San Simeon is an oddity of a beach town along the Central Coast. While houses in neighboring towns jostle against one another and crowd the shoreline like penguins on ice floes, the only readily visible residences in San Simeon are a handful of tile-roofed Spanish style villas on manicured lots near the shore and, of course, the sprawling mansion on the hill with its honor guard of palm trees, Hearst Castle.
As of the 2010 census San Simeon claimed 462 human inhabitants, compared to 2500 in nearby Cayucos and more than 10,000 in Morro Bay. Its population is additionally dwarfed by that of the nearby Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, which boasts 7000 residents during the seasons when the seals deign to come onshore.
While the Chumash sank deeps roots in the area from 10,000 BC until the arrival of the Spaniards in the fifteenth century, in more recent history San Simeon’s existence has been adjunctive – always a bridesmaid and never a bride, populated because people who generally didn’t live there themselves sent other people there. San Simeon proper was established in 1797 as a sub-mission to the nearby Mission San Miguel Arcángel. In 1869, Portuguese fishermen built a wharf for a whaling station, which they quickly abandoned when they realized they had sited it on a stretch of shoreline with disruptively high waves.
The Hearst family actually predated the Portuguese in the region, as mining magnate and U.S. Senator George Hearst acquired part of Rancho Piedra Blanca in 1865 and continued to buy ranches in the area as they became available. And while he did build a new wharf in a more congenial location, an adjoining general store, and a small home up on the hill where Hearst Castle now stands, he still used it primarily as a getaway from his more permanent residence in San Francisco.
As a tourist destination, San Simeon lacks the scruffy, fun vibe of Pismo Beach with its tattoo shops and cigar bars, or the marina chic of Morro Bay’s Embarcadero, with wine stores and fine art. The hotels are large, the restaurants dispirited, slouching in their asphalt lots as if they know that most visitors will make the short trek to Cambria for finer dining. Its beaches are quiet and what could be tactfully called “unimproved.” One has the feeling that people stop for one of three reasons: in search of less expensive lodgings on their way south from Big Sur, because they have discovered the magical beachfront fire pits of the Best Western Cavalier and are back for a return visit, or – most likely – to see Hearst Castle.
Although I live within forty minutes of the famous attraction, I don’t visit very often. While I find the architecture fascinating and the gardens beautiful, much of the rest is an exercise in excess that leaves me queasy and irritated by turns. Tour guides chirping about the wainscoting made from an Italian choir loft or the lampshades formed from medieval Gregorian chant sheet music invariably put me in mind of a spot of vandalism, and by the time I leave I feel overstuffed by the mish-mash of fine (and less fine) art and the furniture of dubious taste.
But my mother wanted us to bring photos for her to look at when we visited at Christmas, and promotions for Hearst Castle’s annual nighttime Christmas tours boasted of their festive holiday decorations, so we packed up our cameras and drove to San Simeon.
The California Park Commission voted to approve Hearst Castle’s inclusion in the state park system in 1954 with a proposed admission charge of $1 per person ($9 adjusted for inflation) and a 50¢ bus ride. 60-some years later the bus ride is free, but the price of a ticket for the evening Christmas tour is $30 per person. This should perhaps not be a surprise, since while it is one of the state’s higher revenue generators it is also commensurately more expensive to maintain. Gregorian chant lampshades, after all, are not as resilient as trees. At the time we toured cracks had been discovered in the famous outdoor Neptune pool, which was drained of water while the state scrambled for funds to make repairs.
Marketing promotions for the tour promised the feel of being a guest – a cozy, intimate experience with actors dressed up in period costumes. But the crowds at the visitor’s center felt a little large for intimacy. Everyone was in a jovial mood as we crowded onto the bus that would navigate the narrow, winding road up to the castle, though, and we listened to a pre-recorded history of the complex and tried to keep our camera equipment out of others’ way. Still, as we were leaving the bus we heard an employee telling a visitor, “…we’ve managed to increase capacity to 867 people a night…” and my heart sank.
We were permitted to mill about in a courtyard overlooking the empty Neptune pool for a while to enjoy the twilight. A trickle of silent men and women in fedoras and furs with accenting canes and pearls threaded through the crowd and vanished up stairs and along paths. The pace of the tour picked up dramatically once we stepped inside, with guides at the front and rear to make sure no one tarried. We managed a handful of photos, virtually always accompanied by glares, or admonitions to hurry along. If we were guests, I increasingly felt, we were the trampish sort: handed a small container of soup and a crust of bread and – if we were fortunate – perhaps a pair of the master’s old pants, then herded out onto the streets again.
On this visit Hearst Castle seemed strangely small somehow – almost modest, almost reasonable. A built in movie theater? What McMansion doesn’t have one? Okay, maybe without the buxom lady wall sconces, but they do have reclining seats and cup holders! And the nouveau riche master bedroom may not boast a Madonna and child over a stone mantel, but it does have a whirlpool tub. Can La Cuesta Encantada still compete? (Although as my husband pointed out, “There was the entire ceiling ripped out of an old Spanish church…”)
And the things I enjoyed were even smaller. I could have spent most of the night in the kitchen, with its plain ceramic bowls and simple utensils. Or in the sitting room with the tea set that was only a little ornate, and the Christmas “tree” made from potted poinsettias which, even if perhaps an excessive profusion of poinsettias, at least wasn’t garish. Those felt like the places where life was being lived.
In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the old god Odin speaks of “places of power,” where individuals felt a compulsion to build, recognizing if only on a subconscious level “some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent.” Hearst Castle almost feels like that to me now, with William Randolph’s eccentric demands on the architect Julia Morgan, and the crazy quilt of decorating styles. Or if I think of it less like Fallingwater and more like the Winchester Mystery House, perhaps I can even make my peace with the Gregorian chant lampshades.