Citizen Hearst’s castle - just don’t say Rosebud

There are only perhaps a few private homes in America for which everyday superlatives utterly fail. The Biltmore (Vanderbilt's in NC), Kykuit (Rockefeller’s in NY) and the eponymous Hearst Castle in California’s central coast. My recent stopover in San Luis Obispo on a train trip up the US’s Pacific coast (first stop after LA) presented an opportunity to see where Patty Hearst grew up playing with dolls before her SLA sojourn. Here was the very first physical embodiment of how the Information Age could create unfathonable wealth and power. We should have been paying more attention.

I had tried to figure out how to manage to see the coast from SLO and though they do have a good bus transit system it was going to take the better part of a day just for the logistics to work out. And I didn’t have that much time. A private tour from SLO was prohibitively expensive. It finally dawned on me that I should look and see how much it would cost to simply rent a car. It turned out that I was there for exactly 48 hours (when you arrive and leave on same train, all stops are in 24 hour increments, easy to remember) and a 48 hour rental from Enterprise would cost $80. And they would come get me and drop me off back at the train station. (Plug for Enterprise’s App, very easy to use.) So obviously that was the correct choice.

I had easily saved $80 just by staying in the Hostel Obispo (only two blocks from the train and four blocks from downtown). Pro tip: for comparison, I discovered that renting a car out at the SLO airport would have cost almost double due to airport concession fees.


The full day I was there was a clear and warm January day and I started up the coastal highway going north in the direction of Big Sur country. I wasn't sure I would get that far but the coast is pretty even before. 


I had heard about the Hearst Castle in San Simeon for a long time. One of my childhood friends went there in the 60’s (turns out everything he had told me wasn’t true) and of course all impressions were colored by Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane, however real or fanciful that might be. It wasn’t however a top priority for me. My nieces had been there and raved about it, but I really didn’t have much idea of what it was like. The pictures I had seen online were somewhat gaudy. So I drove north to see, but without much commitment. In the end I decided to take the $25 tour of the main rooms. The lady in the visitors’ center was friendly and enthusiastic. At this time of year walk-ins are doable. It sounded like a low risk thing.

You are not going to see any inside shots here. In my view the really special part is to just see the grounds.  As I said, I have seen this facade shot before online and it really isn’t my thing. It’s an amazing thing to consider that it was built from a private fortune, but it just reminds me of a big Spanish church. 


However, as you step away from the facade, the grounds really make a statement. The whole thing sits atop a mountain and the gardens and views are stunning (with some over the top artwork here and there).


I had to find this little overlook down a stone path and stairs with one of thousands of objects of art placed strategically to take advantage of the setting. Hearst certainly had a vision, but the real artist was his architect and designer, Julia Morgan. 


In virtually every direction you are presented with Tuscan villa types of views. In the shot below you can just make out a small mountain in the far, far distance. It’s a tiny pyramid shape, behind the main line of hills, about a third of the way from the left side of the opening between the trees. Hearst owned all the land from here all the way to that mountain. 


And every so often you can find a detail that is refreshingly bizarre. This was a small relief on the side of a planter. Not really central to anything. But I like to think that this little thing was William Randolph Hearst’s own Rosebud moment. 


You can’t leave without going through the indoors baths. Literally, that is where the bus leaves from. One can’t see the whole thing, but as you walk out you can just make out the entry to another chamber which has another one of these rooms that one can swim between. 


Eventually I came down off the mountain and resumed my drive up along the coast. Just a few miles north is this beach where sea lions seem to know they are supposed to sunbathe. Don’t know how, but they know. Signage indicates that this is the spot. 


I made it as far north as Ragged Point which is about where Big Sur really starts. 


Instead of returning to SLO by the same route, I opted to head inland over the coastal mountains up and over into wine country. Going over the pass provided amazing views where I would stop, and then stop once again 100 yards further on because they were then even better. This green is not typical I heard, it had just finished a week of rain a few days before. 


I returned to San Luis Obispo for the second night at their excellent hostel there. So far the train trip (with stops) was going well. The next day I would spend along the coast going south a bit, then back to the train for my trip north to Monterey.

The car rental had worked very well. I didn’t have to worry much about it, street parking was ample and traffic minimal. The cost was reasonable and the logistics couldn’t have been easier. I think assuming that you need your car can be limiting when planning a trip, it prevents you from unburdening your travels. But rejecting one when it is smart makes no sense either. And for the miles traveled, I think this rental was cheaper than the fully loaded cost of driving my own. 


©️ 2019 D Abbott