Hearst Castle has always been an alluring weekend-destination for me. For anyone unfamiliar, Hearst Castle is a massive ranch and mansion above the California coast in San Simeon, packed to the brim with artwork and antiques from across all of humanity. According to Wikipedia:
“[The Mansion] was designed by architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947 for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who died in 1951. The Hearst Corporation donated the property to the state of California in 1957. Since that time it has been maintained as a state historic park where the estate, and its considerable collection of art and antiques, is open for public tours. Despite its location far from any urban center, the site attracts about one million visitors per year.”
In fact, it is this location, half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, that makes Hearst Castle the perfect weekend-trip: it is far-removed enough to feel like a “getaway” but close enough to be accessible and uniquely Californian. Twice in my life I’ve visited the estate on tours and shuffled into and out of the ornately decorated rooms with the masses, marveling at the extravagance and trying to imagine what is going on in the mind of someone who pays for such luxury. But this spring, we visited in a different way and saw the Castle in a new light (or lack thereof)—at night.
The nighttime tour, offered every Spring and Fall, was an amazing way to see a stunning work of architecture. Scheduled at the end of the day, a sense of anticipation and excitement is naturally built into your trip as you travel the coast, awaiting your opportunity to visit. Once at the Visitor Center, you board a coach and meander up the coastal California hills, each turn providing a better photo opportunity than the last. Even upon stepping off of the bus at your destination and being asked as a group to spit any gum out, though awkward, builds excitement as you are reminded that the Castle is a unique place (and one accredited as a museum, at that).
The house is beautiful and one of my favorite examples of stylized architecture/themeing before such concepts were popular and available to the masses. To an observer, the estate is propped up as a small, ornate village on a hill and combines architectural styles from across Europe with a Californian, Spanish-Revival design. For example, located just up the steps from the extravagant, Roman-styled Neptune Pool is the main house, referred to as the Casa Grande, designed to look like a Spanish cathedral. It's easy to analyze these features for the grandeur, excess, or even vanity of it but for me, I am intrigued by the creativity of it all. You see, today the concept of "themed environments" is familiar to us all, with every Starbucks channeling Pike Place and every Olive Garden pretending to be a Tuscan estate. But Hearst Castle was constructed before this concept was popularized, when decorative styles borrowing from outside the local region were only available to the rich or powerful.
Access to all of the previously mentioned structures is available on the daytime tours but an evening tour offers a much different experience. Besides the obvious time difference and a custom itinerary, the most unique element of a night time tour is the presence of actors. Volunteer living-history buffs from the area assist docents by assuming the role of characters that have been invited to Mr. Hearst’s ranch for a weekend of mingling and partying. Complete with backstories and 1930’s-period clothing (often original or cut from original patterns), the characters make this tour worth the late night trek. In addition, lighting, live music, and even smells are introduced to convince you of your time and place, combining with the actors to create a completely sensory, themed, and nearly-educational experience.
The one caveat to all these details is that (at least on our tour) the actors became less of an educational tool and more of an accessory. You see, our docent made it clear that in order to learn about each character and their relation to Mr. Hearst, we would need to strike up a conversation and mingle with them, networking as would a guest of a real party at Hearst Ranch. However, it was a skill us modern tourists lacked and as we clung onto our docent, shy and curious, and the party guests were quietly downgraded to mere ornaments for our Instagram photos.
Regardless, I'm sure Mr. Heart's cell phone-less parties were prime for conversation and reminiscent of Gatsby's (or Kane's, more accurately). They must have been rich, in all senses of the term. Though I am not generally fond of drooling over the lifestyles of the rich (in a desperate attempt to salvage my feelings when considering those more successful than myself) there’s something about this house that makes me understand ignoring the causes of the world to splurge on one’s self. I am happy with my one-bedroom apartment and parking space, but the idea of “56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres (0.5 km2) of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield, and the world's largest private zoo” is enough to turn even me into a dreamer.
And despite all of this, perhaps what I enjoyed most was the view looking away from the Castle. For all of its beauty and riches, all of its history, and all of its artwork, I found that the Castle still cannot compete with the view away from it! Now this is true during the day, but the nighttime tour includes the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean and you can’t beat that! Every window was a frame for the most beautiful sight on property; all of the grandeur that the wealth an empire can purchase is cemented along ground and yet the lightshow the sun and atmosphere put on could not be beat.
Alas, nature remains the great equalizer, available to us rich or poor. It was with this sentiment in mind that we stopped for some Pacific Coast Highway stargazing on the drive back to the hotel. Inspired, we concluded our romantic evening with the perfect dinner for two individuals who would not be returning to a mansion at the conclusion of their trip: Taco Bell.
For more photos from our evening at Hearst Castle, check out the gallery below: