Some find it grand and inspiring.
Others find it gaudy and over the top.
But a visit to William Randolph Hearsts castle on the hill is something everyone should do at least once.
Exploring Hearst Castle is possible only by guided tour, and reservations are strongly recommended (adults $20-$30 depending on season and tour, on the web or 800-444-4445). There are three year-round tours, all including a look at the outdoor Neptune Pool and indoor Roman Pool, as well as a ticket to a showing of National Geographic film "Hearst Castle: Building the Dream" on a five-story screen. The Grand Rooms Museum Tour is recommended for first-timers. In the spring and fall (March-May and September-December) another fun option is the Evening Tour, which recreates a night at the castle in its 1930s heyday with actors in period dress. Expect to spend a couple hours at the castle.
Christmas is an especially magical time at the castle, as the halls are decked floor to ceiling in typical Hearst opulent fashion. Tour the castle from mid-November to Jan. 2 to take in 18-foot decorated trees, more than 40 wreaths, 100 poinsettias, 400-plus wrapped packages, 700 feet of lighted garland and miles of lights, all displayed in the already-grand castle.
The visitor center features a snack bar, espresso bar, gift shop and a free exhibit on William Randolph Hearsts life, career and the building of his dream home. And even the bus ride from the visitors center to the castle is spectacular, a five-mile journey up the hill with panoramic views of the coastline and the chance to see both the wildlife native to the area and descendents of the exotic species Hearst had in his zoo, including zebra, elk and wild pigs.
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