It's spring, and everything's blooming. Now's the perfect time to visit Hearst Castle, with its decadent gardens, on California's Central Coast. (Unless you have pollen allergies like I do, in which case not even Claritin will stop you from sneezing your head off once you get up on the hilltop.) Like the elaborate mansion itself, these gardens were designed in collaboration between William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan.
No time or patience for taking a guided tour, or maybe you just want to peek at the gardens without going inside the castle? No problem. Hearst Castle is now offering self-guided tours of the castle's grounds and gardens on most Friday and Saturday afternoons until mid-June, then almost daily through Labor Day. Tours, which include a documentary movie screening at the visitor center's theater, cost $24 per adult ($12 for each child aged 6-17, kids 5 & under are free).
You'll still need a reservation for these self-guided Gardens & Vistas Tours, available online or by calling (800) 444-4445. But once you check in, pick up your tickets and take the bus ride up to the hilltop, you'll be able to wander around by yourself. Self-guided tour map in hand, you can amble the garden's pathways as you admire the Neptune Pool and the historical buildings (from the outside, at least). Luckily, you'll be able to stay until just after sunset for the most memorable views.