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No place like this home

Hearst's huge castle folly worth billions for artwork alone

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The dream home mega-rich entrepreneur William Randolph Hearst built nearly a century ago atop a hill in the obscurity of northern California remains one of California's top tourist attractions (despite the difficulty in getting there) and the most expensive private home ever built. It's highly unlikely anything like it will ever be built on this planet again, which alone makes the castle well worth a visit.

Hearst Castle is perched high above the tiny village of San Simeon, along the California coast several hours' drive north of Los Angeles and three hours south of San Francisco. You get there by tour bus or automobile and tourists are required to park at the official Welcome Centre (the castle is now operated by the State of California as a museum) several kilometres away and then ride a shuttle up a long, winding access road. Nonetheless, an estimated 800,000 people each year find the time and interest to visit this extraordinary site.

The castle is visible all the way from the coastline several kilometres away and the very first question most tourists ask is: Why in the world would anyone build such a gigantic structure so far away from the rest of humanity? More importantly, how could anybody in the world ever afford to do so?

A documentary at the Welcome Centre explains Hearst's father, George, became very rich through discovery of silver in California in the 19th century. His son, William, parlayed that fortune into ownership of 30 American newspapers and magazines, the production of over 100 Hollywood films and ownership of many other successful businesses.

At the age of 56 he also inherited his father's vast fortune and commenced building what would today be considered the grandest folly in all of modern architecture, a medieval castle furnished with some of the most expensive art assembled in human history.

The 60,000-square-foot main house within the castle is surrounded by 100,000 hectares of ranchland; for privacy, Hearst simply bought up all the surrounding properties. The castle grounds consist of 165 rooms including 38 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 14 sitting rooms, a kitchen, a movie theatre, two libraries, a billiard room, a dining hall, an assembly hall, 41 fireplaces and 51 hectares of gardens.

Work started in 1919 and lasted for 26 years but was never finished. Hearst imported entire buildings from Italy and Spain, along with statues, walls, tapestries, paintings and furniture. The total value of the art alone lies in the multi-billion-dollar range today.

Strangely enough, despite the huge number of tourists who visit the castle, overnight accommodations are hard to come by.

There are some hotels and motels in the nearby villages of San Simeon and Cambria but most visitors stay in the town of Paso Robles, a 45-minute drive over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east.

Formerly a ranching region, the Paso district has undergone a radical transformation over the last decade, morphing into a wine-growing destination that will soon challenge the Napa Valley.

The town of Paso Robles' "farm-to-table" restaurants deserves a visit. The Thomas Hill Organics restaurant, located in an indoor courtyard surrounded by quaint shops, exemplifies this new "farm-fresh" approach to dining, and the excellent local wines are worth exploring.

It's lucky that William Randolph Hearst isn't still around, or he might have bought all that ranchland, too.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Where to go:

Hearst Castle: Reservations are highly recommended. Call toll free 1-800-444-4445 or log on to hearst.reserveamerica.com. A virtual tour can be found at regal360.com/clients/hearst/hearstcastle/index.html

Paso Robles: For winery and tourism information, log on to www.travelpaso.com. For a hotel, try the Courtyard Marriott at http:www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/sbppr-courtyard-pasorobles.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 D5

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