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Western Travel | WEEKEND ESCAPE

Sunset on the enchanted hill

At San Simeon's Hearst Castle, a seasonal Evening Tour helps visitors see the landmark in a different light.

April 30, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

San Simeon, Calif. — THE sky had gone from blue to lavender and peach as twilight approached. I was in a bus that was climbing into the Santa Lucia Mountains in Central California. In front of us were stands of California oak and cypress trees and a smattering of grazing cattle. Behind us was the Pacific Ocean, now turning dark with the gathering dusk.

The bus stopped at the top of the hill, unloading us in front of William Randolph Hearst's 127-acre mountaintop retreat, La Cuesta Encantada (the enchanted hill), and we climbed stairs, emerging by the beautiful Neptune Pool just as the sky flared into a brilliant pink. The timing was so perfect that it almost seemed cinematic. Showman Hearst would have loved it.

I was on a special evening tour of Hearst Castle, offered in spring and fall, that was carefully orchestrated to take advantage of the region's colorful sunsets. The tours give guests an opportunity to see the beautifully lighted estate after dark and also let them experience something more -- a step back in time to the castle's 1930s heyday.

"The Ranch," as it was sometimes called, has a main house and three guesthouses: Altogether there are 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms. Originally built as the private residence of publisher and art collector Hearst, it is now a California State Park and offers several types of guided tours daily. I've tried nearly all of them, but I keep returning, as I did last month to sample the evening tour.

Hearst's 90,000-square-foot estate continues to fascinate me: the opulence, the history, the stories about his guests -- Chaplin, Cooper, Garbo, Colbert, Gable and Lombard, among them.

As my tour group of 18 rounded the pool, we realized we weren't alone. Chatting at water's edge were two couples. The women were both wearing dresses and gloves; one had a snood covering her hair and the other wore a fox stole, complete with head and tail. The men looked natty in suits.

The poolside foursome, we learned, were docents from the castle's Living History program, dressed in period costume.

"It's a way to bring the house alive," Hoyt Fields, museum director of Hearst Castle, told me later. "We're a historic house and we try to add to the experience with the docents. It's reminiscent of the times when Hearst was in residence in the '30s."

The props worked. As we strolled around the grounds and explored the buildings of the estate, we saw a woman in a satin dressing gown preening in front of a mirror, groups of people drinking faux cocktails in front of fireplaces and a pianist playing "In Twilight Time" for a group of well-dressed merrymakers.

The tour was presented as though we were guests: "You're expected at Casa Grande [the 38-bedroom main house] at 8 for cocktails and to have dinner at 9 with the Chief," said our tour guide.

Suddenly, I was there, trading small talk with some of Hollywood's biggest stars in the palatial refectory dining hall, dominated by a table for 22. Vivid Palio horse racing banners hung from the walls. Surrounding us, and throughout the building, were massive artworks and tapestries from around the world.

Originally known as Camp Hill, the site was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Hearst's parents as a camping spot. In 1919, after inheriting the property, the Chief sought out Julia Morgan, a well-known San Francisco architect, and told her: "Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon, and I would like to build a little something."

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Time for the garden tours

BY 1947, Hearst and Morgan had created an estate of 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. Casa Grande, with its spires resembling a Spanish cathedral, and the three guest houses are Mediterranean Revival style. At one point, Hearst assembled the largest private zoo in the world, with free-roaming zebras, camels, llamas, kangaroos, ostriches, musk oxen and yaks. Caged animals -- bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars -- were located within a few hundred yards of the castle. The menagerie was designed to impress, amaze and entertain houseguests.

Hearst died in 1951 at 88 and his castle was donated to the state. Tours have been held for nearly 50 years, and several specialty ones have developed. A popular time to visit is during the holidays, when the house is decorated for Christmas.

This time of year, the garden tours are just beginning, and will run through October. "The spring bulbs are gorgeous and will be for another month," Fields said.

"And then the roses will be in their full glory. And there's the rhododendrons. And, of course, all the blossoms on the fruit trees right now make the whole mountain smell wonderful.

"I've been here 37 years and spring may be my favorite time," Fields said.

The Night Tour was the last one added to the itinerary, and it's usually a sellout. "People say it helps them relate to the period," Fields said. "And some like it because it helps them remember the period."

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