America’s Best Castle – Hearst Castle

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The U.S. may be a bit lacking in castles compared to other parts of the world, but Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California makes up a bit for the lack in quantity with its playful extravagance with dashes of California nature and Hollywood flavor.

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The vacation playground for William Randolph Hurst, the newspaper magnate, hosted many celebrities in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. Guests entertained themselves during the day with the multiple pools, gardens, and the largest privately owned zoo at the time.

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I’m not exactly sure how one chooses between the outdoor Neptune Pool surrounded by white marble statues and colonnades, or the indoor Roman Pool with floor to ceiling (and walls too) mosaic tiles in cobalt blue and sparkling gold – sparkling because it is real gold!

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In the evenings, Hearst threw lavish dinner parties, and sometimes legendary costume parties where everyone dressed in costumes borrowed from movie wardrobes. This man really knew how to really enjoy his money!

Some practical advice for your visit – I’d recommend starting with the Grand Rooms Tour, which takes you through the social (“party”) rooms of the largest house on the property. Try to be at the back of the tour group so you can catch a photo of the spaces without too many people in them, once people move along to the next room.

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After the tour, take some time to walk around the entire property and appreciate the gardens, statues, and palm tree-framed views of the Central Coast below.

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Perhaps pick out a guest house you would have chosen to stay in had you been lucky enough to be invited.

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I’d highly recommend the Upstairs Suites Tour, in addition to the Ground Rooms Tour, if you have time for it. In the past, if you took two tours, you had to take the bus back down the mountain and wait at the Visitor Center in between them, but now they let you wander freely around the grounds for as long as you’d like. Why not lounge around by the Neptune pool in the shade of the colonnade? I sure did!

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The Upstairs Rooms Tour takes you into Hearst’s bedrooms and his penthouse library, which was my favorite room of the entire castle. I really wanted to grab a rare book from the collection and plop down on a chair and read for hours, but instead they kicked us all out (nicely, of course).

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And then, you take the bus back down to reality and dream of a life with Roman pools, zoo animals and costume parties…

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Ghost Hunting in Bodie, CA

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If you can survive the long drive to the middle of nowhere, the nearly 9,000 foot elevation and the last 3 miles of the bumpiest, windy dirt road I’ve ever experienced (in a car with intact shocks anyway), you could be in for a treat of one of the best preserved ghost towns in the U.S. Bodie is located about an hour away from Yosemite and is definitely worth the detour.

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What once boomed as a gold rush town with an estimated 10,000 people in 1880, the long-abandoned Bodie now sits in a state of “arrested decay,” maintained by the California State Parks System.

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The park is more popular than you might imagine, given its remote location. With the park entry fee, you have the freedom to wander around the grounds of the park, and despite the many people visiting, you will find yourself in pockets of quiet where you feel like you have the entire place to yourself.

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The interiors of some of the buildings have also been preserved, and I could have spent hours peeking through windows at all of the furnishings, clothing, and household goods, imagining daily life in Bodie’s heyday.

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Bodie was known for its tumultuous, unpredictable weather creating harsh living conditions that many people living there escaped by spending their free time in one of 65 saloons in the town. Even during my two hour long visit, I experienced about three different seasons. At first overcast with ominous clouds, a layer of clouds then broke to offer the brightest blue skies and puffy white clouds, only to disappear again behind clouds even more ominous.

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Though I didn’t meet any ghosts on this trip, I am still on the hunt. Have you visited any ghosts towns? I have a few more on my list to visit someday!

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

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The Getty Center was high on my list of things to visit while in Los Angeles, but not because of the art. There are a few Van Goghs and Monets worth a glance, but the real draw is the Richard Meier-designed space. An efficient tram takes you up a steep hill, and you exit to a space of serenity, dotted with quirky sculptures and native plants.

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Wait for everyone from your tram walk up the stairs, leaving you with a brief moment of quiet. You have about 5 minutes to take people-free photos before the next tram arrives.

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The views of Los Angeles all the way to downtown are lovely, and the cactus garden is a nice distraction from the ever-present layer of smog.

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I was surprised to see a sculpture of a man on a horse that I had seen for the first time just a few months ago in Venice, Italy at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Peggy’s version of the Angel of the Citadel has a screw-in “member” that she could remove when more conservative guests would visit. The horse’s silly smile really makes me laugh.

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The garden area provides a playful burst of color amidst the monochromatic architecture.

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All of that walking and stair climbing and picture taking might make you want to take a break in one of the inviting seating areas. Maybe find one that has a view of Los Angeles and cool off with an iced tea, like I did!

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Have you visited the Getty Center? I would like to see it during golden hour as the sun begins to set. The stone buildings must glow as if lit from within!

Luxury on a Dude Ranch: Exploring Contrasts at The Alisal

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On my first trip to The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (oh yes, there will be many more), I experienced the type of vacation I didn’t think existed anymore. Think the Dirty Dancing Kellerman Resort meets Santa Barbara, with a dash of horses. It has an old school feel with all of the modern comforts.

Tucked behind the town of Solvang about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara, Alisal’s grounds are fully embedded in the local nature. In springtime, the fields burst with yellow mustard flowers up to your ears, literally. Cantering through them off-trail on a is a memory that will not fade for a long time. The Santa Ynez mountains are known for wineries, and the hills remind me a little bit of parts of Italy.

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The ranch casually, yet luxuriously meets every vacation need with spa, fitness center, two golf course and large pool, but I was there for the horses (though the pool was very useful in cooling off between the morning and afternoon trail rides!).

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The attentive wranglers handle every riding need, pairing you up with a horse to match your skill level and personality. Having very little riding experience outside of an arena, I was tentative at first, especially about cantering on trails, and the wranglers not only picked great horses for my rides, but also checked on me often during the rides to make sure I felt comfortable. This personal attention helped me to feel confident on the trails and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes from being immersed in nature on horseback.

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The wranglers make the horse-rider pairings the day before your ride so they can have your horse saddled up for you when it’s time to ride. You walk up to the board to confirm which horse you are riding, then the wranglers retrieve your horse from where it is tied up, help you mount, and organize you into groups of about 4 to 7. You will always get to ride with your friends if you are going on the same level of ride. I have no idea how they keep this all straight with so many people at so many different levels, but they accomplish it effortlessly.

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After a warm-up trail ride at intermediate level, which involves only walking and trotting, I was ready for an advanced ride, where you canter in spots, allowing your group to go a bit further and see a bit more in the 1.5 hour ride. My first advanced ride took us to the top of this hill overlooking Solvang and Buellton below. Perfect spot for a water break and picture taking!

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Some of my favorite trails go around the lake, which also offers fishing and boating activities. We encountered so much wildlife on our lake rides – there is a bald eagle nest high up in one of the trees, and we saw not only the adult eagles, but also to babies still in the nest unable to fly! We saw baby deer that still had their spots, and of course the beautiful black and white Alisal cows.

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The best ride of all was the breakfast ride. This happens only a couple per week and it is a must. You can ride a horse out to the historic Adobe Camp, or opt for the hay wagon. Beginners take off first since it takes longer for them to get there at a walking pace, then the trotting intermediate group, then our cantering advanced group, and finally the hay wagon, and we all arrive at the Adobe at around the same time for a cowboy breakfast (if cowboys had chefs making custom omelettes and logo embossed pancakes). Over the best pancakes in history, fresh fruit and coffee, we sat at picnic tables making new friends, while being serenaded with music and cowboy poetry. It was on the breakfast ride that I got to ride the much-loved, often-requested, rarely-available Paint horse named Parker, and like every other person who has the pleasure of riding him, I wanted to bring him home as a souvenir.

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Did I forget to mention the petting farm? Miniature horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, and friendly roosters. I could hug and squeeze them all day!

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There are so many things that make this place special, but the most memorable for me are: the effortless luxury that makes you feel cared for in a relaxed way; the gourmet food made from local ingredients (breakfast and dinner are included in the rate); and the best bunch of trail horses you will ever encounter, probably anywhere. People travel from all over the U.S. to enjoy the unique Alisal experience, so I feel very lucky that it is just a 5 hour drive from my house, and I plan to make it an annual adventure! Until next time…

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