As you drive south on Highway 1, the mountains present a last series of cliffs from Gorda to Ragged Point. Approaching San Simeon, the mountains pull back from the water, leaving a coastal plan and low bluffs. Open beaches begin to stretch out their blankets and dunes of sand between the sandstone bluffs and lapping waves. After our foggy drive through the curving sections of Big Sur, we were pleased to see the fog rolling under itself off the coast, and the sun warming the golden hills.
Our destination was Hearst Castle, the former estate of William Randolph Hearst. Before arriving, we came upon the beaches on which several colonies of elephant seals have begun to populate over the past few decades. Cows and juveniles had arrived. They lumbered out from the surf to sun and sleep on the beach. One of these beaches hosts boardwalks along the bluff, from which we could view the adults snoozing and the youth sparring. All of this is punctuated with the crash of waves and belching of males who want to announce their spaces on the beach. Hmmm. Jersey Shore without the beer and boomboxes? If this floats your boat, you can watch the elephant seal cam from the comfort of your computer!
The turn off for Hearst Castle is a few miles further along the highway. The visitor’s center is on the coastal plane. From there guests board buses to ascend to the mansion atop one of the higher ridges. All tours are timed. While you are waiting, you can browse in the gift shop, eat from the cafe, or watch an interpretive movie.
We split up into two tour groups. Two of us went on the accessible tour of the Grand Rooms, and three on the tour of the Upper Suites, which required stair climbing. The management of the tours has thought out and provided extra attention for the accessible tour. We were diverted from the main bus to a bus with a lift system. This took us directly to an off loading area where Mike awaited us with an electric cart to transport us to an entrance without stairs.
While the rest of the group hiked up several flights of stairs to the main level of the house, Mike told us stories about the building and builders. He escorted us through the kitchen, which is not on the regular tour. Soon, we slipped in to sitting room, where we joined the rest of the tour. As we exited the building, the other tourists were free to wander the gardens and pools, filled with flowers, sculptures, and grand staircases. Mike awaited us for a quick ride to the promanad around a level terrace which rings the mansion. The guide from the Upper Rooms tour caught up with us to let us know that the other three of our party were in the gardens, keeping an eye open for us. We eventually met up around the outside pool.
Hearst owned 37 properties over his lifetime. He relished collecting art, during a time when Europe was recovering from World War I. As with many collectors, he purchased paintings, sculptures, and even architectural features (i.e. parts and whole rooms) which he amassed into museum quality collections. He built several different properties to house different selections of his collections. Heart Castle would be his Renaissance property, showcasing this era from Italy, France, and Britain.
Hearst envisioned this becoming a museum to share with the public. As with many of these collections, the mansion, grounds, and art were donated with endowments to foundations or state governments for administration. In this case, Heart Castle is part of the California State Park system. Unlike other state parks, which emphasize natural beauty, Hearst Castle provides an interpretation of beauty and a lifestyle which most of us only glimpse briefly.