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American Splendor

Magnificent mansions of Newport, R.I., and San Simeon, Calif.

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April 26th, 2011
America may not have palaces, but we do have a treasure trove of magnificent mansions offering visitors an inside look at the splendors of a bygone era. On the east coast, there is Bellevue Avenue in Newport, R.I.; an entire neighborhood of opulent mansions once owned by families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors. Over three thousand miles away, on the California coast, there is Hearst Castle, the spectacular hilltop retreat of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. ' '

Bellevue Avenue

The definitive Newport mansion is The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. The Breakers embodies the Gilded Age, a time when wealth and lavish excess was celebrated. Built as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, it cost more than $12 million in 1895. In today s economy, that would be approximately $260 million. Just down the street is the home of Cornelius s younger brother, William K. Vanderbilt, known as Marble House for the 500,000 cubic feet of marble used throughout the house. It cost $11 million to build with $7 million spent on marble alone. Other homes in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District include the Elms, a mansion modeled after the mid-18th century French Chateau d Asnieres, and Rosecliff, designed by Stanford White, who was inspired by the garden retreat at Versailles. In all, there are nine separate mansions and the Green Animals Topiary Garden with over 80 topiaries to tour. Not all of the homes are open year-round. It s best to visit the website in advance of your trip to see current operating hours. Tickets are required and can be purchased online. There is a range of options from the $14 one-property pass to a $31 multi-property pass. All the information you need to plan your Gilded Age adventure can be found at newportmansions.org.

Lodging

If you want to keep the sense of history going into the night, consider staying at the Francis Malbone House, a private residence built in 1760 that has been restored and converted into a charming bed and breakfast inn (1-800-846-0392; malbone.com). Another local gem is the Cliffside Inn, former home of legendary artist Beatrice Turner. (1-800-845-1811; cliffsideinn.com). There are also plenty of modern hotels nearby. For an extensive list of accommodations, visit gonewport.com or call 1-800-976-5122.

Dining

For a moving dining experience, take the Newport Dinner Train, (newportdinnertrain.com), a 22-mile, two and a half hour sentimental journey along scenic Narragansett Bay. The train leaves the station located at 19 America s Cup Avenue next to the Visitors Center in downtown Newport. For reservations, call 1-800-398-7427. Newport has a host of great restaurants to choose from. For a helpful guide to Newport dining, try tablehound.com/newport.

Getting there

Newport is 18 miles from T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I. If you re driving, it s 34 miles from Boston and 71 miles from Providence.

Hearst Castle

Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is Hearst Castle, a magnificent compound packed with art and antiques from around the world. In 1919, William Randolph Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan to build him a bungalow. Over the next 30 years, Hearst and Morgan created one of the most distinctive properties in the nation. With 90,000 square feet of living space, the castle has 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, extensive gardens, and, at one time, even a zoo. The castle is high above The Enchanted Hill. At the bottom of the hill is a contemporary guest center with a gift shop, snack bar, and ticket booth. There is also a five-story modern theater that shows the 40-minute film Hearst Castle, Building the Dream throughout the day. The well-done and informative film gives viewers a sense of who William Randolph Hearst was and what it took to build his magnificent castle. There are five different guided tours of the buildings and another self-guided tour of the gardens. Each guided tour takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes and includes the bus ride from the guest center to the castle. If you are short on time, Tour 1 offers the best overview of the property and includes admission to the film. If you have more time to spend, Tour 2 takes a closer look at the art and architecture of the castle. Tour 3 explores the construction challenges of building the property. Tour 4 focuses on the botanical gardens and one of the three guesthouses on the property. All of the tours entail considerable walking and stair climbing, so wear comfortable shoes. Visitors who have special needs may want to take the Accessibly Designed Tour. This tour is offered three times daily, but must be reserved either online or by telephone (1-866-712-2286) at least ten days in advance. Reservations are highly recommended for all tours and can be purchased online at hearst.reserveamerica.com or by calling 1-800-444-4445.

Lodging and dining

There are a number of motels and inns in the town of San Simeon. The Morgan (1-800-451-9900; hotel-morgan.com), named for architect Julia Morgan, offers well-appointed rooms at reasonable prices. For dinner, go next door and enjoy fabulous Mexican food at El Chorlito Mexican Restaurant (805-927-3872; elchorlito.com).

Getting there

Hearst Castle is located on California Highway 1, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Driving time from either city is four to six hours, depending on traffic and road conditions. Highway 1 is a beautiful scenic drive; however, given the variable weather conditions of the coast, check local news outlets to make sure that mudslides or other incidents have not forced any road closures. ' michele.harris@erickson.com

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