Have you ever daydreamed about being so rich and powerful that you could build the estate of your dreams, with absolutely no limits on what it could have? An estate with multiple mansions and guest houses, the world’s largest private zoo, and a swimming pool decorated with, say, the facade of an ancient Roman temple that you had imported from Italy? If so, pick a good weekend for a getaway from LA and set your GPS for Hearst Castle on the central coast, where you and your family can spend a fun-filled day pretending to zillionaires.
Superlatives fail to capture the opulence and grandeur of this sprawling hilltop paradise, built by newspaper magnate and political dabbler William Randolph Hearst with profits from his ownership of The San Francisco Examiner, The New York Journal, and more than 30 other newspapers and magazines. From groundbreaking in 1919, it took 28 years to build, and technically, was never completed, but its sheer scale still puts the dwellings of today’s business moguls to shame. It’s fitting, then, that Hearst Castle is now part of the California State Park System, and all it takes to enjoy it is a $25 ticket ($12 for kids) and some good walking shoes.
As you approach this uniquely American castle, your kids might do a double take when they see zebras mingling with cattle in the pastures off Highway 1. They’re descendants of beasts left over from Hearst’s personal zoo, which also included lions, tigers, monkeys, and one very pampered elephant. Once you arrive, head to the visitors’ center to screen a film before you start your tour. No, it’s not the 1941 Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane, which was loosely based on Hearst, but Hearst Castle: Building the Dream, an entertaining and informative look at the estate, and what it took to build it. Once the credits roll, it’s time to hop on a bus for the five-mile journey up the hill to la Cuesta Encantada. Enjoy the ride as a certain legendary quiz show host (Who is Alex Trebek?) provides color commentary in an audio guide–pay attention so you can grill each other on castle trivia during the ride back down.
As you’ll see, the big house adheres to a mishmash of Spanish Revival and other architectural styles, harkening back to Hearst’s travels through Europe. Elements of Baroque and Renaissance buildings he spotted in Iberia (triangular pediments, vaulted ceilings), combined with California building staples (stucco exteriors), make up most of what he referred to as “the ranch.” Guides will point out the various features of the estate, but you might have trouble concentrating as you take in the expanse of it all let the fact that somebody actually lived here sink in.
There are so many details to see, but your kids are bound to get a kick out of the ketchup and mustard set out on the the long dining table — decked out with exquisite silver place settings and tall candelabras — in the refectory. The combined square footage of the property’s buildings clocks in at 90,000 feet, encompassing 165 rooms, 61 of which are bathrooms, so you’ll get plenty of excercise trying to see it all.
Before you go, be sure to stop by the indoor Roman pool, which, with its white marble statues, resembles a spellbinding temple to the celestial sky. Just make sure the kids know they’re not allowed to jump in, no matter how tempting it looks. After all, if they do well enough in school, maybe they can build an estate of their own someday.