There's something new at Hearst Castle these days, but it's a different treasure than what's displayed at the palatial hilltop estate of the late William Randolph Hearst.
Travelers to that famous coastal attraction will be greeted by a $7.5-million visitors center. It replaces the hodgepodge of trailers and other temporary structures that had been the base of visitor operations since 1958.
That's when the California Department of Parks and Recreation opened Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument to the public for daily tours. Hearst's family deeded 123 acres of the multimillionaire's rural retreat to the state, including his one-of-a-kind mansion.
The twin-towered palace has 38 bedrooms, 31 baths, 14 sitting rooms, a baronial dining hall, two libraries and a movie theater. Also on the grounds are three guest houses with a total of 46 rooms, a pair of enormous swimming pools, expansive gardens, statuary and fountains.
Furnished with a fortune in European art and antiques, Hearst Castle is considered America's most imposing private home.
Second Only to Disneyland
No wonder the historic estate has become California's most popular attraction after Disneyland. More than 1 million visitors arrive annually to see its collection of world treasures and to imagine the lavish life style of Hearst and his guests more than half a century ago.
But until this summer, when the new visitor center opened, a tour to the castle could be a frustrating experience. Like the cows that graze in the surrounding fields, crowds milled around in the monument's parking lots while waiting for buses to transport them five miles up Enchanted Hill.
Now there's a 32,000-square-foot enclosed complex with computerized ticket booths, food facilities, a gift shop and exhibit areas, where you can watch artworks from the castle being restored.
Cyclists will find bike racks and lockers to store their gear. There are restrooms, telephones and a postage stamp machine too.
From outside, the new buildings resemble a pair of contemporary barns that might stable fancy racehorses. Their stucco exteriors are topped by red-tile roofs and barrel-vaulted skylights.
Inside, the high-ceiling structures seem more like the modern waiting room of a train station. Visitors rest on circular benches that enclose clusters of live green plants.
The visitor center opens every day at 8 a.m.; the first guided tour leaves at 8:20 a.m., the last usually at 3 p.m. Three different tours are available daily, all at scheduled times.
Most visitors make tour reservations through MISTIX by calling toll-free (800) 446-7275, or by going to a MISTIX ticket outlet up to eight weeks in advance. Adults pay $8, children $4.
Entering the first building from the monument's parking lot you'll find a MISTIX booth for picking up will-call tickets or buying a tour ticket on the spot with a credit card.
Visitors are asked to arrive 20 to 30 minutes before their reserved tour time. While you wait, the gift shop has the usual array of T-shirts, coffee mugs, trivets, teaspoons and other souvenirs, but there is also a good selection of post cards, books and video tapes about Hearst and his castle.
Also in the first building is a counter for fast food and drink that ranges from breakfast snacks and hamburgers to clam chowder, pizza and roast chicken. Tables are just outside, opposite the three bays where tour buses are loaded for the trip to the hilltop.
The second building is marked by Exhibits/Conservation signs and has viewing windows where you can watch the restoration artists at work.
Recently they were putting gold leaf on a 17th-Century Italian mirror frame and painting reproductions of 400-year-old silk banners. Each year $250,000 must be spent to keep the castle and Hearst's collection in repair.
On temporary display are paintings of horses at San Simeon that will be replaced next year by an exhibit about Hearst as a publisher, politician, art collector and social host.
Outside the building are telescopes that you can aim at La Casa Grande, the elaborate hideaway Hearst began building in 1919 on a panoramic site 1,600 feet above the Pacific Ocean. It cost $50 million at the time, but today is considered priceless.
Tour No. 1 is recommended for first-time visitors. It includes the major rooms of the main mansion, both swimming pools, the gardens and a guest house. Most impressive is the 86-foot-long assembly room, where Hearst's guests would gather before dinner. It is dominated by a hand-carved ceiling, exquisite tapestries, huge marble medallions and elegant Oriental rugs.
Tour No. 2 goes to Hearst's private suite, which occupies the third floor of the castle. You'll also visit several ornate guest rooms, a library with 5,000 books and the hotel-size kitchen and pantry.
Tour No. 3 spans early and late building periods, with visits to a guest house completed in the 1920s and bedroom suites in the castle finished during the 1940s.
A special film in a fourth-floor room shows Hearst's celebrity guests, some in masquerade costumes.
Each of the three tours leaves from the visitor center and takes about 100 minutes. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes; there is considerable walking and from 150 to 375 stairs to climb.
Tours do not operate on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Call park rangers for more information: (805) 927-4622.
To reach Hearst Castle from Los Angeles, drive north on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo and continue north on California 1.
Round trip from Los Angeles to the state's most magnificent historic monument at San Simeon is 508 miles.