SAN SIMEON, Calif. — It's fine to admire one of the most beautiful pools in California, but don't go near the water. The 800,000 annual visitors to Hearst Castle can only look longingly at the sparkling Neptune Pool, surrounded by a Greco-Roman temple, white neoclassical statues and colonnades.
Yet swimming in that picture-postcard perfect pool has become one of the most sought-after employee perks in the north end of the Central Coast.
Castle employees -- everyone from guides and landscapers to concession cashiers -- are allowed to experience a luxury once enjoyed by actress Marion Davies and her celebrated friends. With a limit on how many guests they can bring, employees can dive into the spectacular aquamarine water a few evenings a week in July and August.
High school junior Jorge Barajas is working as a cashier for Aramark Corp., which handles the castle's food and gift concessions. A resident of the beach town of Cayucos, Barajas took family friends swimming on a recent July evening.
"I think the last time I was up there was for a tour in seventh grade," Barajas said. "I didn't think I'd ever swim in it back then. I just wished I could. When I got this chance, people were saying that it was going to be cold. But once you get in, you just don't care. It doesn't seem cold at all."
Some swim the 104-foot length of the pool, marveling at how it appears even bigger from its center than from its edges. Some sit back in chaise lounges and call friends on their cell phones: "You'll never guess where I am."
Others play the role of official photographer for their family's adventure, urging their subjects to get even closer to the Roman statues for that perfect shot.
Designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, the Neptune Pool is the third pool at the same site; each was successively larger. Finalized in its current form in 1936, it was like many of the collaborations between Morgan and William Randolph Hearst: Its original plans called for something much simpler. The end result was the 345,000-gallon beauty that ends up on many travel magazines' "best pool" lists.
The castle was built over a 28-year period starting in 1919, under the auspices of the legendary publishing magnate, and construction began on the first Neptune Pool in 1924. Castle historians believe that such celebrities as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Charlie Chaplin swam in the second incarnation of the pool, the large oval incorporated into its current version during the 1920s and early 1930s.
Hearst and his mistress, Davies, reportedly continued to swim in the finished pool until one year before his death in 1951.
In a 1924 correspondence between Hearst and Morgan, he wrote: "I am sending back the plan of the temple garden with the suggestion that we make the pool longer than it is, as long as a swimming pool. Mrs. Hearst and the children are extremely anxious to have a swimming pool!"
The pool is 95 feet wide and 3 1/2 feet deep at its west end and 10 feet deep at its drains. It has an oil-burning heating system, no longer functional, and is surrounded by light-veined Vermont marble. Four 17th century Italian bas-reliefs are on the sides of the colonnades.
The employee swims work wonders on morale, state park authorities say, even if they are limited to 90 minutes.
"Day in and day out, we're talking about the Hearst Castle experience to our visitors," said Kirk Sturm, who was recently promoted from Hearst Castle superintendent to a position overseeing state parks across Northern California. "This allows our people to participate in that 1930s experience. This is exactly what Mr. Hearst and his famous guests got to do."
Sturm estimates almost 800 employees work at the castle, between the state's own employees and various concessionaires. Allowing all employees the chance to dip into the pool is an egalitarian touch Sturm compares with an aspect of yesteryear.
"The castle servants always got to swim in the pools back in Mr. Hearst's day," he noted.
Employees are allowed to bring up to three guests to the Neptune Pool if there is room on the individual swims, which occur only on summer evenings after the last tourists come off the hill at 5:30 p.m.
Swimming in the pool was a common park employee perk after the Hearst Corp. deeded the castle to the state for a park in 1958. But the practice was stopped in the 1980s for a 15-year period, to the consternation of many veteran employees who still grouse about those lost years.
Extensive state evaluations determined that the pool could stay historically accurate and still be enjoyed, so swims were reinstated three years ago at Sturm's urging. Lifeguards watch over the swimmers.
Public swimming will never be allowed, Sturm stressed, because it is specifically prohibited in the gift deed between the Hearst Corp. and the state.