Touring California from Napa to Pasadena, M. G. Lord finds the places where art and the environment collide

The great early 20th-century philanthropists of the East Coast—Henry Clay Frick, J. P. Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner—took themselves and their missions seriously. The museums they left behind reflect their loftiness of purpose; Manhattan's Morgan Library, for example, is filled with scholarly manuscripts and fortified against urban chaos. The founders of West Coast cultural institutions, however, were a different breed. Many built first-rate museums; but out on the far Western frontier, living on ranches and beaches and vineyards, they acquired their art in a more relaxed way. And they paid for it with fortunes often made in a similar vein—not the gray fruit of heavy industry, but the harvest of a sunny climate—Norton Simon's food and Robert Mondavi's wine. Except for Henry E. Huntington, a 19th-century robber baron cut from the same dark worsted as Morgan and Frick, they were people of modern times, and their museums reflect the West Coast ethos.

Last November, a museum opened in Napa that seemed to embody that idea—Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. I'd heard that its founding spirit, the vintner Robert Mondavi, had been characterized on a plaque in Copia's foyer as a "believer in the art of life." Just what the "art of life" might be the inscription didn't say. But the museum's tag line, "Come to your senses," inspired me to drive down the California coast to find out, by visiting it and other collections.

With my companion, Christine, an arts attorney and amateur chef, I flew to Oakland, where we picked up our rental car. We arrived mid-morning and hungry, which anywhere else would be a nuisance but here was an opportunity. Should we eat close by, at world-famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, or drive on to Napa Valley, where there were even more choices?Ultimately, we decided on Bouchon, in Yountville, a bistro-style relation of the renowned French Laundry. We managed to resist the fabulous fromages, which would have left us too sleepy and sated to appreciate our afternoon destination, a vineyard turned art park called the di Rosa Preserve.

Rene di Rosa, the park's octogenarian founder, says he is committed to "art that mirrors life—my life." This became clear in the tour's first gallery, dominated by "Mother Tina's Car," a 1990 sculpture by Bay Area artist David Best that consists of di Rosa's late mother's Pontiac encrusted with, among other things, di Rosa's baby shoes and table lamps. Outside the gallery, a group of multicolored cow sculptures graze; the metal bovines were fashioned by Veronica di Rosa, the founder's late wife. Amid these dubious creations, however, are gems, many purchased in the 1960's and 70's: vibrant representational paintings by Joan Brown, a delicate Bruce Conner pillow displayed in a glass case, and a Deborah Butterfield sculpted horse. "I'm always buying emerging artists," di Rosa told me. " 'Emerged' artists are more costly." Although his defiance of art-world pretense is initially refreshing, it can also be frustrating. He deliberately omits labels or wall text that would identify artists or contextualize work. In di Rosa's gallery and former residence, his personal belongings, including name tags he wore at benefits and auctions, are displayed as prominently as important photographs by André Kertész and Walker Evans.

At sunset, through a feast of vineyards, we drove from the di Rosa to Auberge du Soleil, where patrons commit to a four-course, prix fixe dinner. This is the opposite of fast food; you adapt to its schedule, and it adapts to nature's, with exquisitely fresh ingredients. We had poached salmon and puréed peas; the chef, Richard Reddington, also transformed rhubarb into an unforgettable île flottante.

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.

Had it not been closed for renovation, the Roman villa that J. Paul Getty re-created near Malibu would have been our next stop. Unlike architect Richard Meier's Getty Center in L.A., the product of an institutional vision, the villa reflects the tycoon's personal passion: antiquities. So fascinated was Getty by the archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum that he built a house based on the Villa dei Papiri as it had existed before an erupting Vesuvius covered it, nearly 1,900 years ago.

Instead, we drove to the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington in Pasadena, built on the site of a hotel developed in 1914 by railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington, who in 1919 established the formidable Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in nearby San Marino. We rented bicycles (after more than 400 miles and three days in the car, we needed exercise badly) at the hotel and pedaled leisurely to the library, where we continued on foot, pausing to examine such treasures as a Gutenberg Bible from circa 1455 and Thomas Gainsborough's famous Blue Boy, circa 1770.

Of all the museums we visited, Pasadena's are closest in look and feel to those of the East. A century ago, the town was a winter mecca for snow-weary millionaires, including Mary and David Gamble—heirs to the Procter & Gamble fortune—for whom architects Charles and Henry Greene built an Arts and Crafts—style residence, in 1908. Now a museum run by the University of Southern California's School of Architecture, the Gamble House is a jewel box of iridescent glass, inlaid furniture, and custom light fixtures.

Our final destination was the museum named for industrialist Norton Simon, whose synoptic collection of Western art is breathtaking. It ranges from Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve (both circa 1530) to Picasso's Woman with a Book (1932). The wall text is inspired, often quoting artists' correspondence about the pieces on display. Buddhas and bodhisattvas occupy the basement gallery; after honeymooning in India in 1971 with his movie-star bride, Jennifer Jones, Simon started acquiring Indian and Southeast Asian art. The floors are gracefully linked by a subtle stairwell renovation by Frank Gehry.

Although the building's exterior, built in 1969 as part of the Pasadena Art Museum, is undistinguished, the Norton Simon sculpture garden, redesigned in 1999 by Nancy Goslee Power, seduced me. I inhaled lavender. The sun glinted off the Henry Moores. Insects hummed. In this ripe outdoor environment, as rich in art as in natural beauty, I didn't have to think about coming to my senses. I was already there.

Itinerary: Napa to Pasadena
Day 1: 65 miles. From the Oakland Airport, take 880 north to 80 east. Then go east toward Napa on 37 to 29 north and exit at Yountville. After lunch, return to 29 and drive south to 121/12. Go west 2.5 miles to the di Rosa Preserve.
Day 2: 215 miles. After stopping at Copia, follow 29 south to 37, and drive west to 101 south. After you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, 101 and Highway 1 separate. Follow Highway 1 south along the coast to Big Sur.
Day 3: 212 miles. Take Highway 1 to Santa Barbara, stopping at Hearst Castle for a two-hour tour.
Day 4: 100 miles. Ganna Walska Lotusland is off 101 south. After visiting the gardens, get back on 101 to Pasadena. From 101, take 134 east to 210 east. Exit at Lake Avenue and turn right; the road becomes South Oak Knoll Avenue, and the Ritz-Carlton is on your right.
Day 5: 13 miles. Swap your car for a bicycle: the Huntington Library, Gamble House, and Norton Simon Museum are all within easy cycling distance.

The Facts
Museums & Libraries
The di Rosa Preserve Reservations required. 5200 Carneros Hwy. (Hwy. 121), Napa; 707/226-5991
Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts Admission includes guest-chef demonstrations and lectures on wine and food. 500 First St., Napa; 707/259-1600
Hearst Castle Reservations recommended. 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon 800/444-4445;
Ganna Walska Lotusland Reservations required. Santa Barbara; 805/969-9990
Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino 626/405-2100;
Gamble House 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena 626/793-3334;
Norton Simon Museum 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena 626/449-6840;

Where to Stay
Milliken Creek Inn A tranquil retreat where the luxury is in the details: Bulgari green tea bags for your tub and picnic-basket breakfasts. Doubles from $325. 1815 Silverado trail, napa; 888/622-5775
Post Ranch Inn Doubles from $485 Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 800/527-2200
El Encanto Hotel & Garden Villas Doubles from $229 1900 Lasuen Rd., Santa Barbara; 805/687-5000
Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara Built in 1927, this ocean-front Spanish-Mediterranean hotel was a playground for 1930's movie stars. Doubles from $460 1260 Channel Dr., Santa Barbara 888/424-5866;
Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa Doubles from $310 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena 626/568-3900

Where to Eat
Bouchon Lunch for two $60 6534 Washington St., Yountville 707/944-8037
Auberge du Soleil Dinner for two $156 180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 707/967-3111
Julia's Kitchen at Copia Lunch for two $75 500 First St., Napa 707/265-5700
Sierra Mar Between courses, an amateur astronomer will show you binary stars and the rings of Saturn from the deck. Dinner for two $146 Post Ranch Inn, Hwy. 1 831/667-2800
561 Restaurant Where California School of Culinary Arts students learn preparation and service. Dinner for two $65 561 E. Green St., Pasadena 626/405-1561