One of my favorites was the old Westbury House in Babylon, and I would constantly nag my parents to take me there. The room I loved the most was the one I thought of as the 'garden room'. It seemed huge to me then and beautiful, with tremendous, overstuffed chintz sofas and lounges and wide, floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the vast gardens, including a pool that was home to white swans and ducklings. I would stand in that room consciously willing myself into the picture. Someday, I thought, if I can just live in a place like this, then I know I could be happy.
We left friendly little Los Olivos after an overnight stop at Solvang, a tourist-happy town of Danish inspired buildings, shops and restaurants (Solvang- So vat?) and set off bright and early for San Simeon, home of the 127 acre estate of newspaper publisher Willlian Randolph Hearst.
We were milling around the base of a magnificent stairway, listening as our docent, a stern faced woman with a wickedly dry sense of humor paused in her history of the estate and gestured toward the elegant mediterranean mansion before us.
"Impressed?" she asked the group of about 20 or so before her, oohing and ahhing and snapping many identical pictures.
We nodded in several languages. Hell yeah, we were impressed.
"That's one of the guest houses," she said.
Oh, my. That is impressive. On those occasions when I am invited to stay with friends and family (and even on those when I just kind of show up) I'm usually lucky to get a couch, a blanket and a bag of Doritos. Clearly, my people need to step up their game.
The 'Castle' consists of 165 rooms, including 115 in the main house and three guesthouses. No less than four separate daytime and one evening tour are offered to fully appreciate the entire estate. We took 'The Experience Tour" for first-time visitors, which took us through the gardens, one guesthouse (Casa del Sol) and the ground floor of the main building. Frankly, I lost track of the pools.
Unfortunately, all my interior shots came out dark and blurry, probably because I had yet to manage the settings on my new camera and was just sort of waving it around, crazed papparazzo-style and snapping pictures pretty much at random: fresh flowers overflowing the urns that graced medieval mantlepieces; beautiful burnished woods, lovely and rare examples of European art; the myriad exhuberant details that filled every room.
It is truly an astonishing place.
The gardens are exquisite, the art stunning; the bedrooms and living quarters surprisingly livable for all their opulence. My inner scold, always quick to admonish, kept insisting that I be appalled at the hubris, the greed, the sad, rampant materialism; the Citizen Kane-iness of it all, but I wasn't in the mood. I longed to wake up in the morning to the view from that wisteria-draped balcony; to paint in the Egyptian garden; to meditate by the lotus pond. I wanted to swim naked by moonlight in that gold and azure pool.
And as I stood in the shadows of a sitting room; not much more than a den really, albeit a den decorated with handwoven tapestries, a Ming vase or two and one of those deliciously overstuffed sofas that I have always found so irresistible, I couldn't help thinking, if I could just live in this guesthouse, then I know I could be happy...