It's not entirely true that the hilltop California estate of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst is a 20th-century replica of an Old World manor. True, it was built from 1919 to 1947, but the bits and pieces are nearly all authentic -- 400-year-old Spanish and Italian ceilings, 500-year-old mantels, 16th-century Florentine bedsteads, Renaissance paintings, Flemish tapestries, and innumerable other European treasures, which Hearst compulsively acquired for years.
Each week, railroad cars carrying fragments of Roman temples, carved doors from Italian monasteries, hastily rolled canvases by the old masters, ancient Persian rugs, and antique French furniture arrived -- 5 tons at a time -- in San Simeon. Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, a thinly disguised fictional biography of Hearst, has an unforgettable shot of priceless antiques warehoused in dusty piles, stretching as far as the eye can see. Only a fraction of what Hearst bought was ever installed in the estate.
Despite this patchwork approach, this sprawling Mediterranean Revival–style compound has a unified look, no doubt because one architect (and a woman at that, Julia Morgan) directed its entire 28-year creation. The main house alone, Casa Grande, has more than 100 rooms of baronial splendor. My kids lusted after the red-velvet-padded private movie theater where Hearst (also a movie mogul) screened first-run films. They longed to jump into the fabulous swimming pools -- a Roman-inspired indoor pool with intricate mosaics, and the breathtaking outdoor Greco-Roman Neptune pool, flanked by marble colonnades that frame the distant sea.
Book your guided tour in advance if possible -- there's not much else around this stretch of California coast, so Hearst Castle doesn't cater to drop-in business (everybody staying at our motel either had been there that day or was going tomorrow). You'll park down at the visitor center and take a bus uphill to the compound. Three different daytime tours visit various parts of the estate, with very little overlap; they last about 2 hours. The Grand Rooms Tour covered all the essentials my kids wanted, but I regretted not seeing Hearst's private library and Gothic bedroom, which were on the Upstairs Suites Tour. There's also a Cottages & Kitchen Tour. Too bad the Evening Tour was full when we booked -- for those, costumed docents portray Hearst's celebrity house party guests. Thanks to Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, the estate was a playground for the Hollywood crowd.
Nearest Airport: San Luis Obispo County Regional, 45 miles. Monterey Peninsula, 94 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, 9415 Hearst Dr. (tel. 800/826-8168 or 805/927-4688; www.cavalierresort.com).