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Along the Pacific Coast Highway

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Nancy Wigston stops by an organic farm along the Pacific Coast highway
Nancy Wigston stops by an organic farm along the Pacific Coast highway

We’ve embarked on one of America’s iconic drives – the Pacific Coast Highway, winding south from San Francisco to Los Angeles. On the morning of our departure, the sun shines bright and clear. Soon we’re cruising the highway, also known as Cal-1, with a few other travellers, and the sights are indeed spectacular.

A word of caution: for the height sensitive, this drive is beautiful and terrifying in equal parts. Our first few hours yield heart-stopping views: sandy brown cliffs high above the Pacific, blue surf crashing onto the rocks below. Way below. The husband-driver loves it, his wife-passenger not so much, despite assurances about the cliff-side guard rail.

An organic farm sign beckons to the east, so we pull in, to sample farm-grown pumpkins made into pie – just delicious. Then it’s back on the curving highway, where a friend’s daughter once rode her motorbike all the way to Los Angeles. Not nearly so ambitious, we’re content with frequent stops to sample seascape panoramas. Reaching the pines of Big Sur country, we pull into Lucia Lodge, an old-fashioned, welcoming place, where the fish tacos are as fresh as the breezes from the Pacific.

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After a relaxing night at Cambria Pines Lodge, we double back to the cultural phenomenon known as Hearst Castle. Ever since reading about a Hearst Castle-like creation –“Gothic, medieval, baronial…the nightmare on the hilltop”– in Aldous Huxley’s 1939 satire, After Many a Summer, the idea of an art-stuffed castle on the California coast has intrigued us. Huxley ruthlessly skewers a Hearst-like tycoon in what the New York Times called his “Hollywood novel.”

Newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst spent himself into near bankruptcy building this monument. It’s hard to know where to start when describing this castle – four separate tours cover different aspects of its 156 rooms – so it’s best to just dive in, like the Hollywood starlets plunging into the terrace pool in Hearst’s home movies from the 1930s.

Here goes: Greek and Roman statuary, Renaissance textiles and tapestries, Oriental carpets, Italian paintings, sculpture upon sculpture – Conova’s 18th-century “shy Venus,” is now valued at $3,000,000 – a Rubens, Tiffany windows, 3,000 year-old Egyptian goddesses, the largest collection of carved antique ceilings in America, masses of rare books and papers, Greek pottery (800-1500 BCE), a Roman-style indoor pool decorated with more than a million Murano glass tiles, some layered with gold leaf, and the remains of what was once the largest privately owned zoo in the United States. That’s just an overview.

Hearst Castle, given to the state by his heirs, remains today the astonishing site that greeted Huxley’s scholarly Englishman in the 1930s: an over-the-top testament to manic between-the-wars spending, artfully designed by architect Julia Morgan. Over seven million people a year come to wonder at it. “Wasteful Willie,” the sole heir to his father’s fortune, was born to shop. “Willie has a mania for antiquities,” his mother wrote to her husband, when the boy was just 10 years old. Neither modern works nor landscapes ever interested him.

The feeling of strolling through movie sets of vanished worlds permeates the castle – after all, that’s Alex Trebek’s voice narrating the Hearst story on the bus from the parking lot. Strongly drawn to Hollywood through his long-time romantic partner, actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s guests included stars like Cary Grant – then married to heiress Barbara Hutton – who were flown up to what the older man called his “ranch.”

Far from louche Hollywood, guests were encouraged to drink little and exercise much. No golf was played – Hearst considered golf a game for “sick old men” – but horseback riding, swimming and tennis were all on the menu. Grant joked that one riding session was so long that they almost made it back to Los Angeles. In addition to Hollywood stars, Hearst hosted political luminaries like Winston Churchill and a young John F. Kennedy.

“We’ve been lucky,” says our guide, touching on the delicate subject of the return of stolen art. Only three Hearst paintings have been identified as Nazi loot, and have been returned to the Oppenheimer family after a lawsuit was brought by the heirs. “Hoarder” and “shopaholic” are used by castle guides to describe the man who once owned 26 newspapers, 18 magazines, eight radio stations, two movie studios, nearly 100 businesses, multiple homes, and five warehouses “crammed full” of his purchases.

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As if anticipating criticism, our guide stresses that Hearst “was not pillaging Europe, Europe was pillaging itself” – a statement that would surely have piqued the interest of Aldous Huxley, among others. Huxley’s 1930s satire contrasts the ragged, fruit-picking “transients” from dust bowl Kansas with the lavish opulence on the hill.

Often reviled in his time for his sensational practice of “yellow journalism” and his dubious “populist” politics, Hearst has become notorious as a model for the character that Orson Welles called Citizen Kane. Perhaps the greatest American movie ever made, the 1941 film was never reviewed in a single Hearst newspaper. Despite having to sell many objects to pay his debts, Hearst left behind enough things to qualify his castle as a museum, “the only thing like this on the coast” between San Francisco and L.A.

Elephant seals along the Pacific Coast Highway
Elephant seals along the Pacific Coast Highway

Hearst had wanted a museum here, but after his death, UC Berkeley turned down the idea, and, our guide tells us, the castle “almost became a bed and breakfast.” Then his sons by his first marriage gave the castle to the state, protecting the land from development. The first tours began in 1968. The family runs the ranch still, raising grass-fed cattle on its 97,000 hectares.

Exiting the grounds, we see another weird sight. A herd of zebras are grazing on the vast green hillside, the wild offspring of Hearst’s zoo. More wildlife draws crowds on a nearby beach – these are the strange, gigantic creatures known as elephant seals. The females, having given birth to their young, laze about on the sand, while the males occasionally rise up and trumpet at one another –it’s as entrancing a scene as any we’ve seen thus far, another wild and unusual pleasure offered by driving California’s Pacific Coast.