Hearst Castle can be visited only by guided tours, conducted daily beginning at 8:20am, except on New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Two to six tours leave every hour, depending on the season. Allow 2 hours between starting times if you plan on taking more than one tour. You can buy tickets right at the visitor center, but a day's slate of tours can easily sell out. You pay no fee for advance reservations, and you can make them from 1 hour to 8 weeks in advance. Tickets can be purchased from California Reservations (tel. 800/444-4445; www.hearstcastle.org). If you're ordering tickets from outside the United States, call tel. 916/414-8400, ext. 4100.

Four different daytime tours run on a daily basis, each lasting 1 hour, 45 minutes, including the 15-minute bus ride to and from the castle. Docents dress in 1930s period costume and assume a variety of roles, enhancing the living-history experience.

I strongly recommend setting aside 2 full days to enjoy the castle at a leisurely pace. If you're just coming to see the castle, 1 day will do, but expect it to be a longish one and sandwich it between a 2-night stay.

Tickets for the daytime tours are $24 for adults and $12 for kids 6 to 17. The Evening Tour is $30 for adults and $15 for kids. Children 5 and under are free, though they may find walking and climbing steps for almost 2 hours a bit overwhelming.

The Experience Tour (Tour 1) is ideal for first-time visitors and is the first to get filled up. In addition to the swimming pools, this tour visits several rooms on the ground floor of Casa Grande, including Hearst's private theater, where you'll see some home movies taken during the castle's heyday. Tour 2 focuses on Casa Grande's upper floors, including Hearst's opulent library, private suite of rooms, and lots of fabulous bathrooms. Tour 3, which delves into the construction and subsequent alterations of Hearst Castle, is fascinating for architecture buffs and detail hounds. From April to October, Tour 4 is dedicated to the estate's gardens, terraces, and walkways, the Casa del Mar guesthouse, the wine cellar of Casa Grande, and the dressing rooms at the Neptune Pool.

Evening tours are held most Friday and Saturday nights during spring and fall, and usually nightly around Christmas (when the house, decked out for the holidays, is magical). Thirty minutes longer than the daytime tours, they visit highlights of the main house, the most elaborate guesthouse, and the illuminated pools and gardens.

No matter how many tours you take in a day, you must return to the visitor center each time and ride the bus back to the top of the hill with your tour group, so allow at least 2 hours between tours when you buy your tickets.

You can visit the giant-screen Hearst Castle Theater regardless of whether you take a tour. Larger-than-life films include the 40-minute Hearst Castle: Building the Dream and other films in five-story-high iWERKS format (just like IMAX) with seven-channel surround sound. Shows begin every 45 minutes throughout the day. The movie is included in the price of Tour 1; by itself it's $8 for adults, $6 for kids 6 to 17. For current information, call tel. 805/927-6811 or visit their website at www.hearstcastletheater.com.

Wear comfortable shoes -- you'll walk about a half-mile per tour, each of which includes 150 to 400 steps. (Wheelchair tours are available by calling tel. 800/444-4445, with 10 days' notice.)

What to See & Do in Nearby Cambria 

After driving for close to an hour without passing anything but lush green hills (especially from Hwy. 46 off U.S. 101), it's a pleasant surprise to roll into the endearing coastal town of Cambria (pronounced Cam-bree-uh), 6 miles south of San Simeon. Not quite Northern California and not quite Southern California, not quite coastal and not quite inland, this charming artists' colony is so appealing that the town itself is reason enough to make the drive. With little more than 4 blocks' worth of shops, restaurants, and a handful of B&Bs, Cambria is the perfect place to escape the everyday, enjoy the endless expanses of pristine coastal terrain, and meander through little shops selling local artwork and antiques.

Cambria has three distinct parts. Along Main Street is "the Village," which is divided into two sections: the West Village and the East Village. The West Village is the newer, somewhat more touristy end of town, where you'll find the visitor information center. The more historic East Village is a bit quieter, more locals oriented, and a tad more sophisticated than the West Village. If you cross Hwy. 1 to the coastal side at the far west end of town (or the north end, if you're considering how the freeway runs), you'll reach Cambria's third part, Moonstone Beach. Lined with motels, inns, and a few restaurants on the inland side of the street, ocean-facing Moonstone Beach Drive is my favorite place to stay in Cambria.

Before you set out, pick up the Cambria Historical Society's brochure at your hotel and take a simple, fun self-guided tour of the historical buildings in the East Village. You'll not only get a history lesson about this picturesque village, but also discover a few places you may have overlooked otherwise, such as the blacksmith shop at 4121 Burton Dr. or the Santa Rosa Chapel and Cemetery at 2353 Main St.

An overnight stay in Cambia also allows visitors to see the coastal region's "new" attraction: a spring (yes, that's the correct term -- I looked it up) of elephant seals sunning themselves on the beaches year-round. Once thought to be extinct, since 1990 these 3,000-pound mammals have returned to Piedras Blancas, an elephant seal rookery 12 miles north of Cambria. Today more than 2,000 of these magnificent, prehistoric-looking beasts are counted here annually. Breeding takes place here December through March; molting occurs August through September. Keep your distance from the elephant seals: They're a protected species and can be dangerous if approached. Finding the beach is easy: Just stop at the packed parking lot 4 1/2 miles north of Hearst Castle and follow the crowds along the short, sandy walk. The beaches and coves are also great places for humans to cavort. For more information, see www.beachcalifornia.com/piedras.html.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.