The Cottages and Kitchens tour includes Hearst’s extensive wine cellar and three guest homes — one of which has a ceiling decorated with 22-karat gold leaf.
Most tours last about 40 minutes each, although that length is a bit deceiving: The only way to get to the castle from the well-appointed visitors center is a 15-minute bus ride. It takes you 5 miles up a winding mountain road to 1,600 feet above sea level.
As you ascend, a recording by “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek narrates the history of the property. Any questions you still have when you get off can likely be answered by the extremely knowledgeable tour guides on the hilltop. Each tour also includes a ticket for a 40-minute movie about Hearst at the visitors center; in addition, there are several biographies for sale in the extensive gift shop.
Truth be told, had I ever merited an invitation to the castle back in Hearst’s day, I would have been terrified to touch the furniture, much less sleep in the lavishly decorated guest suites. It’s hard to imagine people living, dining and socializing in what today feels more like a museum.
Turns out I’m not alone. So during winter and spring, the park system offers a night tour in which tourists can mingle with people in period costume.
Or, if you have some major cash to spare, you can populate the estate with your own friends: The Hearst Castle is available for rent.