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Weekend Escape

In the shadow of celebrities and soldiers

William Randolph Hearst's hunting lodge is now a guest house on a Monterey County Army base. Pay no mind to the bursts of gunfire.

November 03, 2002|Vani Rangachar | Times Staff Writer

Ft. Hunter Liggett Military Reserve, Calif. — One of the first signs that we were on an Army base was this posting on the path that leads to the Hacienda Guest Lodge: "You are entering a no-hat, no-salute area."

The second came on our first morning here, the kind of day that only California can deliver. Songbirds warbled. The mist had lifted, and the sun was warm on my face as I sat on a rough-hewn bench under a portico at the 18th century San Antonio de Padua Mission, not far from the lodge. Then came the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire.

This land in the hills northwest of Paso Robles in Monterey County is one of the loveliest pieces of real estate in California, and the Army owns it. If you can ignore some trivialities -- parking lots of Humvees, Jeeps, tanks and camouflaged trucks, the sound of gunfire from soldiers' practice sessions, some lapses in service and a slight shabbiness at the lodge -- it's an interesting place to spend a weekend.

What drew us to this remote stretch of Central California was the 14-room Hacienda Guest Lodge and the chance to sleep where millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst and his movie star friends once did. This was Hearst's hunting lodge, built mostly for entertainment so he and his guests could ride on horseback the 30-odd miles from his San Simeon estate to spend a night or a weekend. It was designed by Julia Morgan, the celebrated architect of San Simeon, and completed in 1936.

Like Hearst's guests, my husband, Barry, and I were here for the weekend, but we arrived not by private plane or horseback but by car after a 250-mile drive from Los Angeles through Friday evening traffic. After we were cleared to enter at the barricaded checkpoint, we picked up our key from a waitress in the Hacienda's restaurant, there being no readily identifiable reception area.

Spacious but spare

I was told, when I reserved a room in the two-story lodge, that we would have a suite; at $125 a night it was the only room available and the most expensive. But I wasn't prepared for the palatial size of our first-floor accommodations. It had a nicely appointed sitting room with a lovely arched brick fireplace, a large foyer, a full-size, fully equipped kitchen, two bathrooms and three bedrooms laid out one after another, like connecting rail cars. It felt cavernous for just two of us but would have been ideal for a family.

The bedrooms were cold and their decor spare -- bed, alarm clock, lamp on a night table and space heater in a corner -- so we spent most of our time in the heated sitting room, even sleeping there. It was almost baroque by comparison, with a floral print couch, two comfortable armchairs, books inside a barrister's bookcase and a TV (which had no reception) with a VCR. (Videos were available in the dining room.) There were some charming period pieces, such as a Depression-style glass vase, and some comforting touches, like a heater in the bathroom. But there was a shabbiness too: a loose towel bar in the bathroom, a hole in the ceiling, a dirty and uninviting swimming pool.

Outside, Morgan's graceful creation echoes the nearby mission. The concrete-reinforced Spanish-style lodge has a U-shaped courtyard, quatrefoil windows, colonnades with windows that look out on the golden hills of the Santa Lucia range, arches and high ceilings.

After the Army bought the property from Hearst in 1940, it altered Morgan's structure. Some changes were necessary, like adding electricity; some were decorative, like the murals that adorn the dining room and bar. Some would make Morgan devotees cringe, like changing the symmetry of her original design by closing off an archway and blocking the curved stairway that led to the second-floor Tower Room. Hearst slept in this room, which has a gold-painted dome. It's the best at the lodge, a worker told me, but it was occupied, so I couldn't peek in. We did look at a tiny room on the second floor. With lovely arched and carved wood doors and latticework, it was more atmospheric than our suite.

We woke Saturday morning, expecting to have breakfast in the dining room, but it was closed until 11 a.m. As I sat there grumping about being in the middle of nowhere with no food, drinking the Sanka with powdered cream that we had found in our suite's kitchen, I was glad we'd had the foresight to indulge the previous night in a five-course French meal at Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles. The restaurant impressed us with its excellent service and food, which included entrees of rack of lamb and sea bass.

After Barry offered me the bowl of papier-mache fruit to boost my spirits, we went to the mission, the third in the state, dedicated in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra. Its adobe lines were calming, despite the occasional burst of machine-gun fire, and the interior of the church was warm with pastel colors and the scent of votives. We spent an hour here before hunger sent us foraging for food outside the Army base.

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