California’s Finest Castle: A Quick Weekend Getaway to Cambria

FEATURED ARTICLES, STAFF, USA MAINLAND — By on March 25, 2017 at 17:00

Text & photos © Catherine Nichols

There’s no better time than now to start fleshing out your summer plans. Sure, it may be the middle of winter and you may be freezing in your parka and mittens, but there are benefits to planning early. If you make your reservations now, you’ll likely find numerous places that have plenty of availability, including those at the more popular tourist destinations.

A peek at Hearst Castle and its lush, serene gardens

A peek at Hearst Castle and its lush, serene gardens

I didn’t follow my own advice for my family’s last hurrah last summer (who follows their own advice anyway?). Nevertheless, we did manage to find beachfront accommodations at the last minute in Cambria, California for a relatively small price.

A small town with an artisan vibe and an art gallery on every corner, spending a long weekend in Cambria is a perfect way to end (or start) a summer. We went for an extended weekend before the girls had to go back to school. We live in San Diego so Cambria is about a 5-hour drive.

Lighting up the Hearst Castle theatre room

Lighting up the Hearst Castle theater room

Paso Robles is one of the towns we passed on our way to the coast. Located a little inland from Cambria, it’s full of wineries to tour with lots of delicious wines to taste. Paso Robles is a great add-on activity when staying in Cambria—perfect as a romantic weekend for couples.

Alas, my husband and I had our kids so, instead of instead of sipping and savoring red, white, or rosé, we headed a little way up Hwy 101 toward San Simeon to check out Hearst Castle. No wine on this trip, although we could have used some after being trapped in a car for five hours with teens!

A glimpse at the study, grand reception room, dining hall and billiards room

A glimpse of the study, grand reception room, dining hall and billiards room

Although we’d been to Hearst Castle a few years prior we decided to go again because, the first time we went, the girls were very young. We had spent most of our time on the tour saying, “Don’t touch that!” “What’re you doing?” “Get down from there!” “That chair is not a tissue!” We both felt as if we hadn’t gotten to see anything of the magnificent castle created by William Randolph Hearst. In fact, I’m pretty sure we quickly left his incredible residence to go check into our hotel and attempt to wear the kids out with the heated hotel pool. This time, however, we only had two of our girls. At 15 and 17, I was pretty sure they’d behave themselves.

Mr. Hearst’s library, containing four thousand books

Mr. Hearst’s library, containing four thousand books

We parked at the Visitors’ Center in San Simeon. You can purchase your tickets there or buy them online at hearstcastle.org/tour-hearst-castle/tour-tickets-pricing. There are a couple tours available depending on what you’d like to see. Everyone chooses the Grand Rooms but we also bought the Upstairs Suites tour.

Part of the ticket price includes a bus ride to the castle so, after purchasing your tickets, find the bus you’ve been assigned to and get ready for a 5-mile trek up a steep hill. It’s about a 20-minute ride and Alex Trebek narrates what you’re seeing on the way via video.

Rolling hills in the distance

Rolling hills in the distance

Once you make it to the top, you’ll see exactly why William Randolph Hearst chose this spot to create his La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for “the enchanted hill”). The views are forever and breathtaking.

Charming view from a castle balcony

Charming view from a castle balcony

Even during one of the most severe droughts in California history, the brown hills are enchanting. I know I’m probably not the first person who wanted to run through them with my arms outstretched singing about the alive hills a la Julie Andrews.

The Continence of Scipio

The Continence of Scipio

Tours last about an hour and a guide will provide so much insider information you will feel as if you’ve been transported back to the era of the wealthy elite.

Details in the ceilings of Hearst Castle

Details in the ceilings of Hearst Castle

In another post on Milliver’s Travels (The Character of Paris: love locks, gallery dogs & frog’s legs by staff writer Lisa White), the author gave me an idea about how to handle museums and other historical sites that have so much going on that one can feel overwhelmed. Hearst Castle is one such place where this advice works well. Hearst collected an incredible amount of art, paintings, statues, plants, furniture, and even fireplace surrounds. Anyone who enters a room is immediately struck by how much there is to see and, as eyes dart this way and that, it’s a recipe for exhaustion after only one room. Buckle up, there are plenty more.

Museum-quality art and hand-painted ceilings in Doge's Suite

Museum-quality art and hand-painted ceilings in Doge’s Suite

My focus for our most recent trip to Hearst Castle was the ceilings. Every room has a different reason to look up. My neck hurt so much after every room but it was worth every crick. The carvings, the detail, the hand painting, the incredible art of each ceiling is the crown of every room. No words can describe how much I appreciated all that went into every square inch. My only complaint is how little time we had to appreciate all there is to see in each room.

The lamp in Marion Davies' bedroom

The lamp in Marion Davies’ bedroom

Whenever I go to a museum anywhere in the world, I always pick my “most favorite” piece, picture, artifact, or room. For example, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I chose an intricate breast plate created with such care, it was astonishing that something meant to be worn for protection could be so beautiful. In the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, it was a tie between a furry place setting and a painting by Andrew Wyeth. (Andrew Wyeth is my favorite artist of all time and I was amazed to find one of his pieces in a modern art museum.)

Wyeth's painting in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC

Wyeth’s painting in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC

The Hearst Castle held many favorites for me but my most favorite piece was a lamp I saw in Marion Davies’ bedroom.

Marion Davies was an actress but she was also Hearst’s paramour. They were together as a couple for a very long time. In fact, Davies was with William the day he died. Davies had her own room in the castle, even though it was probably only for the sake of appearances since William Randolph Hearst was still married to Millicent, the mother of his five children. Millicent lived in New York to get as far away as possible from the scandal in California.

Statues and pools

Statues and pools

When the tour of the indoors is over, be sure to walk the grounds to experience the gardens, the statues, and the other cottages. And be sure to look at the Neptune Pool (the pool may be empty for both restoration purposes as well as in deference to the severe drought conditions).

180° view of the Roman Pool

180° view of the Roman Pool

Another must-see is the Roman Pool in its own building away from the castle. I have to admit the indoor pool is my second favorite place—the tile, the art, the hideaways all fire up the imagination as to what may have happened in those grottoes all those years ago. If tiles could talk, I’m sure they’d have quite a story to tell!

Animals from the once full zoo

Animals from the once full zoo

Traveling back down the mountain toward the Visitors’ Center on the bus, you can sometimes find some of the animals Hearst collected. He once had a full zoo until he fell on hard times and had to sell or donate his precious animals. On this particular trip, we were able to see the zebras off in the distance. What a sight. A perfect ending to a perfect day at a castle in California.

Cambria sunset

Cambria sunset

Winding down in our hotel room after a full day at Hearst Castle, I walked across the street in Cambria toward the ocean to watch the sun set on a spectacularly beautiful day.

At the water's edge

At the water’s edge

Although Hearst’s castle has a phenomenal view, there’s truly nothing more beautiful than being right at the water’s edge to appreciate the vast expanse of ocean, to smell the wet fragrance of seaweed, and to feel the ocean spray on your skin.

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Cathie Nichols, staff member at Milliver's Travels

Catherine Nichols

Originally from the East Coast, Catherine Nichols has spent the last 29 years in San Diego, and stays in the area because of its extraordinary beauty and a lovely lack of humidity. Accused by her three children of looking at too many rocks while visiting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the deserts of Nevada, she continues to marvel at the ever-changing southwest landscape. With trips to Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, and Europe planned, Catherine plans to reawaken her desire to see the world, and leave no stone unturned. Catherine writes in her blog at iBloggoneit.com and tweets as @bloggoneit.

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