Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway lies a European castle. In the middle of nowhere along the coast you arrive at sign for Hearst Castle. Tired from driving you pull off the highway to see what it is about. Passing row upon row of parking you arrive at an unimpressive building. Saddened by what is the worst castle you have ever seen your gaze slowly drifts above this building and onto a large structure towering on a hill far in the distance. Now that looks promising. Further investigation reveals that your current location is only the visitors center.
Entering the front doors you are reminded of a bus terminal. Walking past a small cafe to your left and a gift shop and restaurant on your right you arrive at the ticket counter. Here you are presented with an array of tours. The ticket agents(employees, park rangers, team members?), I’m not sure of their title, are more than happy to take the time to explain the differences to you and steer you to what you want. Not only do you have to pick which tour you wish to join you also need to pick a time. Do not be fooled into just picking the soonest slot as there are quite a few activities in the visitors center. There are the aforementioned shops, a cinema showing the history of the castle and owner, a nice outdoor sitting area(though the birds are extremely aggressive), and I believe some other things. When your scheduled time gets near you must line up at the proper gate near the ticket desk as buses take you up to the castle and different tours depart on different buses. I guess the building gives the impression of a bus terminal for a good reason.
After queuing inside you take a short walk to a concrete shelter outside where you wait until called by the bus driver. After this you queue again..just kidding. Once you get a seat on the bus you can relax and enjoy the curving and elevating ride up to the castle. The views and stunning and the buses audio fills your ears with information about the trip. Explaining why there are animals on the hills near the road that have no natural business in California. Such as that Zebra staring right at you.
Most people would believe that a castle on the ocean would be right on the sea, but you would be mistaken. This castle is far back from the sea high up on a hill. Actually on the top of a hill with a commanding panoramic view and the ocean a tiny blue streak in the background. You are taking all this in as your bus twists back and forth up this steep, meandering hill.
Once you reach the top you are ushered off the bus and assigned a tour guide and your journey begins. Quite a bit of walking is involved as this is a large structure, as the name castle should have hinted to you. Also there are quite a few stairs, again as the being on a hill should have been a giveaway. The tour follows along the lines of most other tours. If you have been to any other castles the format will be familiar to you. Some interesting architecture, interesting rooms with interesting stories, a garden, a pool, so on and so on. All very expensive and extravagant of course. There is quite a bit of truly interesting information about the owner and castle so pay attention to your guide(or get the tour book at the gift shop, $19.95).
Hearst Castle is a rest stop for those driving the Pacific Coast Highway. Out in the middle of nowhere it is not worth a trip in itself, but it is absolutely worth a few hours of your time as a break from driving. Enjoy this little piece of European aristocracy transplanted to the center of California.