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November 10, 2013

Hearst Castle tour offers glimpse of another time

Tours enchant visitors to Hearst's hilltop estate.

SAN SIMEON, Calif. (AP) — The coastline that parallels Route 1 in central California is so breathtaking that you might be forgiven for missing the zebras on the opposite side of the road.

And that huge chateau perched far off on the hillside? Almost unnoticeable at highway speeds.

Both belong to the legacy of larger-than-life newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who chose this surprisingly unobtrusive spot along the Pacific Coast Highway to build his 165-room estate.

Now overseen by the state park system, the site known as the Hearst Castle is worth a side trip if you’re driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles. An array of tours offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous that, while not quick or cheap, is not something you’ll soon forget.

The Mediterranean Revival-style property designed by architect Julia Morgan occupies land in San Simeon that had been in Hearst’s family for decades. The original acreage had few amenities, though, and the publisher reportedly told Morgan in 1919: “We are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.”

That “little something” was under construction for the next 28 years, finally completed in 1947. The estate includes indoor and outdoor pools, lush landscaping and a soaring 115-room main house surrounded by three smaller guest homes. Hearst called his palatial manor La Cuesta Encantada (”The Enchanted Hill”).

It also once boasted the world’s largest private zoo, holding exotic animals from polar bears to — you guessed it — zebras. The striped creatures roaming the family’s ranch along the coastal highway are descendants of the originals, though the zoo itself no longer exists.

Most tours focus on the central building known as Casa Grande (”Big House”), which looks more like a church because of its twin bell towers. Flanked by towering palms, it’s filled with priceless art and artifacts, from centuries-old marble statues and exotic rugs to Tiffany lamps and antique ceilings.

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