Footloose, guide-free on Hearst Castle tour

Photo by Douglas Despres
ÔGardens & VistasÕ tour takers can take their time to explore terraces, gardens and staircases, including the iconic Neptune Pool.
poolwide.jpg Photo by Douglas Despres ÔGardens & VistasÕ tour takers can take their time to explore terraces, gardens and staircases, including the iconic Neptune Pool.

Imagine meandering for hours through more than eight acres of Hearst Castle’s formal gardens, esplanades and pathways, taking in artifacts, ocean views and sunsets — without having to keep up with a guided tour.

Visitors will be able to do just that starting Friday, perhaps feeling a bit as if they’re guests of late media magnate William Randolph Hearst, who built the sprawling San Simeon estate.

Even after the lavish hilltop compound opened to the public in 1958, only Hearst family and guests or attendees at a select few nonprofit fundraising events had such wandering privileges.

On the unguided, outdoor walkabouts, called Gardens and Vistas: The Self-Guided Tour, “you can wander at your own pace,” said Nick Franco, superintendent of the parks district that includes the Castle.

“If you want to stake out a chaise lounge by the Neptune Pool and spend the entire time there, you can do that, or take pictures of just one artifact for hours,” he added. “You can make it an exercise tour by going up all the many steps.”

He predicts some scenic, ocean-view locales will become prime spots for romantic wedding proposals.

Unlike the faster-paced guided tours, sitting spots on the self-guided tours will be plentiful, including several dozen benches, steps and the tops of many stone and concrete walls.

About a dozen guides will be on duty each evening to answer questions, and security staff will patrol.

But the tour’s atmosphere is to be that of a relaxed garden party, with a leisurely pace and plenty of time to get engrossed in scenery, gardens and artifacts.

“You can stroll the gardens as you want to,” said Franco, “just as Mr. Hearst wanted his guests to do.”

The new tours will be offered most Fridays and Saturdays through September, and every day from July 4 to Labor Day, Sept. 6.

Tours will also be available Monday through Thursday during school spring break weeks, March 29 to April 1 and April 5 to 8.

Tours start at 3:50 p.m. — after the regular guided tours are over for the day — and end at sunset, meaning the hilltop experience can last until as late as 7:14 p.m. on the first day it’s offered to 8:23 p.m. at summer solstice.

More tours, not more expense

Castle planners hope the new tours will raise income because more people can visit without raising operating costs.

Franco estimates as many as 25,000 people might take the unguided tours, which replace spring nighttime tours.

An average of 7,000 visitors take evening tours from March through May each year, he said. The guided night tours will begin again in September.

The total number of tours taken has dropped 26 percent since the 2000-2001 fiscal year (July through June), according to State Parks figures. From 858,217 tours that year, the total fell to 633,351 in 2008-2009.

Total figures held in the upper 600,000s from 2005-2008 before the 6 percent drop in the period ending last year.

The all-time record year was 1988-1989, when 1,055,919 tour tickets were sold.

Self-guided Hearst Castle tours

Gardens and Vistas tour tickets cost $24 for adults and $12 for 6- through 17-year-olds, the same as daytime guided tours lasting about 1 hour, 45 minutes. The ticket price includes admission to the “Hearst Castle: Building the Dream” movie at the Visitor Center. Make reservations by phone at 800-444-4445 or online at www.hearstcastle.com.

Tour highlights include:

• More than 150 artifacts and artworks, including the oldest on the hilltop, the Sekhmet Sculptures, four Egyptian pieces that are more than 3,000 years old.

• Formal gardens filled with sculptures, roses, boxwood hedges, thousands of flowers and citrus, palm and Coast live oak trees

• Terrace areas of the three Castle guesthouses and the rooftop Neptune Terrace.

• Fountains, nooks, staircases and winding pathways not included on guided tours.

• Ocean views stretching from Montaña de Oro to beyond Piedras Blancas on clear days.