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Eco-Art in California

After spending the night in Napa we drove to Copia, an airy stone, glass, and concrete structure designed by New York—based Polshek Partnership Architects. In contrast to the di Rosa, Copia, set in 12 acres of garden near the center of Napa, showcases more obviously worthy personal belongings, such as copper cookware from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen of legendary chef Julia Child. Copia's restaurant is called Julia's Kitchen, and insofar as the museum focuses on any individual, it focuses on her.

Inside the museum we were transfixed by a sculpture twinkling on the second floor: tubes of horizontal light by Italian artist Mario Merz. Copia exhibits playful works, such as a giant trash can by Dennis Oppenheim, but its whimsy doesn't interfere with its mission to educate. At an information desk, interactive displays, and tasting tables—unexpected in a museum, but welcome—we learned some interesting facts, including who invented the dishwasher (Josephine Cochrane, in 1886) and the difference in flavor between dried and fresh fava beans (a subtle distinction, but to come to one's senses is to notice subtlety). We could easily have spent hours there, but we were hoping to reach Big Sur by sundown. On the advice of a Napa merchant, we chose a route that would take us over the Golden Gate Bridge. We packed take-out from Julia's Kitchen and motored west on Route 37, turning south on Highway 101 just north of San Rafael. This stretch of Marin County offered a spectacular view of the bridge's orange span (a thrill to cross, even when it's muted by fog).

Staying in the secluded, detached quarters of Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, I began to understand the world of West Coast collectors, because the surroundings offered me the opportunity to live like one. I couldn't help but connect in a proprietary way to the land, an evergreen Eden 1,100 feet above the ocean. The most private "digs" here at the hotel appear to have been dug from the cliffs that plunge to the sea. And the rates—$500 to $950 a night—reminded me that crowd-free access to unspoiled coastline does not come cheap.

We set off early for La Cuesta Encantada, Hearst's Enchanted Hill—best experienced in daylight, when you can see its main attraction: the land, all 250,000 acres of it, stretching from the mountains to the Pacific. If you hate crowded tour buses, you may have trouble visiting Hearst Castle. You can take a nighttime tour, which still involves a bus but features reenactments of the tycoon's parties that evoke the former exclusivity of this now very democratic retreat. But there's more to San Simeon than Hearst's house—his beach, for instance, where Christine, who had seen the castle many times, leisurely consumed her lunch. (I gulped mine and boarded a bus.) "It was practically deserted," she happily told me later, "except for two locals fishing from the pier."

William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire was centered in New York City. But Hearst, born during the Civil War to a prominent San Francisco mining family, identified with the West. His father was a U.S. senator from California; his mother, the first woman on the board of regents of the University of California. And in 1919, when he inherited the ranch that his father had bought in 1865, the West lured him back. (As did Mari0n Davies, a Hollywood actress who struggled for recognition as something other than his mistress.)

Hearst had begun buying art at age 10, when his mother took him to Europe on an 18-month collecting tour. His unlikely dining room, filled with 14th-century choir stalls, links cathedral and campfire; its refectory table is decked with bottled mustard and ketchup.

Compared with the hairpin curves and steep drops of the morning's drive around Hearst Castle, the route from San Simeon to Santa Barbara was less dramatic, though not without striking vistas. As daylight dwindled, we left the highway and wound through the hills to El Encanto Hotel & Garden Villas, near the imposing Mission Santa Barbara. The next morning, after breakfast on our private patio,we headed to Ganna Walska Lotusland, a vast garden named for a Polish opera singer whose flora are as rare and valuable as their presentation is bizarre and improbable.

In 1958, inspired perhaps by Hearst, Madame Walska established the foundation that funds Lotusland. It was the year Hearst's ranch opened to the public as a state park, 17 years after she bought her 37-acre Santa Barbara estate, and 51 years (and five husbands) after she left her family to elope with her first husband, a Russian count. Walska worked with garden designer Lockwood de Forest, but most of the weird touches are hers—like the reflecting pool bordered with abalone shells, in which she supposedly gamboled nude by moonlight.

In her garden, if not always in her opera career, Walska gets top billing, with a strong supporting cast—succulents, ferns, self-cleaning Chilean wine palms, many of them planted by the estate's original owner, Kinton Stevens. I was riveted by three Encephalartos woodii, male survivors of a cycad species that is extinct in the wild. Under extreme circumstances—such as, say, drastic environmental changes—cycads have been known to change gender, a feat that could upstage even Walska.

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