You're offered three levels of luxury at California's San Simeon State Park campground.
Up at Washburn, there's the undeveloped area, which means there's a tap somewhere and pit toilets. There's the open area that's close to the beach with a tap right at your site and flush toilets just a minute away from your tent. Lastly, the top-level sites offer a paved parking pad for your car or RV, hookups, and proximity to the showers. Guests camped on the open area can use the showers, which are nearby. Those up the hill in the undeveloped sites are discouraged from using them, though I don't think they're actively prevented from doing so.
In spite of this class system, the campground is pretty nice. It's wedged between Highway 1 and the slough, which is a wetlands preserve and you can walk under the freeway to a spectacular and uncrowded strip of beach. I was hesitant to pitch the tent so close to the freeway because of the noise, but once night fell, it really quieted down. Except for the noise from a mid-night run-in that the neighbor's dog had with a raccoon.
This was probably not the sensibility that "The Chief" had in mind when he built his little folly up the hill, but it's not far off. He wanted a place to get away from the city, a place to entertain friends, a place to play outside. He had the good sense to have it built above the fog line. Had we been contemporaries, we'd have woken up to damp Gore-tex and cold, wet, air, while The Chief and his guests were watching the sun break over the hills to the East, the light filtering through Moorish-style shutters. While we were firing up the Coleman stove to boil enough water for tea, The Chief and his guests would be wandering down to the dining hall in response to the breakfast bell.
Actually, it was William Randolph Hearst's weariness with camping that led him to build the magnificent palace on the hill known as Hearst Castle. He telegraphed his architect, Miss Julia Morgan, to request that she design for him a more comfortable place to spend his days at his ranch on the California Coast. Co-conspirators in the execution of this spectacular private folly on the hill, they worked together for 25 years designing, building, redesigning and sometimes rebuilding, the magical place that's now open to anyone who's willing to pay the price of admission.
It's worth noting that I'm not a guided tour kind of person. I prefer to poke around on my own and while I appreciate the insight that a tour guide so often has to offer, I'd just rather not. I'll read the plaques and flip the pages in the guidebook, but I want to be left to my own devices. However, upon completion of the Experience Tour (one of several tour options available), I was ready to pay for the whole thing all over again, just to see the rest of the place. I'd have gone up and down the hill all day, if that's what it would take to get in as many nooks and crannies of the Castle as possible.
We arrived a little too early for our tour. Tours leave every 30-45 minutes from the visitor center and tickets are time stamped. We took our time dawdling around the museum, which presents the life of William Randolph Hearst and showcases a few choice gems from his extensive collection of art and furniture.
We dried out in the sun and poked around in the shops - one is a gift store with postcards and books and t-shirts, the other a museum shop that sells reproductions of objects in the castle, among other things. Finally, we boarded the bus to the "Enhanted Hill" - San Simeon. We were lucky to spot, on the drive up, a few of the descendents from Hearst's private zoo, out grazing in the meadows. We were met by our tour guide on the marble plaza below the well-known Neptune Pool.
I won't go in to extensive details about what we saw on the tour, as the superlatives will sound ridiculous. Friends of mine at home, prior to my departure, recommended Hearst Castle as "worth seeing." I realize now that their understated approach to suggesting we make a stop there on our jaunt along the coast was due not to their being unimpressed, but rather, to their inability to describe the splendor and beauty of this place.
As we wandered through the buildings, past the marble and the carved walnut and the gold inlay, we had progressively less ability to express our wonder. The beauty of the final stop, the indoor swimming pool tiled in lapis lazuli blue and gold tiles - not gold color, but actual gold - left me overcome. I really thought I was going to cry.
Back at the visitor's center, I contemplated taking the next tour back up the hill. Instead, we opted for the 40 minute IMAX movie about the building of Hearst Castle. (The movie is included in the Experience Tour. If you choose a different tour, it's separate, but worth it.) The film contains some footage of Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, at the site while the castle is under construction, as well as a number of clips of Hearst's many famous guests. There are some stunning aerial shots of the site, which give the visitors a chance to grasp the size of the compound as well as the magnificence of its location.
At the campground that night, we had new neighbors who were compelled to share with us (and most of the campground) their love of rather obscene rap music. Meanwhile, the neighbors opposite were burning what must have mean a tire as it was putting out so much smoke as to obscure the sight, but not muffle the sound of the rap-loving campers. I was unperturbed. I put in the earplugs (I never travel without them) and dreamed myself a guest at the "Castle in the Sky."
When I woke up in the middle of the night, I stepped out of the tent to the sound of the ocean and the sight of the stars.
Hearst Castle is CRAZY BUSY! Go first thing in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds. We left a busy but not too crowded visitor's center at 11 a.m. and returned to a mob at 1 p.m.
You can buy tickets in advance online at the Hearst Castle Web site. There are plenty of ticket windows at the Visitor's Center, but the lines get long QUICK and if you've purchased your tickets in advance, you'll have more time to enjoy your visit.
In addition to the campground, there are plenty of little hotels just down the road in Cambria. Reservations, even for camping, are recommended, though we were able to get a tent site upon arrival.
We spent about five hours, all told, up on the hill. That's the movie, the tour, some time at the Visitor's Center, and a coffee break on the patio. We're real dawdlers, though; you could probably get your money's worth in about 3 hours.
The Hearst Castle Evening Tour program begins a new season each September. Visitors to the Castle are able to experience evening reflections from the 1930s heyday era.
On most Friday and Saturday evenings, from September through December, Hearst Castle features the Living History Program that emphasizes the bygone lifestyle of this great estate. Docents in elegant vintage clothing assume the personas of Mr. Hearst's guests, lounging by the magnificent Neptune Pool or playing parlor games in the Assembly Room. Other docents portray household staff attending to the needs of Mr. Hearst's guests.
The evening progresses through the Main House - Casa Grande - and includes highlights of the daytime Tours 1, 2, and 4. Completing the magical tour is a walk over the blue and gold Venetian-glass tiles of the indoor Roman Pool. Visitors should allow two hours and ten minutes for this tour. Evening Tour prices are $20 for adults and $10 for youth ages 6-17. For Reservations call 800/444-4445 or www.hearstcastle.com
- By Pam Mandel, Seattle Correspondent.
Biography of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951)
Born April 29, 1863, in San Francisco, the only child of George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, he traveled across the U.S. and Europe at age ten. While in Europe he began collecting stamps, beer steins and German picture books.
The Hearst publishing empire continues to this day with many magazines and newspapers. Many of Hearst newspapers were not successful. In the late 1930s, because of the lingering effects of the Great Depression, and slow advertising sales, Hearst had to declare bankruptcy, and his newspaper empire did not rebound until advertising increased during World War II. During his empire building Hearst acquired the following newspapers with date acquired:
1887 - San Francisco Examiner
1894 - New York Morning Journal
1896 - New York Evening Journal
1897 - New York Morning Advertiser
1900 - Chicago American (Evening)
1902 - Chicago Examiner
1904 - Boston American (Morning)
1904 - Los Angeles Examiner (Morning)
1912 - Atlanta Daily Georgian
1913 - San Francisco Morning Call
1917 - Boston Daily Advertiser
1917 - Washington (DC) Times
1918 - Chicago Herald & Examiner
1919 - Wisconsin News (Milwaukee) This is the year Hearst began construction on San Simeon, and the year Phoebe died in the great Influenza epidemic.
1921 - Boston Record
1921 - Detroit Times
1921 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer
1922 - Los Angeles Herald
1922 - New York Mirror
1922 - Oakland Post-Examiner
1922 - Rochester NY Journal
1922 - Rochester Post Express
1922 - Syracuse NY Telegram
1922 - Washington (DC) Herald
1923 - Baltimore News
1923 -Fort Worth Record
1924 - Albany Times-Union
1924 - Milwaukee Sentinel
1924 - San Antonio TX Light
1924 - Syracuse Journal
1926 - Pittsburgh Sun Telegram
1927 - Omaha News
1928 - Omaha Bee
1929 - San Francisco Bulletin
1931 - Los Angeles Express
1934 - Baltimore Post
Home and Field
Motor (His first, 1903)
Nash's Magazine (England)
Orchard and Farm
Town and Country
The World Today
He enrolled in St. Paul's Prepatory School near Concord, New Hampshire at age 16. Three years later, he entered Harvard, where he was the business manager of the Harvard Lampoon and was elected to the "Hasty Pudding" theatrical group. He left Harvard before graduation. He worked for about a year at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.
In1887, his father, George Hearst, was elected a U.S. Senator from California, and he gave young William the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. W.R.H. purchased his second newspaper, the New York Journal, in 1895. His father's Comstock Lode in Nevada, and Homestake gold mine wealth in Dakota Territory, bankrolled Hearst's newspaper ventures after George died in 1891.
William Randolph Hearst was elected to the United States House of Representatives as Congressman from New York in 1902 and re-elected in 1904. He married Millicent Veronica Willson in 1903. California artist and friend, Orrin Peck, was best man. At the time of the marriage Millicent was 21 and William was 39. They had five sons: George, William Randolph Jr., John, and Twins Randolph and David. David is the father of Patricia Hearst.
An aviation enthusiast, Hearst flew in a Bleriot monoplane in 1910, seven years after the Wright Brothers' first flight. He was also a pioneer in the production of newsreels and movies. He produced the first movie serials, including The "Perils of Pauline," "The Exploits of Elaine," and the "Mysteries of Myra." He produced more than100 films. His publicists could make or break a movie with reviews in his newspapers. The unauthroized epic about Hearst's life, Citizen Kane, is to this day, recognized as one of the best movies ever filmed. Silent screen and talkie film star, Marion Davies, was Hearst live-in companion for many years.
His art collection was vast and impressive. At San Simeon there are many examples of some of his collections of fine and decorative arts, including paintings, tapestries and religious textiles, Oriental rugs, antiquities, silver and furniture. His other collections included armor, stained glass, Navajo rugs, and documents.
William Randolph Hearst died on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88. He was interred in the Hearst family mausoleum at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.
Hearst owned many other properties, other than the 270,000 acres around San Simeon, including Babicora, a one-million acre cattle ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico; Wyntoon, a 67,000-acre estate on the McCloud River in Northern California; St. Donat's Castle in Wales; and commercial and residential property throughout the United States.