Hearst Castle was recently featured by the Arizona Republic:

Publisher William Randolph Hearst's California castle

SAN SIMEON, Calif. – The coastline that parallels Route 1 in central California is so breathtaking that you might be forgiven for missing the zebras on the opposite side of the road.

And that huge chateau perched far off on the hillside? Almost unnoticeable at highway speeds.

Both belong to the legacy of larger-than-life newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who chose this surprisingly unobtrusive spot along the Pacific Coast Highway to build his 165-room estate.

Now overseen by the state-park system, the property, situated between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is known as Hearst Castle. Tours offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

The Mediterranean Revival-style property designed by architect Julia Morgan occupies land in San Simeon that had been in Hearst’s family for decades. The original acreage had few amenities, though, and the publisher reportedly told Morgan in 1919: “We are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.”

That “little something” was under construction for the next 28 years, finally completed in 1947. The estate includes indoor and outdoor pools, lush landscaping and a soaring, 115-room main house surrounded by three smaller guest homes. Hearst called his palatial manor La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill).

It once boasted the world’s largest private zoo, holding exotic animals from polar bears to — you guessed it — zebras. The striped creatures roaming the family’s ranch along the coastal highway are descendants of the originals, though the zoo no longer exists.

Most tours focus on the central building known as Casa Grande, which looks like a church because of its twin bell towers. Flanked by towering palms, it’s filled with priceless art and artifacts, from centuries-old marble statues and exotic rugs to Tiffany lamps and antique ceilings.

The Grand Rooms tour shows off the main common areas. In the huge assembly room, guests socialized within high walls covered by valuable tapestries and oil paintings; in the flag-draped dining room, they ate on fine dishes and silverware but seasoned their food with off-the-shelf ketchup and mustard bottles (lest you think the host was too formal). A plush movie theater — illuminated by ornately carved, voluptuous female figures holding light fixtures — plays an old newsreel of various guests at the estate, including Charlie Chaplin on the tennis court.

The star of the Upstairs Suites tour is the sumptuous Doge’s Suite, inspired by the palace of the Venetian ruler. Two well-appointed guest bedrooms boast precious imported furnishings; the ornate door of one bathroom came from a sacristy in Europe. The suite’s luxurious sitting area has walls draped in blue fabric and a ceiling made of ornately framed paintings.

Hearst’s bedroom is comparatively spare, with a canopied bed under a 14th-century wood ceiling carved with medieval figures; a similarly modest space across the hall was used by actress Marion Davies, his longtime companion.

Also on this tour is his office, another churchlike space with Gothic-style arches, and a comparatively intimate, low-ceilinged library lined with thousands of books and 150 ancient Greek vases.

Outdoors, visitors can wander the grounds at their own pace. Esplanades are fragrant with flowers and fruit trees, and populated with sculptures and fountains.

The jaw-dropping Neptune pool is surrounded by ancient Roman columns, a temple pediment and 17th-century Italian bas-reliefs; its terrace offers spectacular views of the sea.

The path back to the bus takes you through the stunning indoor Roman pool, its blue-and-yellow mosaic tiles accented by marble statues, standing lamps and the occasional sunbeam through a skylight.

The Cottages and Kitchens tour includes Hearst’s extensive wine cellar and three guest homes, one of which has a ceiling decorated with 22-karat gold leaf.

Most tours last about 40 minutes, although that is a bit deceiving: The only way to get to the castle from the well-appointed visitor center is a 15-minute bus ride. It takes you 5 miles up a winding mountain road to 1,600 feet above sea level.

As you ascend, a recording by “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek narrates the history of the property. Any questions you still have when you get off can be answered by the knowledgeable tour guides on the hilltop. Each tour also includes a ticket for a 40-minute movie about Hearst at the visitor center. Biographies of the man are for sale in the extensive gift shop.

Truth be told, had I merited an invitation to the castle in Hearst’s day, I would have been terrified to touch the furniture, much less sleep in the lavishly decorated guest suites. It’s hard to imagine people living, dining and socializing in what today feels like a museum.

It turns out others share those feelings. So, during winter and spring, the park system offers a night tour in which tourists can mingle with docents in period costume.

Or, if you have some major cash to spare, you can populate the estate with your own friends: Hearst Castle is available for rent.

This article was featured in the Arizona Republic. For the full article please click here.