the media business after his expulsion from Harvard. Bill spun that into a media empire. Hearst owned dozens of newspapers and magazines, and it’s been said that during his lifetime, he had every U.S. president in his back pocket.
So, what do you do when you have incomparable wealth, powerful friends, and a desire to make even more of a mark on the world? You build a castle, and that’s what Bill Hearst did. He inherited 40,000 acres in San Simeon when his mother died in 1919 (father George had purchased the land in 1865 for family camping trips). Bill increased the holdings to 250,000 acres and commissioned famed San Francisco architect Julia Morgan to design a classic European castle. Ms. Morgan and Bill never finished their work because Hearst kept changing his mind, and for the next three decades, Hearst’s agents scoured Europe for art, sculptures, tiles, ceilings, doors, tapestries, and more. Casa Grande (the castle proper) grew to 115 rooms, and multiple guest houses with an additional 46 rooms adorn the grounds. There are two massive and magnificent swimming pools (one indoors, the other outside). The entire 124-acre complex became known as La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill), with sculptures, art, and architecture rivaling anything that existed during the Greek, Roman, and later European empires. Hearst kept an extensive wine room and a large collection of spirits at his castle (including through the Prohibition years), but guests weren’t allowed to bring alcohol or over-indulge. Some did, and Hearst did to them what Harvard to him.
William Randolph Hearst left his castle for the last time in 1949, but not after 30 years of hosting movie stars, politicians, celebrity athletes, business luminaries and more. During that period, he built one of largest media conglomerates in the world, and he had his publications flown in daily at the castle’s own airfield. Due to high operating expenses and disuse after Hearst’s 1951 death, the Hearst Corporation gave the keys to the State of California in 1958. A National Historic and State of California Landmark, this coastal castle is a splendid destination.
Getting to Hearst Castle is easy; simply find the Pacific Coast Highway (see Motorcycle Classics March/April 2017) and point the front wheel toward central California. If you know what you’re looking for, you can actually see Hearst Castle from the PCH. Park in the Visitor Center lot and purchase a ticket for any of the nine tours Hearst Castle offers. I’ve been on most of them and I’ve never been disappointed. A shuttle bus will take you up into the Santa Lucia Mountains, and on the way up you’ll see the cages for the animals Hearst kept in his private zoo. Other less dangerous exotic animals were allowed to roam free, and if you’re lucky, you might spot descendants of Hearst’s zebras and exotic sheep.
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