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California's Grandest Castles

California's Grandest Castles
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Experience the state’s creative and often quirky takes on grand abodes and faux castles.

Windsor Castle in California? Drive through the Napa Valley and you might do a double take when you see some of the region’s spectacular wineries with astoundingly grand architecture. Fact is, there are castle-like compounds dotting the Golden State. Here are some standouts and their oft-intriguing histories; all are open to public and listed north to south.

Vikingsholm Castle . Located in Emerald Bay State Park on the south side of sapphire blue Lake Tahoe, this gem of a building is a rare masterpiece of Scandinavian architecture, with details including dragonheads inspired by Viking fortresses. The building, built in the 1920s, was the summer home of Lora Josephine Knight, who traveled to Scandinavia to find ideas for the design. You can see her secret hideaway—with one of the most spectacular settings in the world—on guided tours Memorial Day through September.

Castello di Amorosa . You don’t have to travel to Italy to get inside a Tuscan castle. Instead, take a tour of 107-room Castello di Amorosa, a winery built in the style of a medieval castle, and perched on a hill overlooking the Napa Valley just south of Calistoga. Complete with moat and drawbridge and taking over 15 years to complete, the castle was designed by the winery’s owner, Dario Sattui. The fresco-adorned Great Hall is among its highlights, an impressive visual pairing with Sattui’s award-winning Italian-style wines.

Palace Hotel . Step inside this dazzling 1875 San Francisco landmark and it’s easy to imagine the likes of financial titan John D. Rockefeller (not to mention assorted heads of state and European royals) stopping by for a stay. The Garden Court and its stained-glass dome are as grand a hotel space as you’ll see on any continent. And with a bar featuring an original 1909 Maxfield Parrish mural depicting the Pied Piper of Hamlin, it’s easy to understand why so many visitors have fallen under the Palace’s spell.

Hearst Castle . The peak from where this legendary estate rises into the sky is known as La Cuesta Encantada—“The Enchanted Hill.” And there’s little question that Hearst Castle is California’s most magical landmark. Designed by the great architect Julia Morgan, the Mediterranean Revival estate, now California’s most visited state park, is home to the priceless (and some say eccentric) art collection of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Choose from a variety of tours to visit the main castle and equally impressive guest homes, and to visit outdoor pools and gardens where the likes of Cary Grant planned amorous rendezvous.

Scotty’s Castle . What’s more unlikely: a cowboy con man who’d want to live in a castle, or putting a castle in the depths of Death Valley. Incongruous as it may seem, both wacky ideas are reality at Scotty’s Castle, in the north end of expansive Death Valley National Park. Guided tours let you explore the Spanish-Mediterranean compound, where you can learn about the friendship of Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) and Chicago insurance magnate Albert Mussey Johnson (the money man behind the castle)—an improbable tale of two very different men brought together by their common love of the desert.

Medieval Times . Chivalry isn’t dead, at least not at a Spanish-style “castle” in Anaheim. Exit the freeway, enter this fortress, and step into a raucous world of buxom damsels in distress and jousting knights as you enjoy a four-course meal. Thundering stallions, sword fights, and plenty of heraldry and good cheer are always on the Medieval Times menu too.

Sleeping Beauty Castle . Based on Neuschwanstein, a 19th-century Bavarian castle, this icon at the heart of Anaheim’s Disneyland® Park, has been the resort’s iconic landmark since the park’s 1955 opening. Surrounded by a moat and topped with turrets, it’s everything a fairy tale castle should be. Little girls can barely contain themselves as they step inside to see the story of Princess Aurora come to life with special effects.

U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition . This annual competition, held on the fine sands of Imperial Beach, south of San Diego, proves that sandcastles aren’t always child’s play. During this annual event, usually held in July, builders take their structures (and chances to win) seriously, with sand sculptures ranging from palaces of sand to spectacular creatures and cityscapes—as impressive as they are ephemeral once the tides turn. The three-day competition also features live music and a street festival.

Photo by Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

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