"Really? Atalaya Castle?" I asked. I was a bit shocked. This is the most radically rational child I've ever met. He told me the idea of the Easter Bunny was ridiculous when he was four, and the Tooth Fairy impossible before he even lost a tooth. Let's not even get started on what he thinks about Santa and his magical journey on Christmas Eve. So for him to tell me he felt a ghost was, well, shocking.
"Did you feel like there was something there in that place?" he asked.
Well, actually, I did.
"It's like you could feel the feelings of the past there," he said. And it's true.
There is something strangely mesmerizing about Atalaya Castle, the 30 room mansion perched on the edge of the dunes and overlooking the ocean at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet.
The park was once part of the estate of the renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, along with Brookgreen Gardens, the sculpture park right across U.S. 17. She and her husband, Archer Huntington, bought four former rice plantations and built Atalaya Castle, a Spanish-Moorish style compound. They used it as their winter getaway, a place where Anna Huntington could get some relief from her tuberculosis and work on her massive artwork in the bright sunshine.
The park's seemingly unending beach, abundant wildlife, and haunting castle made it the perfect place for Huntington to create her wild, eerie and beautiful sculptures.
It also makes the park a perfect place for wild, eerie and beautiful adventures for a family today.
Once we'd had our fill of the gorgeous marsh and inlet, we had planned to head over to the beach. But before we got there, we were pulled in by Atalaya Castle. The squat, sprawling building didn't strike me as particularly beautiful, but it is captivating.
You know this is a house like no other the moment you see it's foreboding walls from the outside, but what really sealed the deal that we'd entered a different world was the very first room we saw. Other mansions have ballrooms, but Atalaya has "Bear Pens."
Huntington's preferred subject were animals, and she had several large kennels, stables and pens attached to her massive indoor and outdoor studios. She worked in aluminum and bronze, and is perhaps most famous for her enormous equestrian statues. She needed a lot of space for her work.
The mansion has plenty of rooms for Huntingtons' work, space for bears, wild cats, monkeys, and stallions, and dozens of rooms for their legion of servants. But there are no extra bedrooms, no massive entry hall, no drawing rooms, no grand dining rooms. There's no room for guests, and the Huntingtons wanted it that way.
The castle is empty now, and it's interior brick walls seem to be melting. As you wander through the narrow hallways and past the windows, caged in green iron bars, all you hear is the ocean crashing and your footsteps echoing against the cold stone floors.
A person's home tells you something about who they are. And the more we wandered through Atalaya Castle, the more intriguing Anna and Archer Huntington became. Who would build such a foreboding fortress in a place so languidly lovely? They didn't seem to worry too much about social conventions or impressing others. I can only imagine what dedication and passion she must have had for her work. How fascinating they must have been. You know that old saying, "Let your freak flag fly?" This house felt like their freak flag.
It was a bright, blue-sky, sunshiny day outside, but I swear you could feel the ghosts of the past residents in Atalaya. Their presence was everywhere in the empty castle.
"Where did you feel the ghost?" I asked my son.
"In the man's bedroom. In the corner. It wasn't scary or anything. It was sad. It was kinda cool." He paused. "It's like that house pulls you in. I keep thinking about it."
The hair on the back of my neck went up. I know exactly where he meant, and I knew the feeling he felt.
Atalaya was built around a central, enclosed courtyard full of palm trees lined up in orderly rows. In the center, there's a short watchtower that gives the home its name. When we emerged into the sunshine, the kids ran on the grass as if to shake off the past. We headed to the beach, but kept looking back at one of the more mesmerizing houses I've been in.
Atalaya Castle is located within Huntington Beach State Park. It costs $2 to tour the building. Maps are available, and very helpful, to explain the different aspects of the building.
Insider Tip: Borrow a map for each member of your party. The kids really liked racing ahead to each room and using the map on their own to figure out where we were and what the room was once used for.